The more we harden our personal borders and think of ourselves as somehow separate from others, the more pain we feel, and the easier it is to go from indifference or ignoring others, to hurting.
A relationship with another person — even one of long standing, a friend, colleague, even a spouse — can seem so strong but in reality be so delicate. It is important to recognize this. We expect emotional ties to bear so much, to tie people, families, and groups together. But emotions are just thoughts, feelings, and sensations. They are ephemeral; like air, they can be moved or changed so easily.
I look at my wife, Linda, and realize how much better my life is because of her. I think more clearly because I can talk with her and gain new perspectives. The more I feel love, appreciation, and gratitude, the more I allow her in, the more I enjoy my day. Yet, despite all that, sometimes I lose it. I don’t feel the connection. I feel what I feel and think what I think but what she feels or thinks is beyond me. I relate to her as if she were a means to an end, my own projection, simply the source of my own satisfaction. And then I feel separation and the fragility of our life together. I become aware of what I am doing and how easily I could lose her, and I wake up.
Society is also a relationship, or a complex web of relationships. Of course, there’s more to it than that, just like there is more to a marriage than emotion. There’s history, often there are children, homes, possessions; and for a society, there are institutions, buildings, roads, laws, and social processes.
But what do any of these mean without the sense of relationship? We spend most of our time each day in human constructed environments with other human beings. The beauty and necessity of our cooperation with others surround us. Yet, often we lose it. We treat other people as means to our own ends. We treat cashiers like the machines they control. We treat other drivers as obstacles to pass. We treat people we barely know with the briefest of recognition and people we don’t know are ignored or worse. There are so many people around us. How can we do anything else?
The more we harden our personal borders and think of ourselves as somehow separate from others, the more pain we feel, and the easier it is to go from indifference or ignoring others, to hurting. In cases of emergency or violence, when our group or nation is threatened, these personal borders easily become entrenched. We not only separate ourselves from others but we think that what before felt cruel and illogical is now necessary and the height of reason. It’s easy to lose the sense of shared relationship.
And once a relationship breaks, or you hurt someone, bringing it back together is difficult. Once a society breaks, it can’t automatically be put together again. When social problems and problems between nations or groups arise, as they must, they can only be positively dealt with by feeling what all people share.
When I hear political leaders talk about other leaders with obvious lies or malice, or I see in the news racist killings or terrorist bombings, I feel the fragility of human society. You can’t bomb a nation and expect it to become your ally and pull together harmoniously. You can’t kill those you disagree with and label as evil and then expect peace to reign or a utopia to spontaneously arise from the coffin. As a political leader, you can’t speak maliciously about other leaders of your own nation and claim you only want a revived union. You can’t favor the interests of a tiny minority and expect the vast majority to peacefully accept the degradation of the quality of their lives and communities.
We live in relationship with others and our world. This relationship, and our very lives, is more fragile than we like to recognize. Only by increasing our ability to feel and think with a clear sense and appreciation of this relationship will we be able, as a species, to live well, and possibly, to live at all.
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