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A Ferret Called Wilson

Chasing Happy, Chasing Dreams

Month

December 2014

A Journay Towards Resilience: Part 1 “Awakening”

It’s a cold, rainy morning in Tokyo. I have all my heaters on, included my electric carpet, and a pot of ginger chicken broth simmering on my kerosene stove. My weasels are in all likelihood cuddled up deep in the folds of my goosedown winter comforter. With a pot of tea at hand and my home filled with the warm smells of winter, this is the perfect time to share the cumulation of many years of thinking on the subject of happiness, health and the future of our planet. So pour yourself a mug, put on your fluffy socks and grab a blanket; this might be a long post.

To say my journey started when I decided to get divorced would be a simplification of the process. Indeed I have felt a strong need to be resilient ever since I was a child. I had asthma and I had to wear glasses and I lived in a house in a suburb surrounded by concrete. I grew up in Miami and hurricane Andrew arrived when I was ten years old. Much to my dismay, I slept through the whole storm. However, when I woke up the world around me was pulsing and shuddering with the aftermath of natural force that had just blown through the city. I felt alive walking through the debris covered streets, climbing over and under fallen trees and feeling the wet exhausted wind against my skin. My house was old, made of solid concrete and we had bolted it down well. We had plenty of water and food so I did not feel afraid, only exhilirated by the jungle that had grown around my neighborhood overnight. To me, the days after hurricane Andrew were not a calamity, but a brief foray into the wilderness where all things truly alive reside.

I remember walking the streets and thinking to myself: I have to do something about my glasses. If a true disaster were to befall us I would be crippled without my glasses. When five years later Lasik became a thing, I couldn’t get the procedure done fast enough. While my Grandma encouraged me to see a doctor for my asthma and always carry an inhaler with me, I chose a different route. At twenty I decided I was done with being physically handicapped and so I began running. It was terrible. I couldn’t make it to the end of the block without a stinging pain spreading through my chest followed by an acute sense of hardening in my lungs. I was ashamed of my weakness and so I would run alone and in spurts. Sometimes not running for months at a time because it was just too difficult for me. My lungs were my weakest point back then and somehow I knew I had to make them strong. Eventually I ran a full marathon and raced a half-century. It took me nearly ten years but now my body is finally strong enough that I can say I am ready.

Ready for what? I am only now beginning to see what it is that I have somehow always known I needed to prepare for. As a child and then as a young adult in school, and even now as a professor of economics, I keep hearing the same story over and over: our world is dying. The foxes have disappeared from the neighborhood, the fish are disappearing from the oceans, the trees are disappearing from the forests and the mountains are disappearing from the horizon. I know that “global warming” is a subject of political debate and many treat it like a religious belief, too, “Do you believe in global warming?” I don’t need scientific proof and I know better than to believe that the health of our planet can only be observed through the minute fluctuations (+/- 4ºC) of the average annual temperature. I can see the death and destruction all around me. Never once in my life have I seen a building torn down and a forest or a park put in its place. It has always only ever gone one way. To me, the growth of human civilization is undifferentiable from the death of the planet. Economists talk about the efficient “allocation” of resources, but we don’t allocate them, we just use them up. We don’t move a rainforest to build a cattle pasture, we simply burn it down.

If you look at the history of humanity it is tempting to conclude that this destruction and greed is just human nature. The endless and single-minded pursuit of profit is built into our DNA. The commercial conquest of the world is simply a modern expansion of our Darwinian need to survive and become fitter. Just as the Europeans outsurvived Africa in the colonial era, and men everywhere have outsurvived women always, today the countries with bigger and more profitable corporations will outsurvive those who have not caught up to technological speed.  Underlying this story of human nature, conquest, growth and destruction is the belief that over time humanity has only ever improved its lot over what it had when it first branched off from the rest of the apes. This belief, however, is dead wrong.

