04 Aug The Truth About Relationships: Living A connected Life
The Lie of Independence
Freshman year of high school remains a blurry and awkward time in my memory, but something my honors Algebra II teacher told me remains stuck in my memory. One night, I spent forty minutes staring at a single math problem, refusing to give up until I answered it. Eventually, my grit and determination paid off, and even though it took me way longer than it should have, I did it–and I did it alone. I regaled her with my victorious moment, and she asked me, unimpressed, why I didn’t just ask for help. I told her that it felt better to figure out the problems on your own. Then, she said, “It’s okay to ask for help. Asking for help doesn’t make you weak.” At the time, I completely disregarded her statement. That was something you told kids that weren’t smart enough to do things on their own. My math teacher didn’t understand the pride that came with surmounting an obstacle by yourself, and I thought that overcoming obstacles on my own would help me grow into the person I wanted to be–strong, capable, independent.
Being independent was a value that lived at the core of my being. I felt proud that I became valedictorian because I never needed my family’s help with schoolwork, and I felt proud that I was an introvert because I didn’t need other people to be happy. All of these things made me feel strong, and every time I overcame another obstacle–whether it be solving a math equation or getting into Stanford–it felt like I had climbed to the top of another mountain. The views from the top made the painful toil up all worth it, but on the horizon, I saw an endless mountain range, each mountain taller than the last.
My gap year allowed me to step away from the mountains and look at it from a new perspective. I imagined my life as an endless pursuit of climbing those mountains. At the top, I would look down at my hands and feel so powerful because I had managed to do it all alone, but then, I realized that I was all alone. That life felt lonely. No matter how strong, independent, or successful I became, my body was destined to turn into dust and my consciousness to fade into oblivion. One hundred years from now, the mountains I have climbed will not matter, so what do we gain from climbing these mountains? What do we give up?
“But living for one’s self, even very successfully, will do absolutely nothing to fill the gasping void inside of you.” -John Green Kenyon College Commencement Speech
We live in a hyper-individualistic society. Everything from the sports we watch, to the history lessons we’re taught, to the movies that becomes popular, the individual is at the center of it all. People look up to Michael Jordan because he’s the GOAT, but way fewer people pay attention to Scottie Pippen or Dennis Rodman, the support that made Michael Jordan’s wins possible. History is taught as a series of individuals making ultra-important decisions that have shaped the course of the world. Everyone knows who Rosa Parks is, but almost no one knows anything about the masses of people that made the Montgomery Bus Boycotts possible. Even the movies we watch revolve around one character-Iron Man, Captain America, Thor-doing great things, while the very real and impactful actions of side characters are often forgotten. If we’re always shown that individuals change the world, then it’s natural that we begin to value those that are the most on their own–the smartest, the most powerful, the most rich.
All of this–the idolization of individualism–coalesces into the extremely dangerous belief that anyone who is better than you, whether its at school, dating, or sports, is better than you. When I was younger (and weirdly obsessed with self-help), I believed there was a version of myself that was more productive, more disciplined, and more intelligent, and I started to believe that the idealized version of myself was better than myself on a human level. A society that praises individual power and prowess must also look down on mediocrity or unassuming but important work. Weakness and vulnerability become things that are met with disdain and contempt rather than love and support. Life becomes a zero sum game that pits every person against each other because the only ones who matter are the ones standing at the very top. Once a person has fallen into this mindset, life becomes a lonely and tiring game. We begin to see our peers as opponents rather than companions. I know what it feels like to be sitting in the crowd of a large auditorium, waiting for my name to be called, only for my best friend’s name to be called instead. I know the guilt and shame that follows the small voice in your head that wishes it was you and not them.
Living A Shared Life
But this is all a lie. We forget that history and movies are just stories, and even when stories are based upon reality, they are not reality. History is not shaped by individuals but large and complex networks of people working together to do things no single person could accomplish on their own. Everything from the construction of societies, to mass genocides, to groundbreaking inventions is built upon countless individuals that support and rely on one another. This applies to the world on a smaller scale as well. The ideal of the self-made man (or woman) is nothing more than an ideal. From the moment we are born, the influences of others shape who we are, for better or worse.
Once we let go of the lie of independence, we begin to see ourselves not as lone figures in our own personal stories but as points in an interconnected web of people. We lose the sense of self-importance that comes with feeling like the singular center of the universe, but we gain connection. When I think about walking down the metaphorical road of life by myself, I feel lonely. I want my life to feel like a collaborative effort between me and the people I love most in the world. I don’t want to walk alone.
“Allow me the privilege of distorting your life.”-Wataru Watari (From Oregairu)
The purpose of forming relationships with others (platonic, familial, or romantic) is to give them a place in your web and to give them the power to affect your life. We share victories and defeats, experiences, and feelings with those that we let into our lives, and the things we share “distort” the lives of our loved ones just as the moments they share with us affect our lives. As we share our lives with others, it dissolves the need for power that characterizes an independent life. It doesn’t matter if we’re not the best because we don’t need to be. Our friends’ victories become something that we relish in just as much as them, and our sorrows feel lighter because they’re with us, holding a box of tissues.
We create complex webs of individual lives that are intimately and deeply connected with each other. Our lives matter because we play as important of a role in other’s lives as they play in ours. Once I began to see myself as a part of this web of my loved ones, I realized how ridiculous it was to think that I was ever alone. Everything I am is a byproduct of the love and support people have given to me. Nothing I have ever done or achieved would have been possible without the endless kindness and care of people. If you share your life with others, there will never be a time where you are helplessly alone, and that will make the worst moments all the more bearable.
It’s easy to type on a keyboard that the key to living a meaningful and fulfilling life is to become an integral part in a deeply connected web of loved ones, but doing that in real life has been much harder than typing it. In my experience, the two most important things in forming these connections are time and vulnerability.
