Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Intimacy: With them or with your truth?

Intimacy: With them or with your truth?
1. A friend of mine once sought a teaching position at a somewhat New Age spiritual college. He‘s a Buddhist and also a scholar with high standards. In a job interview with the dean he asked, "What's your attitude about rigor?"

"You mean rigor mortis?" the dean asked, conveying an assumption that rigor killed the spirit.

Without thinking my friend said, "I really mean intimacy."

The dean softened. Intimacy was close to her heart, and to the school's.

My friend told me this story to illustrate finding common ground with someone through his intuitive discovery of just the right term. Rigor as intimacy was true to both his heart and the dean's.

I took a different lesson from the story. I think they found something they mistook for common ground through two opposite interpretations of the same term. My friend was talking about making ideas fit the evidence better (with more rigor) and thus coming to greater intimacy with reality. The dean heard him as talking about personal intimacy, which is often the opposite of rigor. Given the fragility of human hearts, personal intimacy is generally a product of how kind, generous, affirming, and approving we are of each other. By contrast, the rigor that leads to intimacy with reality often entails disappointing or hurting people by confronting them with factors they prefer not to consider.

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Intimacy can mean a snug fit to reality. Intimacy can mean a snug fit with a person. Sometimes those two meanings converge and sometimes they diverge. When they diverge you face a choice of being true to your interpretation of reality (rigor, honesty, realism), or true to the other party in your relationship (kindness, love, loyalty).

At such times the question becomes whether you should speak your truth or refrain from speaking it. Which is the more loving thing to do?

Since this is a central theme in my work I end up talking about it with lots of people. I find some seem irritated by the idea that there could be an incompatibility and tough choice here. They seek to explain away the dilemma with some harmonized always-do-X solution, but I've never found such a solution that works.

2. I was partnered for about four years to a woman far more diplomatic than I am, and our divergent tendencies became a hot topic between us. At dinner parties, when outspoken guests made bold assertions I disagreed with, I would challenge them. The guests and I would end up having long heated debates that were fun for me but not for my partner. On the drive home, she would ask me why I bothered, arguing that it's much kinder to humor people like that than to confront them.

She wasn't defending their arguments. She usually disagreed with these other guests as much as I did. She just didn't see any advantage to engaging with them. This girlfriend and I would end up having debates on the merits of debates. Since we loved each other lots, the debates were constructive. We were both able to recognize that regardless of whether confrontation was appropriate, it was not at all clear which strategy was the more loving and generous. Though, on the face of it her diplomacy seemed more generous, she acknowledged that in humoring people she deemed too stubborn to be worth talking to, she was reducing her intimacy with them. By challenging these guests on their opinions I was more unkind in the short term, putting them on the spot, disappointing them by not agreeing with them, but I was nonetheless implying that I took them seriously and honored their pursuit of accuracy and long-term progress in hammering out ideas that more intimately fit reality.

Humoring can be deeply disrespectful. It can indicate a decision that someone is so hopelessly out of touch that it's not worth wasting your breath. On the other hand, it can be deeply respectful to honor someone wherever they are on their journey. Conversely, confronting people on incongruities in their thinking can be a sign of love and respect, indicating that you honor their quest for truth enough that you're willing to take the time to engage. Maybe you'll learn about incongruities in your own thought, maybe they will, maybe you both will. But the engagement itself can be seen as honoring them.
And confrontation can also be deeply disrespectful, the kiss of death to kindness, generosity, tolerance, equality--rigor that makes rigor mortis set in for the relationship itself.

Years after we broke up I had a chance to ask this former girlfriend (as a birthday gift) to tell me one thing she missed about being with me. I told her it was OK to make something up if she had to. She said no, it was easy to say what she missed.

"I miss your confrontational style, the way you insist on high degrees of honesty and intimacy, the way you stay current in communica . . . . " She paused to reflect a moment and then said, "Wait, that's the reason I left you."

We both laughed at the convergence of intimacies--a moment when we were both intimate with each other and with the truth, which includes our ambivalence about intimacy. She meant both the attraction and repulsion regarding my confrontational style. She really did love it. She really did leave me over it.

3. I spent time over Thanksgiving with my very calm and generous aunt, a woman now in her early 80s who has always somehow managed to keep her cool despite being a member of a hotheaded family. Her brother and father (my father and grandfather) and her husband and sister were exceptionally hotheaded by any standard--she has outlived them all--and yet I can't remember a single time when her temper flared in the 52 years I've known her.

We had a long conversation about the secret to her calm demeanor. Her first explanation was that when someone criticized, she listened. The criticisms were always right, she said, and yet they didn't cause her to change. She let them roll off her like water off a duck's back.

I probed. How did she mean right? Did she mean they were right and she was wrong but she did the wrong thing anyway, or that they were right also, that they had a point but not one she thought worth heeding?

She acknowledged it wasn't that simple. She said when people attacked her harshly she assumed it was generally from a place of weakness in themselves that they were trying to compensate for. She did not think it fair to make counterarguments to the criticisms because that would be like attacking someone at their point of weakness.

"Always from weakness?" I asked. No, she said, with her husband it wasn't weakness, but she still wouldn't counter the critiques because she hates and therefore avoids confrontation. Still she would do what she was going to do anyway.

We talked about the kinds of conflicts. Quite often it was one hot-headed family member against another--her husband against her family, for example. In such situations a policy of accommodation isn't workable. Accommodating one dis-accommodates another.

Her overall strategy, she said, was to weather all of the storms, doing what she thought right anyway and not wasting breath trying to change anyone's mind. It was live and let live, a strategy I mostly think of as unsustainable at close range--it's easy to live and let live with people you don't have to live with, but here she had to live with them all.

She said that basically she doesn't believe people change in response to feedback. She doesn't subscribe to criticism as a way to influence people. Nor does she subscribe to the criticisms leveled at her. She concluded by saying that her sister (an often downright acerbic person) often called her arrogant, and that she realizes it's true. The secret to her extraordinary generosity was arrogance.

I see in this a parallel to last week's argument that one way to become slower to succumb to temper is by being quicker to remember your power, so you need not act rashly in order to convince yourself of it. This aunt always seemed the humblest member of the family; perhaps she got that way through great confidence in her solid imperturbable solitude. She can weather the weather because she's sturdy in her self. She has loved with great generosity and even as she misses terribly the loved ones who have died, she never conveys a sense that she was weakened by their deaths. A person as strong as she is can afford to be humble.

This is the last in a series of articles inspired by Obama's cool--articles on how to gain a bit more range on the continuum between staying calm and getting agitated in the face of threats, challenges, and assaults. I'll give the topic a rest for now. It's important enough to come back to someday. In the meantime I was delighted to find this New York Times article on the same topic-No Drama Obama's cool and how one achieves it.

The article is quite inconclusive, arguing that drama and calm both have their places, that hot-headedness is genetic but also controllable--even though the ability to control it is also genetic. In other words, according to this status report on the research, psychologists haven't quite figured this one out yet. That's understandable. It's difficult to gain absolute intimacy with the realities of intimacy.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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