While the old story that women are subservient to men because we are physically weak and therefore necessarily reliant on the stronger sex for protection, food and shelter never sat well with me, I could not until recently put into words my objections. If you believe the story that humans have always and forever been a selfishly competitive lot, then the historical use of women as breeding livestock makes perfect sense. So it wasn’t until I read Sex at Dawn that I learned that humans were, in fact, profoundly happy, healthy, lazy and incredibly promiscuous right up until we figured out how to farm and store food. It’s certainly not an expected connection to make, but it was in my efforts to understand human sexuality that I made my first discovery about the reality of our global economy: The damage that we have caused over the last 10,000 years is not the inevitable result of our evolved human selfishness, but instead it is the result of putting humans who were evolved to be carefree and lazy into a world where they had to work and compete with each other for survival.

My own field can be described as behavioral economics. I study “anomalies” of human behavior that have been evolved into our decision making process, but have not adapted to the modern world of global trade, advanced marketing, financial assets and long range economic planning. Because most economists are still very antagonistic towards the use of behavioral theories in their traditional models, much of my effort goes into justifying why I am not studying a world composed of homo economicii (my pluralization of homo economicus, the fictitional human that embodies the economic ideal of decision making). One of the major sub fields of behavioral economics is what is called “other regarding behavior.” In essence, whenever a person chooses an action that benefits other people when they had the opportunity to benefit themselves even more by ignoring those people, we call it other regarding and label it an anomaly. Most people who are not economists are familiar with this type of behavior and use the colloquial terms “having manners,” “showing respect,” “loving,” or “being decent” instead.  It really isn’t a foreign concept at all, and yet it is aggressively defended against in areas of public policy and economics.

In the process of researching my dissertation on violence, I came across a lay article on biological taxonomy and evolution. Many animals have physical features that cannot be explained well by the simple application of “survival of the fittest/strongest.” In this case, the article was talking about social versus solitary distinctions. The degree of cooperativeness of a species can be measured very reliably by the amount of white that shows around the colored parts of their eyes. The theory goes that a lone hunter would not want to give away the location of its quarry by allowing another hunter to see where it was looking. On the other hand, animals who act as a group for protection or for hunting would want their clan to know where they were looking in order to better coordinate. Among all mammals, human eyes are the easiest to read, moreso than dogs, wolves or even the great apes, considered most cooperative among mammals. Humans, therefore, can be proved on a sound scientific basis to be profoundly cooperative.

In addition to being strategically cooperative, humans participate in what Professor of Sociology R. Collins calls interaction rituals. By participating in a common and ritualized activity, we synchronize our emotional states with each other. A successful ritual leads to greater cohesion in the group while an unsuccessful ritual leads to feelings of isolation or even existential unease. Broadly defined, even sexual intercourse falls into the category of these interaction rituals. Church, spectators sports, and drum circles are other less ubiquitous examples of the same. By synchronizing our emotions we also synchronize our incentives and are more inclined to act towards the unified interest of our group rather than in an independent selfish direction.

Anthropologically, biologically and psychologically humans are clearly a cooperative species hardwired to care for each other and take group actions to benefit the whole. So why is our world so bloody fucked up? Let’s go back to the Story of Isolation*. Even though the science says one thing, “history” says another. History says that we have always been selfish and single minded, but the problem with relying on the historical record is that it does not include the part that happened before we started keeping track. It does not include the part where we did not have civilization and instead lived in relative, albeit primitive, harmony. In essence, history is a biased data set on the nature of humanity.

Now that I know that the wisdom and common sense that I was brought up on is built on the invalid conclusion that humans are selfish utility maximizers, I can begin to unravel the many layers of “fact” that have clouded my perspective over the years. For example, consider the “fact” that land prices always rise. For those of us who love the unbridled wilderness, we must accept that nature is a scarce resource like oil, gold, and leg room on airplanes. That it gets more expensive every year is the inevitable byproduct of human population growth. Those who are most willing to pay for it are those who will be able to enjoy it, and for those of us who “can’t afford” to buy our own piece of nature we must just accept that the rich obviously appreciate it more than we do.  Moreover, not only do the rich and the corporate appreciate the land more than we do, they also put it to better use by ripping it up and consuming its natural resources. For years I thought this was the truth about everything I loved. Sad as it was, I thought it was an unyielding fact about the human condition.

