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The Two Meanings of Missing Each Other

On deciding where to care

For my daughter’s birthday I wrote her a song, ending it on a powerful heartfelt line.

Time with you is worth missing.

My partner said, “Are you sure you mean that?”

“Yes.” I insisted, a little surprised that she wondered. With an artful turn of phrase I had captured just what I felt. I miss my daughter lots. I’m sad, but all those great times we had when she was younger make missing her worth it. I wouldn’t have missed those times for the world.

“What? Am I missing something?” I asked.

My partner is a tactful person. She gently pointed me to the other meaning of “missing” as in, “Time with you is well worth missing,” like “That performance was well worth missing.”

“Oh,” I said. “I missed that. Good point.”

“Missing” is a contranym, one word with two opposite meanings. Missing means to be either connected or disconnected. To miss people means to love them, to be partial to them, incomplete without them, and therefore missing the other part of what makes you whole.

But missing also means being wholly independent of people, like when you’re talking past each other, missing each other’s point, or “I’ll take a miss on that” meaning “I’m going to disconnect from it.”

Most human negotiation is over where to connect and disconnect, which version of missing applies in which situation. Who should you love so strongly that you’ll miss them when you can’t be with them? Who should you just miss altogether, ignoring them and their preferences?

Sometimes we say “Too much information” because we’d rather disconnect and miss the details. But sometimes we say, in effect “Not enough information,” meaning “I’m missing the connection. Tell me how you’re feeling, and please listen to me too!”

We embrace two general yet opposite rules about missing and missing, disconnecting and connecting:

Miss (ignore) whatever you want to miss: There’s no accounting for taste. To each his own. You do your thing; I do mine. Whatever floats your boat, go for it. And whatever sinks your boat because you find it un-interesting, just miss it.”

Don’t miss out: Always connect. Be there for your fellow human. When people want your attention give it generously. And honor your heart’s longing to connect. Reach out. Don’t be shy. People should and will embrace you.

These two rules make a virtue out of missing, but in opposite ways. “Yeah, I’ll take a miss on that guy” we’ll say, proud of our autonomy and discernment. “I miss you” we say all sad-eyed and pleading, as though our missing proudly demonstrates our big-hearted authenticity.

We connect and disconnect not just with people, but ideas too. We make a virtue out of missing and missing them too.

Be discerning: Don’t believe everything you hear. Figure out for yourself what’s important and what’s best ignored.

Be receptive: Don’t be closed-minded. Be open to every idea. Don’t judge. Be positive.

We come into alignment and misalignment with people over where to connect and where to disconnect. Sometimes we agree about what’s too much and too information and connection, and sometimes we don’t.

In partnership for example, things are stable when both individuals want to connect about equally. They care about the same things. They’re not bored by each other’s interests and concerns. They like to spend about as much time with each other. Neither feels clingy or needy; distracted or uncaring to the other.

Relationships become unstable when one misses the other more than the other way around, and that by both definitions of missing: when one longs for the other more, and when one disconnects, misunderstand, misses the point, and fails to connect more.

There’s peace when we’re in miss-alignment—aligned in what we care about, what we would and wouldn’t miss if it were missing. There’s tension when there’s miss-misalignment, one of us caring and missing more than the other.

Legend has it that Eskimos have 40 plus different terms for snow, but I’m guessing all culture’s vocabularies contain way more than 50 ways of saying “let’s connect” and “no thank you.”

Our culture has a growing accumulation of such terms of endearment and dis-endearment, growing because we’re riding some strong trends that increase the pressure both to connect and disconnect. Think of how far we’ve come from living in isolated, close-knit, small communities of like-minded fellow tribes people. For example, these days we have:

  • More people and ideas beckoning, crying “Don’t miss out on me!”
  • More pressure to be tolerant, open, embracing and caring.
  • More technology for connecting and disconnecting effortlessly.
  • More powerful technology for persuading people to care about something—the rhetorical bells and whistles that make entertainment so damned engaging, and news reporting such a basin of distraction.
  • More people saying the problem with modern life is that people don’t connect.
  • More people saying the problem with modern life is that people over-connect into tribal factions.

Care about everything vs. care about what you want are the two moral imperatives, but they miss the point. We can’t care about everything and actually some things are more worth caring about than others.

More realistically, what we do and should care about is as a function of what care we can supply and what care a situation really demands.

To take a simple example: Suppose that you had a treatable cancer. If you ignore it, missing the diagnosis and the treatments you’d die much earlier than you otherwise would. You’d miss out on a bunch of years of life, years that really, you would rather not miss.

Your real-world cancer demands your attention. But suppose for whatever reason you can’t supply your attention. Thinking about cancer bores or scares you. You’re having too much fun doing whatever else you’re doing.

Ideally, we would all connect to what really matters and disconnect from what really doesn’t matter. Realistically where we connect and disconnect is much more a function of our supply of attention—our appetite and aptitude. Our attentions gravitate toward some things more easily than others, and they aren’t necessarily the things they should gravitate toward in order to attend to what we wouldn’t want to miss, and to miss what isn’t worth our attention.

The epitaph for humanity should we extinguish ourselves in the next few centuries will be something like, “Turned out, they cared about the wrong things.” You begin to hear us rehearsing it now. I, for example would write “We cared about the Bible when we should have cared about the climate crisis.” Others would write “We cared about climate crisis when we should have cared about the Bible.”

We should all pay attention today to what turns out to have mattered by tomorrow. But since tomorrow isn’t here yet, we are forced to rely on subjective interpretations of what matters. Among our many terms of endearment and dis-endearment, you’ll find many subjective statements implying objective knowledge about what will turn out to have mattered. For example:

“I don’t get it” implying “objectively, this is nonsense.”

“I’m just not interested in this” implying “objectively, this is insignificant.”

“Well, I sure care about this!’ implying “objectively, this is significant.”

“It’s just over your head,” implying “objectively, this demands attention you can’t supply.”

What’s really significant enough to demand our attention is whatever ignored, will ruin us. That leaves a lot of room for interpretation. And so we go around missing and missing.

I had already sent my daughter a draft of the song, so I rushed to apologize and send her a corrected last line. “No worries,” she wrote. “I knew exactly what you meant by “Time with you is worth missing.””

That’s one of the many things I miss about time with my daughter. We were so attuned. She rarely missed my meaning, even when I misspoke.

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D.
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