I got a text from a friend, the other day. Actually…now that I think about it…”Friend” is probably not precisely the right word for what he means to me. I don’t think the English language has a word adequate enough to encompass it. Some people reach territory in our heart space that leave us breathless with gratitude. That’s the kind of terrain this particular person can lay claim too.
It was perfect, therefore, that in his message, he was casually recommending an episode on Sam Harris’ Making Sense podcast. The title of the episode was “on living a good life” and it featured Scott Kaufman (author of Transcend).
I stood in my kitchen readying myself to prepare a meal, with Remi (my dog) watching me attentively. I pushed “play” to have some good material in the background. As I listened, the two men covered a number of important elements one ideally should have in order to optimize their chances of real, authentic contentment. Full disclosure, I haven’t read Kaufman’s book (yet…it’s on my wishlist). But in the discussion he summarizes some of it. He basically uses Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a kind of blueprint…and then he gives it some tweaks and upgrades that leave its readers rethinking the concept of a “pyramid” of needs altogether. I don’t think it’s any shocker to any of my readers that I am a SUCKER for psychology. I was immediately hooked.
The whole of the conversation was terrific…and also…there was ONE part that I found especially interesting. Kaufman, at one point, makes mention of the importance of having human connection. He warns us that we…that is to say…humans…have a tendency to chase after things that don’t appear to be terribly reliable for long-term satisfaction and happiness. Connection, however, is one of those things that tends to be reliable. Actually…now that I think about it…he goes further to say “beyond connection, we crave intimacy.”
When he uses this word, he isn’t (or doesn’t seem to be) referring primarily to sexually intimate relationships. Rather, he is referring to a quality in close relationships (friendships, familial relationships, and yes…also lovers) that is reached when both parties have invested more than just a casual degree of affection. Kaufman’s idea of intimacy seems to hint at that experience we have when we know we can be entirely ourselves with someone. It’s that experience you have when you feel like you are free to behave in this person’s company the same way you would behave alone.
I smiled, then. I couldn’t help myself. Because I knew in my bones that he was absolutely right.
I spend a lot of my time alone. That was true before Covid, but it’s only become more so with its introduction to our shores. While I do like my alone-time, I do, of course, occasionally crave a human being’s touch. A hug. A kiss. All that can come after a hug and a kiss if with the right person (as Seinfeld would say…”yada yada yada.” But on the whole, I don’t often find myself feeling especially lonely.
In listening to this podcast, I am fairly certain that it is because I have intimacy in my life. There are people (few in number, I’ll grant you, but people all the same) who know me. Obviously no one of them can really know ALL of me (the gentleman who sent me the link to this podcast is probably one human who has gotten to know me on a level few will ever reach); but nevertheless, they do know me. They know my quirks. They know my strengths. They know my, admittedly many, shortcomings. And yet…they stay. Beyond that, they share. They share their own quirks, strengths, shortcomings, and vulnerabilities. I may not have unlimited physical access to these individuals. That doesn’t matter. I know I am loved. Deeply. And that’s enough. Hence, I am not “lonely” even if I do spend a good chunk of time physically alone.
That knowing naturally leads me to another question…What is it that is making that possible? What ingredients are present in each of these relationships that are moving it from mere “connection” and into the realm of genuine “intimacy?”
The answer, so far as I can tell, lies in the fact that I love myself intimately.
Now…for some who read that line, I am sure the word “narcissism” surfaced as a potential response. But sit tight. When I say that I love myself, I don’t mean that I see myself in some twisted perfectionistic light. I might be arrogant, but even I am not THAT delusional. What I really mean is that I see myself as a human being. Flawed. Messy. Paradoxical. Often a royal pain in the ass. But still, at my core, lovable. I’m worth taking care of. It’s that love that pulls me toward my running shoes and gets me outside for a jog. It’s that love that gets me to RSVP yes to a meditation practice each morning. That’s the love that I used as a compass when I needed to extradite myself out of a really poorly matched relationship, out of the Bay Area, and into a single status in Salem Oregon a few years ago. It’s that love that allows me to be willing to put myself out into the world and be vulnerable…even though I often get hurt as a result. I may get rejected by the world…and that hurts. But because I love myself, I always come home to an oasis.
The intimacy I feel with those closest to me, I am fairly sure, depends on that self-love. In my experience, we cannot love anyone else more than we love ourselves. Because I go out into the world assured that I’m worth loving, I also go into the world absolutely certain that people “out there” are worth loving.
Sometimes that gets me into trouble. I’m getting better about cultivating healthy boundaries, but I still have plenty of work left to do. #lifelongproject. Sometimes it rubs people the wrong way (people who don’t have a great relationship with themselves often find people who “love” themselves obnoxious and woo-woo and maybe even a little bit selfish). But sometimes…sometimes…the love I have for me (and which I extend to others) gets mirrored back at me by someone who also knows and loves themselves…and who also knows how to reflect that outward. When that happens? Again, I am at a loss. There is no word for the experience. The best I can do is to say that it’s like fighting a blizzard to get home, walking in the door and finding a fire in the fireplace and a warm mug of tea on the table. Or…given that we are in the middle of a heat wave, it’s like stepping out of 100 degree heat into an air conditioned indoor space. It’s the physical experience of “ahhhhh.”
I know plenty of people who have said things like “enjoy these years, my dear. They are the best years of your life.” They are often saying it about high school or college or…some arbitrary age range. But in my experience of life so far, every year has passed by feeling a little bit better than the last. I would say that is still true, EVEN with Covid. I say that not because my external environment has consistently gotten better. I might be an introvert, but I still would much prefer not being in the midst of a pandemic and would DEFINITELY prefer there to be fewer people suffering (either from the pandemic or the economic turmoil that has followed). Noooo…I say it because with every passing year, I get to know myself a smidge better. I get a little more comfortable taking up space. And that seems to translate into quality connections with people that continue to blossom.
THAT, it seems, is the power of intimacy. In having a close relationship with myself, and in having rich, authentic and…yes…. intimate relationships with others…I know I will be okay. I don’t mean I know “IT” will be okay. We might be going straight to hell in a hand basket for all I know. I just mean that I am confident I will know how to respond. Because while I may be sitting, by myself, in a quiet home and typing this blog post…I am also most assuredly not alone.
What kinds of connections do you have in your own life? Which of your relationships would you identify as being intimate? How have you expressed gratitude for those people in your life?