I was asked to talk about intimacy in my Unitarian* church this morning. I thought I'd put it up here.
I’m surprised that I’m the one up here talking about intimacy. I’ve been single for over a decade, haven’t been on a date in over four years. I am that cat lady, but I don’t even have the cats. So sure, I’d love to get up in front of a bunch of people and talk about intimacy! Next, I’ll be offering tips on how to fly an airplane.
But my life is not without intimacy. I have deep, trusting relationships with both of my adult children that I cherish beyond words. And I have a number of close, significant friendships that sustain me.
I believe that the highest expression of humanity is to connect deeply, truthfully, and altruistically with others. It’s what builds empathy, creates kindness, and makes life worth living. Our deepest need is to connect.
I also believe that, as we all know but keep learning over and over (oh, is that just me?), we only have control of our end of the rope. We can set the stage for intimacy to happen, but it takes willingness, commitment, deep vulnerability, honesty, and an absence of secrets on both sides. I distinguish between privacy and secrecy – secrecy is rooted in shame; privacy is rooted in the sacred.
I had the huge stroke of good luck to have an essay I wrote published in the NYT last spring. The piece was about my daughter’s bout with depression as a teen. Depression is one of the many taboo topics in our culture -- we don’t discuss certain things, out of fear that we’ll be met with judgment. If we are good parents, this wouldn’t be happening, so we best keep it private. We’re silent about the forces that shape our lives: failure, disappointment, loss. Because we fear that no one wants to hear about it, or they’ll find us out, and discover that we’re flawed. That we’re sometimes sad, we fail, we’re uncertain, we lose hope. We’d rather be that person who’s living life to the fullest, successful at all our endeavors; our kids are healthy and happy and we are tireless! We are thin and productive, calm but energetic, dynamic and taking the world by storm, but kind, well-read, thoughtful. And our pants make us look super cute!
I’m proud of the response to my essay. It seemed that my words tapped into a well of secret grief. I received hundreds of personal e-mails from people, telling me about their son or daughter who was depressed, and thanking me for sharing our story. Not because I had any answers for them, but because for a moment, they didn’t feel alone. Someone else had gone through this. I had placed a lantern on their path, illuminating the tiny footprints that Marisa and I left, like a sign saying, “someone has been here before. Keep going, you can do this.”
Being vulnerable is the first step in creating intimacy. It starts by being willing to show your weaknesses and then dealing with whatever comes. It’s not a mistake to be vulnerable; it’s a mistake to meet vulnerability with judgment. There is no shame in struggling; it’s a natural outcome of being a thoughtful person deeply engaging with life and experiencing all of the difficult things that happen. Its time to tell our unvarnished stories, and say, look world. This is me. This is what’s really going on.
And when someone trusts you enough to share their tender frailties, listen. Imagine what the world would be like if, when we shared our deepest, most difficult truths, like, “I don’t love you anymore.” Or, “I’m scared.” Or “I don’t know if I can continue.” – imagine if our truth was met with a generous, gentle net of encouragement and appreciation for our honesty. Imagine that world, and then create it.
*It's actually a Unitarian Universalist Church; the two denominations merged in 1964. But that's too much of a mouthful. The difference is that the Universalists believe that god is too good to damn them, and the Unitarians believe they're too good go be damned. Either way, we don't believe in hell. And many (like me) don't believe in god either.