Wednesday, Jan 25, 2023

Of Islands and Mirrors

Commitments can be scary. If many of us jump into long-term commitments such as marriage or a choice of career without actually melting in terror, that’s probably because we don’t stop to think about the possible pitfalls. Anyone who does take the time to dwell on all the things that could go wrong can find themselves paralyzed with fear… Or, at the least, reluctant to move forward.

That said, all the possible pitfalls in the world can’t take away from the fact that people belong with people. By and large, we enjoy having a partner to go through life with. No man is an island. That’s something we can all agree on, right? This truism means that everyone, however frightened, independent-minded, introverted, or otherwise enamored of the idea of standing alone, needs other people. Whether he likes it or not.

The question is, what do we really need other people for?

Let me count the ways.

The first reason that springs to mind is the obvious: social convenience. It’s no fun going places alone. And having a built-in sounding board is lovely. So is having a helping hand around to assist with our problems, large or small. Embarking on a new experience together with another person doubles the fun, or maybe even triples it. There’s the shared anticipation, the experience itself, and the aftermath of memories to pore over together.

Still, enhancing fun, solving problems or even avoiding loneliness, is not the paramount reason why we need other people.

When trying to build something alone, whether a business, an institution, or a family, the enterprise will necessarily be incomplete. All you can bring to a project is your particular portfolio of strengths and talents. The only vision will be your own personal one. Your work ethic and stamina will be the deciding factors in how effectively the job gets done. At the end of the day, whatever skills you lack will remain lacking. In contrast, teaming up with a partner helps color in the missing places. It fills in the gaps and strengthens the whole.

Teamwork is important. But it, too, is not yet the whole picture.

Skin-Deep

Ever notice how much easier it is to get along with people who are not close to you? Their quirks and mannerisms, while possibly annoying, do not generally touch us on a deeper than skin-deep level. For instance, although negative feedback from someone you don’t know well may sting, it does not hurt nearly as much as criticism from a person to whom you feel close and connected. When you open up to someone and let them see your vulnerability, you hope for affection and approval in return. If you’ve allowed someone to earn your trust, it can be very painful to hear that you’ve fallen short of that someone’s mark.

It is for this precise reason that some find it difficult to commit to a serious relationship. In a classic pain-avoidance move, they confine their interactions to the blandly pleasant ones of colleagues, neighbors and casual friends. To let someone come close is to open oneself up to a challenging phenomenon: namely, seeing yourself, your real self, reflected in someone else’s eyes.

And that, I think, is the main reason we need other people. A completely self-contained individual never has to hold himself up to anyone else’s scrutiny. He is never called upon to compare his own self-evaluation with the evaluation of others. Or, if he is, he can easily choose to ignore the comparison, because those critical “others” are not essential to his happiness. He is the one who sets the parameters, and he is the one who satisfies them. If he is not satisfied, there is no fallout beyond his own disappointment.

What he achieves as a result of this fierce independence is a comfortable existence… and also an extremely stunted one. Because how can you ever expect to grow unless you first fall short? Falling short in a loved one’s estimation is the best impetus for struggling to our feet and trying to get it right the next time.

It’s only when we’ve pulled ourselves up after falling flat on our faces that we are forced to reluctantly concede that perhaps there’s some room for improvement. And there’s nothing more conducive to this oh-so-necessary tripping-and-falling-and-trying again than other people.

Especially other people who are close to us.

Most especially, the person who is married to us.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

There’s a well-known fairy tale in which a vain and evil vain queen checks in with her mirror every day. “Mirror, mirror on the wall,” she asks, “who is the fairest one of all?” And, each day, that loyal mirror assures her that she is the fairest in all the land.

Talk about a yes-man. Or a yes-mirror, as the case may be.

We do not grow from being surrounded by yes-men. What we grow from is seeing ourselves reflected in the mirror of another person’s eyes. Especially when what we see reflected there is not something we want to see.

Being alone means lacking that all-important mirror. It means lacking a wall to bounce our ideas off, to discover whether those ideas have worth. Even more crucial, when we’re alone or with people who don’t know us well, everything we say and do falls into a safe and neutral void. This is not helpful, and here’s why.

Imagine saying something hurtful to your spouse, or doing something that causes him pain. From his reaction, you are able to read a number of things: the severity of your action, its impact, and the need for change and reparation.

In the mirror of his eyes, you can see yourself the way you appeared to him at the moment you inflicted the hurt. A painful vision, perhaps. But a necessary one, if you’d like to effect a change for the better. Conduct and conversation that falls only into the safe, neutral void of superficial relationships can’t do that.

In the mirror of that other person’s eyes, you can read his opinion of your speech or behavior and see exactly where you need to shore up your character. Make no mistake: this is not always easy reading! But it’s reading that we have to do if we want to grow. Our partner’s eyes are the mirror which we need to look into, if we are determined to become the best that we can be.

“How’m I Doing?”

The simplest and most direct way of assessing the general state of our character is by posing a simple and very direct question to someone who knows us well, and whose happiness depends on our being what we need to be. “How’m I doing?” In asking this, we open ourselves up to a possibly painful response. Yet, we could be in for a surprise. We just might hear that we’re doing better than we expected!

Either way, we’re on the receiving end of a crucial “report card” from our nearest and dearest. Our spouses first of all, but also our children and, if they are willing to be honest, from our closest friends. The independent-minded person who doesn’t want to put himself in such a vulnerable position may never have to go through that reality check. The vain queen may always get exactly the answer she wants.

But the growth-oriented individual knows that only by having her finger firmly on the pulse of reality can she build herself up where she is weakest. She does that by asking the necessary questions.

And she does it by looking deeply into the mirror of another person’s eyes, and not flinching from the message that she reads there.

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