If anything, I think the progression through agriculture, feudalism, colonialism, industrialism and globalism was inevitable, but I don’t think that this is the end of the story for us and I don’t think that the future will follow quite the same course. Instead, what I see as the only sustainable future course for us is one of deep appreciation for the natural world and for each other. Money has proven ultimately inefficient at allocating resources when they are truly scarce. Until now there has always been another continent, another ocean, another oil field… but there are no more places to expand to anymore. Furthermore, we are consuming the earth’s resources at so great a rate that we can no longer afford to make decisions independently of each other. In economics we talk about the Tragedy of the Commons which is the simple premise that if everyone has to share and no one regulates how much each person can use, we will all take too much and cause the collapse of our community. What we are looking at now is a global tragedy which is here because we have repeatedly failed to regulate the use of our shared resource, the planet.

Community will be key in the future to survival on a very very basic level. The tower we have built our civilization on is swaying terribly in high winds and very soon we will have none of the far reaching support we have grown accustomed to. International bananas and avocados, Canadian tomatoes in winter, American beef in Japan, all these things will go away because they will simply become too expensive to continue to consume. Many other luxuries that depend on oil as a material input or for transportation will become very scarce and this is almost everything we consume on a daily basis, right down to the shrink wrap our food comes in. The only viable alternative is one of community resilience. Without the tentacles of a bloated government and commercial system to sustain us from thousands of miles away, we are going to have to make do with what we have available nearby.

This making do is what I call resilience**. It is the ability to live, indeed to thrive, on what is available with what one has on hand. I know now that my calling all this time has been towards personal resilience. Ironically, it is not towards hermithood somewhere far removed from society, but in fact it is towards a strength of spirit and body that will complement the community around me. Because the crises we face are multifaceted and immense each in its own right, the solutions will have to be holistic ones. I believe at this point my body and my spirit are ready. The remaining steps will be to put myself in the right position to act when the storm finally breaks.

Part 2 “Preparation”

*words given to me by Charles Eisenstein.
**words given to me by Chris Martenson.

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The Global Community

Just a short note today, but an article on mountain biodiversity triggered a thought in my mind that I wanted to share. Each nation has a right to, but is also independently responsible for its mountains. Mountains are part of this earth and part of this biosphere so their preservation is critical to the longevity and prosperity of all humans. So even while each country has sovereign responsibility for its mountains and other bioscapes, the mere fact that they lie within its borders is not sufficient to grant that country independent sovereignty over those natural resources.

The world belongs to all people and all living things. However, it was only until the last 100 years or so that humans have gained the ability to destroy what belongs to all. So while in the past physical occupation was sufficient justification to do whatever one saw fit with the land inside their borders, it is now no longer possible to make that claim in good conscience. What one does to itself, it does to all and this is no longer belief, but scientifically supported fact.

Harder, Scarcer, Bigger, Faster.

I’m sorry, but when I originally thought of the title of this post, I wanted to talk about the messages that I had been hearing since I was young telling me that things were only going to get harder for me in whatever career I wanted to pursue because the positions available were getting scarcer and more competitive. At the same time the products I have been sold are almost always advertised as better because they are bigger, or faster. I wanted to talk about how the world that I grew up in seems to exist in a fantasy where everything is linear and only more matters.

…but then I watched the section of the Crash Course on increasing waste. I learned what I have always felt to be true:

  • That species are disappearing from our planet at exponential rates
  • That our economy takes out more resources and puts back in more waste than our environment can process
  • That even if we stopped all of it right now, most of us would be dead before the world’s health could recover to what it was just 50 years ago

…and then I learned some more.

  • At the current rates of ocean acidification, driven directly by carbon dioxide in the air, the Great Barrier Reef, my dream since I first set foot in the ocean, and one which has eluded me for nearly twenty years now, will die along with every other coral reef in every ocean on the planet, and it will die before I do.

I’m sorry because I wanted to write a philosophical, romantically tragic blog about our dying world and its capital hypocrisy, but all I can do is sit here and cry because now I’ve seen the numbers. What used to be just a feeling, a suspicion that probably humans were doing irreparable damage to the planet, is now a measurable, quantifiable, unavoidable reality. And the loss I feel is unimaginable. My dream to one day swim in the Great Barrier Reef may never be realized, and not because I can’t afford it, but because it simply won’t be there when I’m finally ready to go.

It’s such a personal loss. The monarch butterflies are dying, too. My mother loves to hatch them in her yard and watch them dry their wings. I used to chase them as a kid. They were everywhere, like flies. There are 5% of them now than there were ten years ago. Just last year the black rhino went the way of the dodo, too. These are animals I love. These are representations to me of freedom, of life itself and they’re dying and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.

Could you stand by and watch your lover slowly burn to death on the stake? Imagine standing there watching everything you cared about in the world slowly and violently be destroyed and then imagine asking someone to help you save them. Now imagine that the people around all tell you they are too busy. “I’m sorry, I have a meeting to get to, but good luck with that!”

My Reef. The Great Barrier Reef was always supposed to be there. We may all be already dead and simply not know it yet.

I’m sorry, I wish I could be more help to you.

LATE NIGHT STARING CONTEST.

Ah, weasels. What would the world be without weasels?

COCOBABA

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Fear

Anxiety and fear: the two go hand in hand. On a visceral level we all understand fear. It is the knot in your stomach when it’s your turn to go on stage, the hot flush that comes over your body when the doctor takes out the needle, or the locking of your knees as you stand on the edge of the diving board. Most of the time when we are afraid we know what we are afraid of. Anxiety, however, is fear without cause, reason or source. Anxiety is the sudden sense that something awful will happen if you accept your friend’s invitation to that party with all those new people, or the irrational and yet wholly undefusable fear that you will lose your job if this presentation doesn’t go well, despite how many times you’ve been praised for your presentations in the past. Anxiety in a way is habitual fear.

I have fought with anxiety and inexplicable, unreasonable fear since elementary school. There was a moment when I realized that I only had three friends and from that moment on my entire world morphed into a kind of fishbowl cage where I could see the people around me succeeding, playing, having friends and doing sports, and yet there was the barrier between me and them preventing me from doing the same. It was a very small world to live in and at this point I have spent the better part of my thirty one years on this earth struggling to get out of it. Between an embarassingly fundamental Christian upbringing and a spectacularly failed marriage it has been a long, hard battle, but I have finally figured out the trick to freeing myself.

The difficulty with anxiety is that it becomes so much a part of our life and our every day thinking that we no longer see it for the crippling obstacle that it is. As an energetic person with a bright personality people always thought I was confident in everything I did. That made it hard for me to realize that I was holding myself back from trying things that I knew would be really fun for me out of a fear of social rejection and humiliation. I remember I wanted to play basketball when I was six years old. But the other boys on the court were all better than me (or so I thought) and so I told myself that I was too old to start playing basketball. It would be embarassing to try to play with these kids who were younger (five years old) and better than me. I told myself that it wasn’t that I was bad at basketball since obviously I could practice and be just as good as them, it was just that I was starting too late. Besides basketball there was also dancing. I am a beautiful dancer today having had thirteen years of ballet training and two years of pole dancing (an impossible combination to beat when it comes to clubs), but when I was younger I didn’t understand how dancing worked or what you were supposed to do and I was sure people would laugh at me. So I didn’t go to any dances all the way through high school because I was sure I didn’t know how to do it.

What I know now is that it’s never too late to try something new if you think it would be fun, and that dancing isn’t about the right way, but just about what makes your body feel good when you hear the music. It took me over twenty years to come to this realization. I wish I had figured it out sooner, but when I was younger I didn’t understand that my fear of being laughed at was holding me back from every new thing I wanted to try, so even though I eventually did get fairly decent at basketball and even get good enough at dancing to steal the whole room’s attention, it wasn’t until about two years ago that I finally realized why it had been so hard for me, or why despite my success I was still afraid to try other new things.

The first and most critical step in overcoming anxiety is to know your own fear. While I thought that I was worried I would be bad on the court, my real fear was that my classmates would laugh at me and not want to be my friends. My greatest fear in the entire world is to be alone. More than death, more than any hardship I can imagine, I am afraid to one day wake up and realize that I could live or die, eat or starve, or maybe just walk out of society and never come back, and no one would notice or care. When people tried to encourage me as a teenager to play with them and I held back, they always tried to convince me that I would be good at the game and to just try, but it never worked. When I would see other girls who were less fit than I was but who would play anyway and really suck at it, it only made me feel worse because I couldn’t understand why everyone else was able to have fun and I had to sit on the sidelines paralyzed. Now that I know the real reason that I am afraid to play, I find that it is a lot easier to get over that first major hump of saying “yes, I’d love to join!”

