Saturday, December 26, 2009

On relationships

I have been thinking a lot lately about relationships, desire, stimulation, connections, boredom, interests, and how all of these things come together.

I have long believed that you can know something intellectually long before you know it emotionally. And sometimes, at least in my case, until you know it emotionally, it doesn’t really resonate or click. Intellectual knowledge is pretty limited: A judge who doesn’t have children can’t possibly understand the terror involved in a custody battle, the fear of not being able to wake in the same house as your children every morning. And so it is with things that I learn emotionally either through thinking about them for a long time or having new experiences that teach me.

There are probably a number of these things, thought and experience, at play in the conversation I have had with myself.

All of your life, you hear that you can’t really rely on anyone but yourself, that you can’t really know another person. That mostly what we know of other people is the combination of their behaviors (including writing and verbal conversation) and actions. We infuse these things with our own projections and come up with an understanding, or construct, in our own minds of who this person is, and what our relationship with them is like. It’s sort of like trying to figure out where in the jigsaw of your life this person fits. Do they fit neatly into the puzzle right next to your piece? Or are they several pieces away, but you can see them?

The problem with this analogy of course is that the pieces are always changing. And sometimes pieces that once fit together well don’t work anymore. In this way, the puzzle also changes. So, it’s also fitting and appropriate to say that not only can we not every really know another person, we also cannot every truly know or understand ourselves. I do/think/write/say things that surprise (and sometimes shock) myself all the time. So, if I am capable of surprising myself after 40 years, then how am I supposed to know someone else?

I suppose, though, that I do spend a lot of time trying to know and understand myself, my place in the puzzle, my shape, how I can fit. I recognize that my life is a part of a puzzle, though, and that I am neither puzzle nor a lone piece that exists as a tiny island or puzzle. That means I have interactions and relationships with others.

Bear with me. I have to state the obvious to build up to my learning experience here. If I don’t take you on my journey as much as possible, then if you have already had this learning experience, you will say, “Duh,” and if you have not, then you will find me [even more] difficult to relate to. [It always fascinates me when people cannot relate to me, by the way, because I genuinely like people in general and I go out of my way to be pleasant and polite. I realize that I am odd, but does that also equal unlikeable? In some cases, apparently it does, but I don't have much energy to try to figure it out or change it].

Over the years, I have had some fantastic and amazing friendships and some fantastic and amazing conversations. Some of those conversations have occurred in letters that I still have—letters that I have never even had to re-read because the conversations are part of me now. They are so intrinsically tied to who I am that I re-live them every day, in small and important ways. However, I think that I get so excited about these conversations that I start to think that the excitement comes from the other person, getting to know another person, having that interaction, both of us spending time reading and writing, and I start to crave it.

What I have come to realize lately, though, is this:
1)The common denominator in all of these conversations is me.
    2)   What I am probably responding to at a very visceral level is the stimulation of thinking and the reading and writing that I am doing. My own engagement with something.

I have written/talked about elsewhere this Fall (here too? I don’t remember and I’m too lazy to go look right now—if I start re-reading my own damn blog right now I’ll lose this thread of thought) about the fact that I tend to think of about 5-10 things over and over and over again. I mentioned this to my friend Jamie, and he laughed and said, “I think mine is about three.”

Some writing instructors will tell you that there are only so many themes or ideas. Everything is just variation on these things. Fine. [Haha, originally I typed "Find." I thought that was a great accident] There may only be so many things that we can think about before we start repeating ourselves. It’s clearly an iterative process. I don’t mind returning to the same subjects again and again. It’s usually better to do it with other people, new people, who can bring in fresh ideas and perspectives, but I am also changing enough to be able to do it with myself.

So, back to those 5-10 things over and over. When I read a new book or learn something new or meet a new person or write a new poem or see a new movie, I get excited because I’m not thinking about one of those 5-10 things. I am excited because I’ve stepped out of that dangerous merry-go-round that binds us to it with the centrifugal force of inertia, boredom. I hate being bored. I hate it. I try not to be bored. However, at times, it is not possible not to be bored with oneself.

There have been times this year when I have been bored with myself and therefore had contempt for myself. Or when I have mistaken the need simply to be in the world without acting in it as laziness, and also had contempt for myself. So, when I am engaged in conversation with others, and I am happy, what I have realized this week is that it actually has very little to do with the person I am conversing with (sorry!!!). The excitement and stimulation come not only from the relief at having something new to think about, but also from the way I view myself. When I am writing and reading and my mind is engaged, I’m really happy.

But in the same way that familiarity can breed contempt in our relationships with others, it can also breed contempt within us. It’s no secret that I love the movie Before Sunrise (it accompanies the wonderful Before Sunset). Ethan Hawke’s character Jesse says to the young and beautiful Julie Delpy (Celine) something to the effect that whether he is alone or with other people he is so sick of himself, but there isn’t really anything he can do about that. And he has heard all of his stories and laughed at all of his jokes. So, if he is sick of himself, how can he expect someone else not to get sick of him too? That’s probably why it’s better to have a little mystery in relationships—because otherwise we get bored. I think this can be mitigated if people in both friendships, families, and romantic relationships continue to grow and learn and change—even if the ways in which they grow are vastly different from one another. Perhaps it’s less how much we alike people we are but how much we just like them. However, and this is critical to what I learned this week: I think that what ultimately happens is that we find ourselves, sometimes in relation and proximity to other people, liking OURSELVES a lot more. Liking who we are when we interact with these people.

