I think deep, honest connection is the most vulnerable and meaningful thing we can do. To me, it’s one of the foundations for a meaningful life. Kendall and I were talking to our kids the other day and we shared that most things in life are meaningless. Many of us project meaning onto things because we are searching. We want this or that to mean something more than it does because we want to feel valued, important, seen, worthy, etc. and turning to something we can control in search of meaning is safer.
When we aren’t grounded by lasting meaning, we can reach out desperately to fill the void–like the purse I had when I was a little girl that I filled with a bunch of random trinkets as well as paper towels for bulk, because I wanted to feel important because grown ups who had full purses seemed to be important, they seemed to have purpose. In my experience, filling the void with things I’ve projected meaning onto is deeply unsatisfying. It becomes an insatiable monster that I serve, a curtain I must keep up, a mask I must always wear. The only place I’ve found meaning and substance is in really recognizing the value of a life– whether it be plant, animal or human– and connecting with that life. In my life, anything that has meaning or purpose is an outgrowth of seeing, caring and connecting with life.
There is a story of the need for connection in Carl Safina’s book, Beyond Words, that I love and stirs my soul. It’s actually an event that was witnessed by Lyall Watson on the cliffs of South Africa’s coast. Lyall Watson was standing on the cliff watching a blue whale submerge. Blue whales communicate using infrasound just as elephants on land do. Yet, when the whale submerged he could still feel the rumblings of infrasound and oddly it was coming from behind him. He turned toward the rumbling to see a large female elephant standing in the shade of a tree. Immediately he knew who it was, she was the last remaining Knysa elephant, famous for being something she was never created to be…alone. Once a matriarch of many, this highly social, intelligent and maternal animal, now was alone, standing on the cliff, looking out to sea.
Lyall’s heart broke for her, for all that she had lost and for the pain of loneliness she constantly endured. Elephants are deeply familial, socially complex, empathic and highly intelligent. They regularly communicate with each other, touch each other intimately and gather with adored friends. While this may sound like personification, it is actually scientific conclusions from highly detailed observations accumulated over decades. Lyall took in the scene and assumed that she was near the shore to hear the infrasound of the waves, an insufficient balm for a creature that understands grief and loss and mourns the dead by repeatedly returning to the bones of loved ones.
Then, Lyall heard the blue whale surface and what he witnessed next was breathtaking. The whale in the sea and the elephant on land, separated by less than 100ft, began to talk to each other. These large, intelligent and socially complex animals called back and forth. The last of their kinds reaching out beyond the barriers of their habitat to connect. The rumblings of infrasound reaching out from one creature to another. Woman to woman. Mother to mother. Animal to animal. One species that has been exterminated by humans to another, reaching out and connecting in a way that many of us cannot fathom. When we get to the end of our journey here there isn’t much that is lasting beyond connection.
True connection though is rare between us humans. The vulnerability and skill it requires means shedding our cultural limitations that offer some form of protection but also isolate us. Connection is about standing beside each other as equals, really seeing the other person and also being willing to be seen. It requires setting down those coping mechanisms I’ve been talking about, setting down conscious and subconscious power dynamics, showing up in all our raw glory and trusting that the other person will meet us there. Connection requires that in that moment we stop trying to protect ourselves. It also requires that we do our best to clear our vision by owning all the shit that is ours, so that we can truly see the other person. It requires that we have clarity about our own boundaries–what are our needs vs. their needs, what is my story vs. what is their story, where am I at in this moment vs. where are they at in this moment. We attune to ourselves, we attune to the other person and we attune to that magic shared space we are creating between us.
This is beautiful. It is hard. It is love. In the early years of our marriage Kendall got me a t-shirt that said, Love, Embrace the Agony and the Ecstasy. In great, long lasting relationships there can be years that are total shit. I think doing our best to make it productively challenging is important. Kendall and I both came from abusive homes and our relational challenges reflect that. I know how much effort I put into teaching my kids how to relate to themselves, us and each other and supporting them as they ultimately figure it out for themselves. If it takes that much effort for kids with very high emotional intelligence and a lot of support, then it’s going to take a lot of healing and effort as adults that didn’t have that and needed to create a lot of coping mechanisms just to survive childhood.
We are taught fairytale stories of love, but there isn’t magic to love and as an idealist and romantic this has been a long and hard lesson for me to learn. I’m wired through and through for connection and intimacy. It courses through my entire being. However, my hunger for connection isn’t always healthy. It can transform from a desire for connection into a panic to not be alone. I’m continuously learning how to connect with myself and how to hold loneliness; an emotion that terrifies me. I’ve needed to learn that trading my worth and safety for connection isn’t connection. We have a triangle of three very important needs as humans–safety, worth and connection. Often we are put in the position to trade one or two of those in order to get another. For example, in order to have safety and worth we may have to sacrifice connection. We may be so starving for connection that in order to even have a taste of tainted connection we may sacrifice our safety or worth. Yet, true connection doesn’t require us to trade our safety or worth; instead it strengthens them. True Connection is a skill that we can all develop, but it may take turning inward to see why we are willing to sacrifice one or more of our needs to get it or why we’re not and to see if we are asking those we are in relationship to make a sacrifice in order to be in relationship with us.
Just as when I share about anything in this space, it’s sharing one person’s perspective and experience. It’s not prescriptive. Take care.