They say “knowing is half the battle.” Generally I am not fond of them because they can say some pretty dumb and useless stuff. I’m not sure if it’s half of the battle, but while we’re using war metaphors perhaps I should say that it is critical to know your enemy. When my friends and I both thought I was afraid to join because I thought I wouldn’t be good, we all tried really hard to convince me that I would be plenty good and that it would be fun. I knew those things already but I couldn’t get myself to try because I was fighting against the wrong demon.

Once I realized that my anxiety was just the generalizing of my own fear of isolation I could finally begin the process of overcoming that fear. Let me say now that this is a process that never ends. The fear will never go away, but it is possible to learn how to live with it and thrive in spite of it, and I truly mean thrive. I think the most valuable skill anyone can learn is how to push through their own fears to get the things they want.

Sand Storm
Creative Commons by: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ianz/

Murakami Haruki wrote a book about an adolescent boy who felt estranged from his father, who had no friends other than an imaginary boy “called crow”, and who dreamt a recurring dream of a sandstorm chasing him through a desert. Every time he saw the storm he would run faster, but the storm would catch up to him eventually. Finally, at the end of the novel, he decides the only way to make the storm stop chasing him is to turn around and go straight through it. The sand tears at his skin and burns. He closes his eyes as tightly as he can, but the grains get in anyway. Even when it feels as if his whole body will be disintigrated by the stinging swirling sand, somehow he survives and makes it through to the other side. The metaphor is simple and complete. Fear is a sandstorm so big and huge it threatens to swallow you whole and tear you to pieces. You may not survive it, but if you run from it, you will run forever.

There is one way and only one way to free yourself of what you fear and that is to go through it and come out the other side. Like Kafka and his sandstorm, it is natural to want to run from it, particularly when the storm is so huge that it stretches the length of the horizon and threatens to block out the sun. Unlike Kafka, who is a mere character in a fictional story, we cannot jump ahead a few pages and find out whether or not we will survive. The defining feature of our fears is always the unknown. Neither can we see what lies beyond them, nor can we know whether or not we will be able to pass through them unscathed. Many advice books and quick-fix magazine articles tell us that the key to overcoming our fear and being All that We Can Be (or Living Life to the Fullest, if that’s your flavor) is as simple as the right pep talk, a daily mantra of empowerment, or to fake it until you make it. Almost every advice will promise you that if you just follow its simple instructions your life will be sunny with roses. I think we can sense the dishonesty in this advice even without being psychologists or psychics. No one staring down the face of a storm that threatens to rip the very flesh from their bones would believe that a mere pep talk would be sufficient armor against what lies in front of them.

No, the only way to be free of the storm is to pass through it. But in order to pass through the tempest, we have to make our peace with the possibility that we may not survive. This is the truth about fear and anxiety. Until you face it, accept it, expose yourself to it and experience it in all its rage and power and all your helplessness, you will never be free of it.

Ironically it was the simple regurgitation of the popular mantra “fake it til you make it” said to me at just the right moment by a very kind man that revealed this truth to me. The only chance you have to overcome your fears is to pretend that you are, in fact, not afraid and to do nothing to attempt to insulate yourself from its force. Kafka had many options available to him. He could have continued to run from the storm. It would have worn him down and deprived him of his ability to chose his course or experience anything in the world beyond the overwhelming presence of the storm. He could have also attempted to arm himself against the wind and the sand by digging a shelter and waiting for it to blow past, or maybe by wearing a mask or some clothes that might protect his skin. Any of these things could have lessened the blows of the storm, but they would not have freed him of it because if, upon coming out the other side, he looked back on his choices he would see that his ability to survive the storm depended on him having the tools and the time to prepare for it. This would be like me going to a party and having fun, but only dancing the Macarena or the Time Warp or some other silly line dance where all the steps are predecided. Or else praciticing shooting the ball as part of gym class and calling that playing basketball. In both cases I would have done something like what I was afraid to do, but I would not be totally free of my fear because what would happen at a party when the Macarena song didn’t play? I would still be incapable of dancing.

