If I show you my pain, will you dare to enter that place in yourself, meet me there in compassion? Or will you withdraw, deflect to another topic, leaving me to suffer alone?
If I share an original thought that pushes boundaries, can you dance along with me into possibility? Or will you pull back, wag your finger in shame, call me ‘weird’?
One response feels magically affirming, human, vulnerable, alive. We feel heard, validated, connected. It heals us from the feeling of separation, showing us that others are just like us.
The other leaves us both lonely, whether or not we’re aware. Failure to connect pulls us both back into comfortable camps of ‘us and them’. Mind clings to this position, and slowly everywhere we look, we see ‘other’ as somehow different than self.
There’s this amazing phenomenon I’ve witnessed in my journey through life. When I am fully present, and show my true self without pretense, it opens the door to all manner of unexpected intimacy. I once met a friend of my parents in his late 80s. He sat in the living room of his large house, watching as his family packed his life into boxes for transfer to a retirement home. As I entered the scene, new to it all, I saw his kids and wife shuffling around, treating him with this mild disregard. Curious about this new face, he asked me the predictable line of questions. Of course neither of us felt anything in this exchange, until I revealed some places I’ve lived, subjects I’ve taught. Once that unexpected information interrupted the normal pattern, I watched in wonder as this shell of an old man sat upright, a twinkle in his eyes, ready to tell me a secret. His wife and I sat fully engaged as this man’s cloudy memory poured forth crisp detail of a tale buried in the recesses of yesteryear. As a child, our friend sat in a great church, sincerely engaged in prayer, talking to god in the innocent posture of childlike wonder. Halfway through a rosary, he found himself floating up out of his body into the rafters of the church, swirling around and looking down on the people below, enraptured in the space of heaven all the adults below discussed. He had a breakthrough to bliss that shone through his face as he told this story so many years later. Sadly, when this boy came back down to Earth, he tried to explain to his elders, and found the response we all know so well. They couldn’t relate. He absorbed their reaction, adopting their interpretation, and buried the memory under “what a powerful imagination you have”. Now, all these years later, as this man perceived my openness, he felt safe to bring this out. His family had never seen this side of him. They dismissed it as some expression of senility, but I knew we had just shared a moment of intimacy. I was filled with a deep sense of gratitude to meet him in this forgotten place, and witness his story in shared wonder. We were both healed through the exchange.
I often find natural wonder and openness in children and old people. Children have not yet learned to conceal their true identity, hide their feelings. As they grow, they learn to be ‘serious’, ‘professional’, ‘polite’, ‘responsible’, and all manner of learned qualities that deny their natural state. There are benefits to this for sure, but so often the child is lost in the masks forced upon him. Eventually, after a life of experience, the mature elder learns that life is more enjoyable when we take off our masks of certainty, and embrace the mystery. To me it is refreshing to connect with the essence of others, be fully present, and challenge the beliefs that interrupt intimacy. The more I delve into my own truth, challenge my beliefs by engaging with the world in curiosity, the more open I feel. Others somehow perceive this and reveal their own depth in a shared celebration of the moment. Or, they respond with critique, thinking me weird or idealistic, or some other convenient label that prevents us from connecting. I’ve learned not to take either response personally, for I have no idea how I am perceived, and really it’s none of my business. When, on the other hand, I attempt to interact through my mask, impress you with my accomplishments, engage with the superficial ‘what do you do?’ of my culture, I feel judgmental and insecure. Of course we all need to inhabit roles, own our identity to be of service to each other, find some ground in the world. But children remind us there is hidden dimension, an actor behind the role that we may have forgotten in all the stresses of life.
Intimacy is a quality that my tribe values. Every place I’ve visited on planet Earth, I find friends unafraid to go there, to connect and be real. Many are successful in all the ‘real-world’ ways, but will give me a wink and a smile once the camera stops rolling. Even in the midst of practicing our roles in life, we all keep an eye open to wonder, stay open to connect without the masks that separate us. I wouldn’t expect any of my tribe to tell me about what’s on the news, or their favorite football team stats. We’d both glaze over and withdraw from such topics. But something about their deepest fears, dreams? Now that is worth discussing. Everywhere I go, this seems the common language that links me with others who are just like me, but wearing different masks. In time, looking through eyes awakened by compassion, acknowledging our shared ride through this crazy life, every ‘other’ I meet feels like a long lost friend.