Out of the dark subconscious, a chant echos along the many hollows of the mind—need, need, need! Sweating with shame, ego drips sweetly from the mouth—I love you, I love you, I love you. You think you found the best way to have both, but you only found the worst way to do either.
Love is something we have to learn and we can make progress with, and that it’s not just an enthusiasm, it’s a skill. And it requires forbearance, generosity, imagination, and a million things besides. The course of true love is rocky and bumpy at the best of times, and the more generous we can be towards that flawed humanity, the better chance we’ll have of doing the true hard work of love.”
— Alain de Botton, “The True Hard Work of Love and Relationships“, On Being with Krista Tippett
An honorable human relationship—that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word “love”—is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.
It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation.
It is important to do this because in doing so we do justice to our own complexity.
It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.
It isn’t that to have an honorable relationship with you, I have to understand everything, or tell you everything at once, or that I can know, beforehand, everything I need to tell you.
It means that most of the time I am eager, longing for the possibility of telling you. That these possibilities may seem frightening, but not destructive, to me. That I feel strong enough to hear your tentative and groping words. That we both know we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities of truth between us.
The possibility of life between us.”
— Adrienne Rich, Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying
Choosing to be honest is the first step in the process of love. There is no practitioner of love who deceives.”
— bell hooks (via swissmiss)
What if she’s fine
It’s my mind that’s wrong
And I just let bad thoughts
Linger for far too long
What if (if!), she’s fine (fine!)
It’s my mind that’s wrong
And I just (just!) let bad thoughts (thoughts!)
Linger for far too long
I wonder how many people I’ve looked at all my life and never seen.”
― John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent
People put up a lot of walls. Bring a sledgehammer to your life.”
— Westworld, S3E2: “The Winter Line“, HBO
“What happens when people open their hearts? They get better.”
― Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood
I remember feeling as a child that all the adults around were very closed off. My presence seemed to have very little effect on them, and any expression of love or need from me seemed to do little good to change that. There were not many open arms or open conversations. I was not encouraged to be open, and very little experiences were opened for me.
I could not understand why grown-ups left so little of themselves exposed to me while I felt nothing but desire to open myself to them. It left me feeling sad and lonely, though I didn’t realize it then.
I was a sensitive girl and as I got older; I retained that vulnerability far longer than most people do and like hitting any other milestone late in life, I sensed something must be wrong with me. When the other kids started to become so complicated, I stayed quite simple. It got harder to make friends and to feel close to anyone. I recognized the same walls forming in them that adults had, but I did not feel the same walls building in me. I saw them being wrapped in a kind of protection against the world. They grew independent, self-sufficient, and closed off to me too.
I did try over the years to protect myself. I accepted my deficiencies and opted to at least emulate what I could not naturally comprehend or perceive myself. I constructed haphazard defenses and broad boundaries that were never quite right. I was always either too closed off or I was opening up too much or too quickly. My reactions to a breach were always wrong, too. I reacted too harshly, and then I forgave too easily. I was hurt again and again, but I never could manage to grow those protective calluses. I could never stop being that vulnerable girl. I still can’t. I am still soft. I am still too open.
Now that I am an adult, I can at least understand the danger, though I am no better at defending against it. The danger is other people and when you leave yourself open those other people get inside and, sometimes; they fill you up with all of their painful needs. They go for the softest parts of you, and that is where they hurt you the most. The only defense is to fortify your walls, and put bars and bolts on all the doors. You have to obscure the entrances and construct the corridors in such a way that no one can find their way inside, not even you.
Now that I am an adult, I also understand there was never anything different or wrong about me at all. I know now that all that time I was getting it wrong everyone else was getting it wrong too. Some people are better are balancing boundaries with their need for acceptance and to be sure I am a little stunted in my emotional development, but I know now that all of us are excessively needing and loving and soft at our core. I know now that when we are closed off, we are only pretending.
“So many people are shut up tight inside themselves like boxes, yet they would open up, unfolding quite wonderfully, if only you were interested in them.”
― Sylvia Plath, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams: Short Stories, Prose and Diary Excerpts
I know too that this pretending is an awful and exhausting way to live and many of us are living it every day. We are each is living with parts of ourselves heavily booby-trapped and guarded so well no one can even get close. We leave our childhood with painful lessons so persistent we can’t imagine ourselves whole again, but like me, every human still has that longing. Two things seem to hold us back.
For one, we insist on seeing the vulnerabilities of others exposed first. None of us wants to reveal their weak spots without assurances. None of us wants to be to blame for their own pain by inviting the threat in, and everyone not open to us is a potential threat.
Two, we have lived so long hating what is soft inside of us that seeing it in others elicits acute and consuming disgust. We are repulsed by people who are too open. Something isn’t right with them. Something went wrong in their development, and we don’t want any of it to rub off on us. We don’t want to be caught defenseless along with them.
But sometimes, if we are lucky, we meet the right person, or people, that can open us back up to the world. People we never had when we were younger and the world in us had to close up to keep safe. We call these people soulmates and to us, they can be like keys but that isn’t really true. People are not keys, and should never be treated as such. Instead, people are more like places where we feel safe to finally begin picking open the locks we’ve placed on ourselves.
It doesn’t happen all at once, this opening, and there are real keys to find.
The first and most important key is time, time that is given for the guard to relax and time that is taken to open the locks and crack the codes the right way. Too many of us are so desperate, so afraid really, that we rush and smash our way into other people so we can find love while keeping our own walls up. We break so much in others on our way in that soon the alarms start sounding and the people we love close up and close off to us. Then the next time you try to worm your way in its harder, and the next time harder still, and for the next person near impossible. Yes, it is an awful and exhausting existence.
Another key is honestly. The doors are to guard against deception and lies, people who would breach our walls only to consume or destroy us. As you unlock the doors in others and find a way through their defenses, you must unlock parts of yourself too. You must be brave and risk yourself what you as others to risk for you.
Love is the ultimate key, and love between any two people will do. Love between spouses, between friends, between siblings and even between strangers can open us up. Love for ourselves can do it too. What I needed as a soft and vulnerable child was love. What I did instead of hiding or stifling that love was to love back even harder. I know now that what I did was more courageous, and I see now that the mere survival of my heart is a miracle.
Sometimes I can feel myself closing up too. I get exhausted trying so hard to connect with others and I get scared too. I’m afraid of the old rejection, of seeing again that it is me who is different, exposed, and in danger. I’m afraid of being hurt again or of hurting others in my ignorance and It’s an old habit cultivated so long it’s often automatic. I try, whenever I feel that way, to remember that I only have one life to live and to live it constructing elaborate locks to keep people out is a lonely and painful way to spend it.
Now I am lucky enough to be able to love and be loved back. I am surrounded by people who offer me space and time, who are honest with me and risk themselves right back so that I can finally be open to them, to the world, and to myself. I can be needing and loving shame. I can be that sensitive and open little girl forever.
I want that for everyone. I want us all to feel safe enough, strong enough, loved enough to be open too. It has to start with love, and it can start with any kind of love at all. If you were never given that space or time or shown trust or honesty, you can begin with yourself.
Open at least to yourself.
This post was written in response to the WordPress Discover Prompt, Day 2: Open
I can show you many who have lacked, not a friend, but a friendship.”
— Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius