On Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Insight

The wisdom of shared stories

Finding the Possible in Impossible Relationships

Relationships are the paths that lead us to others and to ourselves.

“Only connect,” E.M. Forester implores us in his classic novel Howard’s End

But can we connect? 

If you’ve read Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, as I recently did, you might find yourself asking the same question. In sharing the character Lily Briscoe's thoughts the narrator remarks, “She had done the usual trick—been nice. She would never know him. He would never know her. Human relations were all like that, she thought, and the worst…were between men and women.”

“I’m so depressed,” I had said to my girlfriend Miranda. “There’s no hope for any of us to understand each other. It’s a failed mission, like jumping on board Apollo 13 even after knowing it explodes. We keep signing up for relationships, thinking we can relate, but having the mission go up in flames every time.” 

Her sound advice to me was, “Can you please stop reading that book?” 

And I did for a little while. 

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“You’re a book whore,” Miranda quipped after I had dusted it off and finished reading it, and had done so in place of meeting her for lunch. “You know you don’t have to go all the way with every book on your shelf.” 

“I needed to find a way for my mom to see the value of going down all the way to the bottom of the ocean with me,” my patient Amy, a senior in high school, but with the depth and wisdom of a 70-year-old recently said to me. “I love your analogies and over the week I thought about the one you shared with me about plumbing the depths of the ocean. My mom and I swim at the surface. Our conversations don’t go very deep. And as you said the fish are nice there, but the coral buried deep in the ocean is stunning. But she’s content at the surface. Because I want to have a deeper relationship with her, I felt I needed to find a way to encourage her to join me down there. So guess what I did? I was listening to NPR, it was a segment on TED Talks. I was using my headphones, but I decided to take them off and play it for my mom, so she could hear what I was listening to. She thanked me and we even talked about it for a little bit.” 

Here was my 17-year-old patient trying to relate to her mom in a way I’m not sure I’ve tried to with my own. I skimmed the surface with my mom. What could I do to encourage her to come see the coral with me? While relating is a two-way street, can I say I have done my part? Can you? 

“What you’re talking about reminds me of a book I just finished reading by Virginia Woolf. The novel allows the reader to do something we have trouble doing in our day-to-day lives, truly understanding the subjectivity of others. As the reader, we have the vantage point of knowing what each of the characters is thinking—that Lily is thinking about painting and how intolerable she finds Mr. Tansley; Mrs. Ramsay about the children and why her husband looks so sullen; and Mr. Bankes about how to leave the table graciously and get back to work. Having access to their thoughts allows us to see where they are coming from while they cannot, and as a result have difficulty understanding each other. In playing the NPR segment for your mom you allowed her to know what you were thinking, something the characters do not do.” 

Amongst the Sufis—Islamic mystics of the order of the poet Rumi—it is believed there are three ways to God. The first is prayer. A step up from prayer is meditation. And a step up from meditation is conversation. The Sufis diverge from other theologies in their emphasis on direct experience and believe spiritual growth stems from connection with a beloved other, a beloved teacher. Likewise, in Sanskrit from the Vedas, the word ‘namaste’—now readily a part of the English vernacular—means ‘the divine in me sees the divine in you.’ Although the two originate in different parts of the world, both find a place of convergence in their emphasis on understanding relationships as an instrument of self-knowledge. It is through connection, by allowing ourselves to see and to be seen, that we find our way back to ourselves, and to each other.  

“Amy, in To the Lighthouse there is a part in which the narrator suggests each of the characters sitting around the dinner table hiding politely behind their smile is grateful that what they are really thinking about cannot be known to others.” Reaching for the book lying on my desk I quoted, “All of them bending themselves to listen thought, ‘Pray heaven that the inside of my mind may not be exposed.’ You did something different, Amy. You invited your mom to enter your world, to see your mind, rather than share the same space but not relate like them.” 

The older I get the more I realize the most enduring moments are the ones in which we try to connect with others—like Amy and her mom—no matter how problematic such an endeavor may seem. Maybe Forester, echoing the wisdom of the Sufis and the Vedas, was right to exhort, “
Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, 
And human love will be seen at its height. 
Live in fragments no longer. 
Only connect…” 

I wish I could write that I have done something extraordinary to connect more deeply with my mom. I realize while I am a psychologist, first and foremost I am human, saddled with human fallibilities. Still, the coral are quite lovely at the bottom of the ocean, and the person I would like to see them with the most is my mother. 

This post can also be found at drdanaiyer.com/blog/

Dana S. Iyer, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Laguna Hills, California.

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