When I was younger and I would fall in love with a new boy every day, I would pine for the boy. If he was absent from class or stayed home from school, or there was a winter break, I was miserable, obsessed with thinking about this dumb, boring boy who wasn’t thinking about me and who was probably whacking off in his parents’ basement and playing Nintendo. I thought somehow that it was the boy himself whom I liked and wanted interaction with (even though that interaction was usually limited simply to crushing on him, and seriously, a picture lasts longer). I now realize that how I feel has very little to do with the company I am in unless I notice discernibly that I am capable of being someone I really like (or in some cases, someone I really dislike) in concert with knowing another person.
So back to reading and writing and stimulation: It occurs to me that the only person who can satisfy every need and want I have from conversation, friendship, sex, love is me. I am the only person who knows that all of the needs and wants are, what the most salient points are in the conversation for me, and I am certainly the only person who has the time or interest to contemplate and then attempt to meet those needs. So, when I am excited or interested or stimulated in something, it is important for me to realize that I am capable of duplicating or re-living that excitement, interest, and stimulation all by myself, and for myself. I told my friend Erica a few weeks ago that I am not really an emotionally dependent person, and this is what I really mean by that. If someone doesn’t write me a letter, call me, hang out with me, send me a text, answer an email fast enough or deeply enough for me, then I can find the satisfaction I am craving from either engaging in the act of writing myself (behold), or I can in some other way that releases other people from any responsibility for my own happiness.

What is interesting is that I think for a long time, I have experienced a cognitive dissonance between what actually makes me happy and what I think should make me happy—because I have been sold some bill of goods by someone somewhere that I have accepted as gospel truth. I was talking to my friend Ilona earlier this week (yesterday?) and told her that I was feeling guilty about something, and then I further said about it that I felt guilty in the context that I didn’t think other people (un-named, faceless, judgmental people! Whom I wouldn’t invite for dinner or sit next to at Mass!) would approve. Even if they would never find out, I still felt guilty.

Ilona was shocked. She said, “Your guilt is external and not internal?”

Pretty much. Unless I hurt another person, which devastates me. But if what I am doing doesn’t hurt someone else, I’m pretty much okay with it. I have, however, let my fear of these judgmental others dictate not only my actions and behaviors but also my very thoughts. That really scares me. But somehow it seems to take a lot of energy every day to let my thoughts be the loudest, my needs be the greatest, and to have the integrity to be who I am (and to learn and accept that that shifts and changes and will continue to shift and change. If there is a core to my personality, it is as hot, moltenous, and shape-changing as middle earth).

But I will conclude by saying that it’s so nice to be writing again. I like who I am better when I am writing. And I also realize that it’s more effective for me to have a blog, to have an audience of some kind so I can set these words forth. And even though even with a blog, you’ll never have enough viewers or commenters, people will never respond to you in quite the ways you anticipate—but sometimes it’s even better. And because I can’t anticipate or manufacture someone else’s response (not even with a grant), I just have to try to like who I am. And if I don’t, if I am unhappy or think that someone else is not meeting my needs by talking to me enough or thinking about me enough (my god, how presumptuous is that?), or liking me enough (how would you ever know? How do you quantify that, and how on earth can you prove it? ) that it’s actually a result of dissatisfaction with myself. I am being lazy, I want someone else to provide entertainment for me, I am sick of myself, etc. And there are a multitude of ways of changing that. So, I need to go find one and do it.

It is at once liberating and paralyzing to understand that in a world full of people, you are truly alone, and that you are pretty much all you have. But the sooner you realize it (or remind yourself of it or re-learn it, and when I say “you,” I am, of course, talking about me) the sooner you can start giving yourself those things you need. And it can be like falling in love. (And I’m not talking about narcissism—I’m talking about self-love and self-efficacy).

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have relationships with other people—those exchanges and interactions can be absolutely the best things we experience. But I think we should temper these relationships and our expectations of what other people can provide for us—and make sure that we don’t blame others for what we are failing to provide for ourselves.

So. Two things I am working on right now:

1)   Making sure that what I am doing doesn’t hurt other people. Wow, that’s actually really hard. I think the best we can do is try not intentionally to hurt them.
2)   Being interesting to myself/ not blaming others for failing to give me what I can give to myself.

Happy Boxing Day!


  1. OMG. I sooooooooooooo love this post!

  2. A favorite. Thanks for writing again, Jen.

  3. Jen, may I use a bit of this as a prompt for a writing assignment in my Women's Health class? This bit would work very well:

    "It occurs to me that the only person who can satisfy every need and want I have from conversation, friendship, sex, love is me. I am the only person who knows that all of the needs and wants are, what the most salient points are in the conversation for me, and I am certainly the only person who has the time or interest to contemplate and then attempt to meet those needs. So, when I am excited or interested or stimulated in something, it is important for me to realize that I am capable of duplicating or re-living that excitement, interest, and stimulation all by myself, and for myself."


  4. Yes, I'd be flattered, Melissa! Thanks!