Two trees growing close together, but not in each other’s shadow.
Nature is a great teacher. A walk in forest can teach us about life and help us experience something far greater than ourselves. Suppose you came upon a colony of mushrooms decorating the forest floor, what would you see? At first, we may believe the hundreds of mushrooms are individual plants, but actually they are all parts of the same organism. You see, they all are sprouting from the same underground fungal network called a mycelium. We are like mushrooms. We appear separate and distinct. Yet, we all spring from the same invisible network, which in our case is called humanity. Each of us is just a small part of the whole. Once we understand that, it becomes much easier to develop close relationships. If we wish to learn about ourselves, what we are and what we become, we have to learn about others.
As we continue our walk in the forest, we may stop to watch raindrops roll down the surface of a leaf. In their gleeful slide down the leaf, the drops of water collide and separate, traveling along different paths. Each time raindrop collides with another, part of each drop merges with the other, so when they separate, each carries a part of other. We are like raindrops. As we run into one another and interact, we exchange our part of ourselves with other. As we learn how to grow in intimacy, we exchange more and more of ourselves when we meet, each other benefiting from the process, each being enriched by other.
A young husband said to his wife, “I will work very hard for you and someday we will be rich.” And his wife replied, “But honey, we are already rich, and someday we may have lots of money too.” Yes, intimacy enriches us; it makes us rich. What is intimacy? It is what we see in the forest: two trees growing close together, but not in each other’s shadow. Intimacy is about mutual support, encouragement and growth. On the other hand, estrangement stunts growth and devalues life. A tree that is struck by lightning falls silently, unless there is a person or animal to hear it. Similarly, a person’s life ends with little meaning, unless there is someone to share it. Can you see how important intimacy is? It may not be essential for physical survival, but it does seem necessary for emotional survival. Just as a drab landscape is magically transformed by a snowfall or crimson sunset, so does a simple friendship grow into a source of joy when it is stoked by intimacy. Intimacy is about reaching out to others, not with our arms or hands, but with our minds and hearts. It is about accepting people and sharing our lives with them. It is also about exposing ourselves, removing our masks, and dismantling the many layers of protection that we use to hide our true selves from others. Revealing our thoughts and feelings is like peeling the outer leaves of artichoke one by one, until we come to the best part, the tender part, the very heart of the artichoke.
To be intimate is to be vulnerable. It is to say, “Here I am. This is what I am really like. These are the things that inspire me. And these are the things that inspire fear in me. Here are my dreams, hopes and ambitions. Here are my doubts, worries and concerns. Here are my beliefs and values. Here are my weaknesses and faults. Can you accept me who am I and bring out the best in me?”
It takes courage to open up and speak frankly to others. After all, many of us have been damaged by past criticism and have lost faith in others. Once our weaknesses are exposed, we fear rejection, betrayal, ridicule, humiliation and loss of control. Yet, we regain our trust in others by peeling away the leaves of artichoke a little at a time. In fact, if we were to reveal all at once, we may overwhelm and frighten others, causing them to distance themselves from us. So, a good rule of thumb is to proceed by baby steps, so that you and your partner slowly and carefully build a solid foundation of mutual trust.
Support builds intimacy. Criticism destroys it. If my close friend is slightly overweight, why mention it? Do I think she is so stupid that she doesn’t know she is overweight? And why she is overweight? Perhaps she seeks the pleasure of eating to escape the pain of feeling inadequate. So, if I tell her to lose weight, all I do is reinforce her feelings of inadequacy, which leads to more compulsive eating. But if I were to accept her without criticism, this would boost her confidence and reduce her need to look for pleasure in food. Also, as we grow closer, she may decide to join me at the gym for workouts, which may remover her excessive weight and give her even more confidence.
But isn’t it true at times we should speak up? Yes, if a close friend or partner has an addiction that is destroying their life, for example, we should use full force in encouraging them to seek professional help. However, we are tempted to ask others to change when we are the ones that need changing. We need to change by growing more accepting of others. Any advice that we offer should be use very sparingly. Buddha offers some useful guidelines: “If it is NOT truthful and NOT helpful, don’t say it. If is truthful and NOT helpful, don’t say it. If it is NOT truthful and helpful, don’t say it. If it is truthful and helpful, then WAIT for the right time.”
Well, what do you think? Shouldn’t we see ourselves as mushrooms; that is, individuals, yet a small part of the human family? Shouldn’t we learn the secret of intimacy from the raindrops, which is to give part of ourselves to our partners and friends? Then, like Alfred Lord Tennyson (1802-1892) we will say, “I am a part of all I met.”Finally, in our most intimate relationships, let’s live as two trees, side by side, without casting our shadow on the other.