We can skirt our fear, dodge our fear, dampen it and run from it. I won’t say that these choices are never warranted. When faced with the gaping, howling maw of a grisly bear, I’d really prefer not to have to face that fear. In fact, I would really like to deflect it onto anything else possible. Certainly there are fears that are warranted and are best kept with us throughout our lives such as fear of grisly bears and crossing highways or falling off of cliffs. These fears protect us. Some fears, however, are not healthy for us to hold on to. Chronic fear of failure or rejection only prevent us from taking the risks that could lead to a fuller, more authentic life. These are the fears that follow us like Kafka’s sand storm.

As for myself, I still fight with my fear of being alone. It manifests itself in all kinds of ways. Right now I wrestle daily with the fear that I will not find a job in three years when my contract is up. I know I am capable of finding employment and supporting myself on an objective level. I am well educated and creative and good at solving problems so I know there is a market for my skills. But I tell myself that my ability to find work will be hampered by my status as an immigrant. I need a visa to stay which means I need a legitimate organization to employ me. I could throw the full force of my energy into doing the best job I can and keeping my resume in top shape for a new job hunt every few years, but that would be the same thing as Kafka running through the desert. It’s tiring and it won’t actually remove my fear of being unemployed and visa-less in the land of my heart. No, the only way to live free of this fear is to pretend that I am not afraid to be unemployed in Japan, to ignore my resume and to do the work that I want to be doing. I have to expose myself to the possibility that another university will not find my choices favorable and that I will have to seek alternative employment in order to stay here, possibly taking a cut in my salary or being forced to make major changes in my lifestyle. I am seriously afraid of these things but at the same time I am accepting of the fact that they are the risk I have to take in order to live happily. This is one storm that I fully intend to pass through.

The tyranny of the majority

Why do some mountains have stairs in them? It’s because people want to pretend that they are hiking through nature, but they don’t want to experience the icky bits of real hiking through nature that involve things like getting sweaty, or dirty, or actually having to touch the nature.

Peace!
Two mountain bikers obviously just wrecking this busy mountain trail

I was out riding my bike yesterday, and one of the guys I was riding with commented that he used to have a lot of trails available to him back at home in Yokohama, but in recent years they have all been chocked full of stairs and are now unrideable. This is on top of plans by the Tokyo prefecture to outlaw riding mountain bikes in any of its public parks because they are “dangerous” and “damaging” to the trails.

I love riding mountain bikes. There’s nothing like it! I love riding my cyclocross bike, too. I have been a voluntary bicycle commuter for working on four years now and every year my commute gets longer. This year I’m up to twenty-five kilometers (around twelve miles) in each direction.  When I lived in Philadelphia I was an active member and supporter of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and between my personal experience and their research, I have come to the conclusion that bicyclists are the middle child of society. Everyone hates us despite how hard we try.

Many mountain bikers will, of their own accord and because no one else will do it, go out to trails to reinforce them against runoff and erosion. To clear them of fallen logs and to add stones or other solid objects for safer and less environmentally damaging water crossings. Many road cyclists go out of their way to signal to other road users, stop at stop lights, give the right of passage to pedestrians. On the whole, I think people who really love bikes are pretty damn awesome citizens. And yet on the trails we are banned because most people don’t want to have to share with us. They don’t want to have to learn trail manners, wear lights or bells to make their presence known to other trail users, or walk through passes that aren’t boarded up with stairs. On the roads, we are banned from sidewalks because we are dangerous to pedestrians (pedestrians don’t move as fast as bicycles. Simple physics), but are we protected from cars when we ride in the streets? Of course not! Cars are busy being driven by busy people who are too goddamn busy to pay attention to whether or not their actions could kill someone.

It doesn’t matter that bicyclists have been shown time and again to benefit the environment and to benefit the economy. The reality is that most people own and drive cars and most people do not ride bikes. What happens is that an activity which is good for everyone but only practiced by a few, an activity that is beautiful and healthy and clean and provides thousands and thousands of humans a critical sense of freedom and exhilaration in their life, is being snuffed out by the tyrannous majority of lazy, pampered, but most importantly obediently consumptive humans the world over.

