People always say that humans are social animals. I don’t know if other animals suffer from solitude, but I do know that our faithful companions, dogs, let us clearly know when they crave our attention. A dog knows that she needs to be touched, and she clearly communicates her desire and most of the time, she gets her need for physical affection and emotional support met. For some reason, this is much more complicated for us humans.
While dogs have no image or reputation to protect, they also don’t suffer from restrictions such as social taboos (personal space) or the need to appear attractive or successful in order to receive love and approval. I sense that we, human beings, suffer silently from a constant unmet need for love, affection, appreciation, approval. We need to be touched and to touch others, and most of the time, social conventions don’t allow us to act freely. When I hug someone I don’t know well, no matter how sincere I am in my gesture, the person usually holds back. The space between our bodies is emotional distance as well as physical separation.
While I am certain that all human beings deeply and intuitively crave to be seen, understood, and supported…that special connection, whether in love, friendship, or day to day companionship, is often elusive. I have heard the expression “If you want to have friends, be a friend.” It does make sense to take the initiative, to move towards others, even when rejection is a feared outcome. People do open up their hearts, even strangers, at times, when an authentic expression of caring or noticing is expressed. It doesn’t always work, but it is worth trying. Every bit of warmth we can add to the world is valuable.
But what do these efforts amount to if they are not reciprocated? Can we be our own best friend? How can we give ourselves the warmth, affection, and attention that we desperately need to feel fully alive? While books and movies nourish my soul and are some of my greatest companions, and while my dog provides great love and is an amazing companion, I also wish to know and experience depth and intimacy in human relationships.
There are different kinds of friendships, and situations where the gateway to friendship is more open than others. I recently started a new job, about five months ago. When I first arrived, it seemed as if an invisible vortex had opened in the hearts of those coworkers I joined. Everyone seemed to be very open and friendly. And maybe that vortex that opened was actually a part of myself. In any case, in those first few weeks, there was a beautiful exchange of energies and I was immediately drawn to certain individuals, with whom I think we both intuitively knew we had something to share. As time wore on and novelty wore off, I saw myself investing less time and less delight in these office relationships. The pressure to be productive at work was the main reason for this effect, but it leaves me thinking that I need to make a constant effort towards openness and caring in day to day life. That this attitude of showing up and being present for others and even for myself is just as important as doing a good job at work.
A few years ago, I read a few books from a really excellent series called The Five Love Languages, by Gary Chapman. While the books have a Christian author and premise, it is not necessary to be Christian to enjoy these books and to get the information they convey. (I’m not a Christian, but I thought the books were interesting.) The point of the books is to help people better relate to one another and to get our own needs met by understanding how we best feel loved and appreciated. Some people need to be heard, while others need to be touched physically. Others need to receive or offer gifts, while yet others need to accomplish or receive acts of service. Yet others crave spending quality time with the person they care about. The great gift of these books is to understand that when we seek out friendship and when we so deeply need to get our own needs met, we finally understand that other people may share those same desires, but the manner by which those needs are met may be different from yourself.
Another obstacle to achieving intimacy in friendships and relationships can be past hurts and suffering. The human brain biologically strives to protect us and to help us to best survive in this world, where challenges, pain, and frustration abound. When a deep hurt has occurred in our lives and we don’t yet possess the emotional maturity to fully relive and integrate that painful experience, the brain will envelope that hurt in a cocoon of forgetfulness and deposit it somewhere for safekeeping within our unconscious mind. When the mind is ready and strong enough to incorporate that information and still feel competent and capable of self love, then that hurt will come to the surface. People we meet can be instruments in that process of healing. Sometimes friendships last only long enough to help us heal such hurts.
Living is a process which helps us to grow. The people (sometimes we may perceive them as enemies) and the friends and family members who come into our lives are all here to help us to grow. I firmly believe this. If you are feeling lonely or misunderstood, please try to use each encounter and experience as an opportunity for learning. And beyond learning, to embrace yourself truly. To find that love, acceptance, and appreciation of yourself is one of the great gifts of life. Then comes the confidence to give back to the world, even if the world just may not be ready for you yet. In a life time, each of us may be lucky enough to encounter moments of deep friendship and exchange with other human beings. Others may not experience this joy. We are all deeply sensitive beings, we humans. Just remember that you are valuable, and that you are worthy of being loved and appreciated. Remember that the people who cross your path are your teachers, and that you are also a teacher to those same people. Try to enjoy people for their qualities and don’t worry too much about your needs. They will be met. There are a lot of human beings living on this planet, and many of them will appreciate you on different levels.
I know you probably feel lonely sometimes. If you are like me, you may wonder why it is so challenging to build meaningful relationships with people. I work on remembering that everyone is struggling with different, personal issues. I have a friend who says I am the only person who gets him, but when we set a date to meet and do something together, he forgets and doesn’t even call me. I don’t get upset. I know he has trouble getting close to other people. He is afraid of loss, disappointment, hurt. Can I do anything besides remaining open-minded to help him get past his hurt and fear? I don’t know that I can.
Love is what makes life meaningful, and love is an attitude. Love what life brings, and try not to be afraid. Try to be aware that even though your personal needs for companionship, affection, touch may not be always met, that keeping an open heart is always worthwhile. Friends will come your way. Keep reaching out. Melt the ice that has chilled you with fear and apprehension, that may have even made you reject others or act in a cruel manner. We are all protecting something. One of my art teachers, Joel Fisher, at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, used to ask all of us: What are you protecting? With an honest heart and the friends that come along the way, answers to that question will help melt the fortress that seems to keep intimacy at an arm’s length.