“Love and friendship dissolve the rigidities of the isolated self, force new perspectives, alter judgments and keep in working order the emotional substratum on which all profound comprehension of human affairs must rest.”
—John W. Gardner, Self-Renewal, 1963
How often do you take a breath, take a moment, and reflect on the deep, thick connections that hold you up?
I say over and again that our relationships kill us or save us. But it’s not merely relationships that save us, it’s connection. I named this blog honestly! John O’Donohue writes in Anam Cara, “We need more resonant words to mirror this than the tired word relationship. Phrases like ‘an ancient circle closes’ or ‘an ancient belonging awakens and discovers itself’ help to bring out the deeper meaning and mystery of encounter… Two people who are really awakened inhabit the one circle of belonging. They have awakened a more ancient force around them that will hold them together and mind them.”
Friends really do take you further.
This past week I finished listening to David Brooks’s latest book, The Second Mountain. I highly recommend it. He makes a critical and compassionate assessment of the current state of society, what he refers to as a severely torn social fabric. We are dangerously, existentially disconnected.
David Blankenhorn and Bill Doherty, co-founders of Better Angels, see the same, and seek specifically to address our perilous political polarization. Last Saturday I attended their workshop to help us depolarize from within our own political tribes. The goal of the organization and each workshop is to depolarize, not to convert. The method is communication to connect, not to convince. Both Brooks and Better Angels seek to strengthen our most meaningful ties to one another. In Brooks’s words, about his new organization, Weave: “The Weaver movement is repairing our country’s social fabric, which is badly frayed by distrust, division and exclusion. People are quietly working across America to end loneliness and isolation and weave inclusive communities. Join us in shifting our culture from hyper-individualism that is all about personal success, to relationalism that puts relationships at the center of our lives.”
On Tuesday I returned to my desk after a productive and gratifying work meeting, to read that Toni Morrison had died. I was overcome with sadness, which surprised me. I have never read any of her acclaimed novels. I was not a follower, per se. But I felt a loss as if I had known her personally. I think it’s because she had a profound influence on one of the most important aspects of my life, early in my kids’ lives, with just a single verbal expression.
“When your child walks in the room, does your face light up?”
Morrison told Oprah in 2000:
“When my children used to walk in the room, when they were little, I looked at them to see if they had buckled their trousers or if their hair was combed or if their socks were up. You think your affection and your deep love is on display because you’re caring for them. It’s not. When they see you, they see the critical face. But if you let your face speak what’s in your heart…because when they walked in the room, I was glad to see them. It’s just as small as that, you see.”
It’s so small and simple, and yet it alters the entire encounter, every time. More and more I understand in my limbic brain, the part of the mind where we humans make meaning and where our decisions and actions originate, that it is how we are with people that matters, far more than what we say or what we do. The majority of communication is non-verbal. Morrison’s description of a parent’s facial expression, and the profound effect it has on a child, applies to all relationships and connections, or disconnections, for that matter. It was not until she died that I realized how far her influence really reached in my life. And it felt suddenly, unexpectedly, too late to thank her for it.
So whose face lights up when they see you?
Whose presence awakens you and invites you to ‘inhabit the one circle of belonging’?
I recently made a list of these people in my life. It is gratifyingly long, and growing. It started with my mom. I’m embarrassed that I did not notice overtly before now, and my gratitude cannot be adequately expressed in words. I imagine she got it from my grandmother, one of the people I have admired most in the entire world. I have met the others, my Counsel of Wisdom, my pit crew, throughout my life, from age 12 to only a couple years ago. They are my Kalyana-mitra, or “noble friend”s, as O’Donohue describes them: They “will not accept pretension but will gently and very firmly confront you with your own blindness. No one can see his life totally. As there is a blind spot in the retina of the human eye, there is also in the soul a blind side where you are not able to see. Therefore you must depend on the one you love to see for you what you cannot see for yourself. Your Kalyana-mitra complements your vision in a kind and critical way. Such friendship is creative and critical; it is willing to negotiate awkward and uneven territories of contradiction and woundedness.”
In Self-Renewal, John Gardner takes this idea from the personal friendship to society: “A tradition of vigorous criticism is essential to the renewal of a society. A nation is not helped much by citizens whose love for their country leads them to shield it from life-giving criticism. But neither is it helped much by critics without love, skilled in demolition but unskilled in the arts by which human institutions are nurtured and strengthened and made to flourish. Neither uncritical lovers nor unloving critics make for the renewal of societies.”
David Brooks expresses the same in Second Mountain: “Truth without love is harshness; love without truth is sentimentality.” In her book Insight, Tasha Eurich suggests methods and exercises for engaging with our ‘loving critics,’ in service of improving honest and loving self-awareness, connection, and leadership.
I have two goals this week on vacation: Hike and read.
I brought Anam Cara by John O’Donohue, Self-Renewal by John W. Gardner, and What Moves at the Margins, a collection of Toni Morrison’s eloquent and important nonfiction writing. Little did I know that the ideas in these books, read concurrently by cosmic accident (or more likely by divine inspiration), would weave in meaning with one another, as well as with my deepest and most meaningful life lessons to date. How rewarding and awe-inspiring!
I pray today that my ‘soul’ and ‘noble friends’ know how much I appreciate their presence, guidance, support, and love; and that I may come even remotely close to serving them similarly. May we all look to bless one another with our own souls every day.
Our attitudes influence how we understand a particular word, and how we understand a word impacts upon our lives when we use that word – it’s a kind of feed-back loop. I certainly agree that connection is a better and more meaningful word than relationship. Relationships can be positive, negative, close, distant…but ‘connection’ implies something closer and more substantial. Or is that too garbled, Cathy?
I never read any of Toni Morrison’s books either, but was aware of her as an author and read commentaries and reviews of her work. She seems to have been a remarkable person.
Not garbled at all, I was trying to say the same thing. 😉
Toni Morrison was an amazing writer. Her words come across at the same time highly scholarly and also down to earth. They are both objective and evidence-based, and also full of emotion from lived experience. They are to be read slowly, to be savored and lingered over, for their full impact!
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I must definitely read one of her books then.
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Let me know what you think!
I can only speak about her essays. I expect her fiction voice will feel both similar and different! 😄
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I’ll let you know when I do, although my ‘to read’ pile is huge at the moment!
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I just finished listening to David Brooks’ The Second Mountain, after reading your recommendation a few weeks ago. Excellent! Now, I’m listening (for the second time) to Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly. Both really get to the heart of connection and community. Like you, Cathy, I am filled with gratitude for the people in my life who comprise my community and connections. I read Gardner’s Self-Renewal years ago . . . it may be time to dust that one off. I confess I’ve started Anam Cara a couple of times, but never made it more than a few pages (though I love other work by him). I’m eager to hear what you think of it. Maybe you’ll inspire me to give it another chance.
We really are kindred spirits, Donna, so happy to count you among my connections! 😊
I will let you know my impressions of Anam Cara… I’m about halfway through. Listening now also to Sex at Dawn, which is also super interesting! 😄
Hiking and reading sounds wonderful!
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They most certainly are! Thank you for stopping by! 😊
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