Well, if you want to live in a world where the only way to get around is by gas guzzling carbon belching automobiles, a world where the closest you ever get to nature is through the bullet proof glass at the gorilla exhibit in your local zoo, a world where everything is dumbed down and sterilized for your convenience, go ahead and have at it. If you want your stairs, go to a fucking park.

Just stay out of my mountains.

Let’s be Friends

I know why relationships that end with “let’s be friends” are both infuriating to the dumpee and also never actually turn into friendships. The reason is simple: most relationships of the romantic sort actually skip friendship entirely and go straight from bare acquaintances to intimate lovers. In other words, friendship and romance do not exists on the same continuum of human intimacy. This is why the concept of “friends with benefits” is so hard for people to grasp properly, and also why it makes for a very appealing movie.

Friendship is something that many of us think we understand from a young age. Ideally, a friend will accept you the way you are, know your quirks and triggers, help you out when life punches you in the face and celebrate with you when things are going well. At the same time, in order to be able to do these things for you, a friend should be their own person with their own hobbies and interests that don’t depend on you. They should have their own life and their own family and be flexible enough to spend time with you when you are available, but to also be able to carry on without you when your life becomes overwhelming. Most importantly, perhaps, friends should like each other.

Romantic partners are different. Romantic partners exist inside coupledom with each of their identities being dependent on the other. A romantic partner is an object of affection into whom we pour our love and our angst. To our partner we share the part of ourselves which we believe is worthy of love and in doing so attempt to embody the role of partner ourselves. In a very real sense romantic partners “complete” each other. One of the side effects of romantic partnership is that, unlike friendship, we sometimes feel the need to hide the parts of ourselves that we feel our partners would not approve of, or that we consider unbecoming of a proper romance. Take the husband who has to go out with his guy friends in order to relax and get away from the wife. Or consider the woman who habitually chooses boyfriends so jealous of other men that she ceases contact with her male friends whenever she enters a new relationship.  Romantic partnerships, unlike friendships, do not leave room for others. We can have unlimited friendships, but only one husband.

When you understand that a Relationship is different from a friendship in more than just degree of intimacy, it is not hard to see why so many efforts at friendship post relationship fail. For one thing, a boyfriend has never had to accept the priority of other relationships over himself whereas a friend knows that sometimes he is first and sometimes he is not. For another, a girlfriend who is accustomed to defining herself as “my partner’s girlfriend” no longer knows who to be or how to act when her ex is around, but is no longer her partner. Had they been friends they would have known that it is possible to be temporarily out of communication with each other without it being a death knoll on their relationship. Finally a romantic partnership, perhaps exactly because of its closed and intimate nature, suffers from its own finitude. Whereas a friend can be one of many and be loved just the same, a romantic partner is one of one and therefore any changes in the personality, goals, or desires of the other partner is a full force affront on one hundred percent of the relationship status quo.  There is simply no room for a partner to think that perhaps “it isn’t me.” So simply being around an ex and seeing how that person is happy and growing without you can be very painful if you have never experienced a friendship with that person outside of your relationship.

I will be honest with you, I believe friendships to be superior to Relationships. However, I think that Relationships that include friendship can be strong and enduring. I have friends who are married and whose spouses are brilliant beautiful beings. Some of them, when I think about it now, are clearly friends in addition. They tend to have an air of calmness about them when they are together and of course their personalities tend not to differ all that much from when they are apart either. Of course we are all different people in different circumstances to some degree or another. Even at work we behave one way when at home we would not, so to be always and everywhere the same is not a necessary requirement. But some people I feel different around when they are with their spouses and I wonder if perhaps these people are more in a Relationship than they are friends, though I never ask. Ultimately it is a personal decision. My grandparents were never friends, but they were iron-strong partners in over fifty years of marriage. Even today my grandmother, though she has finally given voice to her discontent and struggle during those fifty years, would probably not have chosen a different path. To her, what they had was marriage and the idea of being “friends” with your husband was just not something to consider. This is ok. My hope in writing this short piece is not to criticize and say that one is better than the other, but instead to bring some level of enlightenment to our suffering as we flow in and out of relationships. Perhaps simply knowing that romance and friendship are two different animals, we can afford ourselves and our loves a level of kindness that we couldn’t before.

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