Time is the soil for the seeds of connection. It’s not surprising to me that my deepest deepest relationships are with the people I have known the longest. No matter how much people try, you cannot rush connection. The more time we spend with others, the more of our life we share with them and connection naturally grows, but time does not necessarily mean that connection will follow. In high school, I had plenty of “friends” (acquaintances) that I spent a lot of time with. We chatted in classes, did homework together, or complained about the latest project that the teacher assigned, but I never felt too connected to these people. I was never under the illusion that I would see these people very often after high school, and I haven’t. My life continues, more or less the same, whether or not they were in it.
Vulnerability is the water that allows connection to flourish. To be vulnerable is to show yourself fully to another person, including all of the parts that make us feel shame.
“[Shame is] an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”-Brené Brown
We all have judgments inside of us about the mistakes we’ve made in the past, about the way our bodies look, about the thoughts in our mind that make us feel lesser than. It terrifies us to let these things see the light of the world because if they do, it will confirm what we already believe to be true–that there is something wrong with us. Shame feeds on that fear. If we aren’t vulnerable with others about the things that make us feel ashamed, then we’re telling ourselves that the voice is right. If people knew what we knew about ourselves, they would find out that we weren’t worthy of love, so we hide it. That makes it even harder the next time we try to be vulnerable because we’ve reinforced the idea that those parts of ourselves need to remain hidden.
“Staying vulnerable is the risk we take if we want to experience connection.” – Brené Brown
I can’t say that those fears are unfounded. If people are vulnerable to others, they might be rejected; however, connections cannot be formed without taking that risk. Forming connections requires the courage to make ourselves vulnerable and letting go of the idea that we need to be independent and strong. In high school, I spent more time trying to appear as a larger than life figure than a real human being. Challenges and setbacks were met with laughter, and I rarely asked for help. Because of it, I always felt an invisible wall separating me and my friends. One of my primary goals for my gap year has been to deconstruct this strong image of myself and be vulnerable–to lay myself naked in front of all of the people in my life that I love and expose the parts of myself that I have always tried to hide.
I remember the first in the fall that I made it a point to talk to one of my best friends about some of my biggest insecurities. When the time came, the words had lodged themselves in my throat and my tongue felt like it swelled to ten times its normal size. After the words came out, I cried because I was terrified of how my friend would respond, but he responded with unwavering love. Just as shame is self-feeding, vulnerability gets easier the more vulnerable you are. I don’t hide that I care desperately about other people’s opinions, I don’t hide that I have a superiority complex rooted in low self-esteem, and I don’t hide that I feel jealous and insecure. The insecurities that used to torment me in the darkness shriveled up in the sunlight. They’re still there, but they don’t hold the same power over me. Every time I’ve opened up to a friend, I have felt more closely connected with them. When I am vulnerable, I am naked and without shields. My bare beating heart lies in the hands of my friends. They have all the power in the world to crush me–to hit me where it really hurts–but they don’t. They love and care for me–the real, complex, and flawed me.
Spending time with my friends and creating a space where we can be vulnerable takes effort. Everyone gets so caught up in their own responsibilities that relationships can be neglected, but I don’t need it to be easy. Being a part of someone’s life is truly a “privilege”, and I don’t want to take it for granted. As I get older, the friends and family that I’m used to always having around will no longer be a shout away. We’re moving to different parts of the country and creating entirely new webs and lives, and we have to go out of our way to carve out time to share moments with each other. That’s okay. Time and vulnerability are small prices to pay to remain a part of the lives of those I love.
The connections that bind us together and make us feel whole can also suffocate us if we let them. These webs are built up from the connection between individual points. As those individual points weaken, the connections between them weaken too. Throughout the entire blog post, I’ve been preaching that we ought to be weak and rely on others, but it’s equally important to not lose yourself in the desires and needs of your loved ones. Webs are at their strongest when all of the individual points bring their own unique qualities to the table. Even though it’s not the sole purpose of life, climbing mountains, metaphorical or literal, alone can be amazing opportunities for growth. To be sheltered in the life and community you’ve grown comfortable in without ever venturing to see what’s outside does a disservice to yourself and those who will never know the person you truly are. Know what matters to you, and communicate that in your relationships. Maybe you can’t pick up a friend from the airport because you have an important final the morning after, or maybe you don’t want to go on a road trip with your friend because you’re more of a homebody. That’s okay. Personal boundaries are not restrictions on relationships but guidelines that allow us to interact with each other in healthy and supportive ways. When people dissolve their personal boundaries for their loved ones, it often leads to toxic relationships.
“[Love] is not about obligation but desire.” – Wataru Watari
Never forget that the basis of relationships (familial, platonic, and romantic) is “desire”. I want to be a part of my friend’s lives, and I want them to lean on me with their problems. Wanting to do something isn’t the same thing as enjoying the thing you do. The distinction lies in having a choice. When you feel like you have to do things for other people, regardless of what you want, relationships will begin to weaken, but you can choose to do something you don’t enjoy because you want to help out a loved one. Back in the spring, I started working more hours at the nail salon with my mother because it was getting busier and busier. I worked more hours than I wanted, and it made it harder for me to consistently write, read, or go to the gym. The stress manifested itself as countless arguments with my family about how much I hated working. Working became a thing that I had to do, regardless of what I wanted, and my relationship with my family soured, even though one of the primary reasons I was working was to help my family. When kindness is forced, it saps all of the love out of good-intentioned actions. You need to be able to say no in relationships, or else the relationship itself will weaken.
This is a conversation that needs to go both ways. As we expect our friends to respect our boundaries, we must also respect theirs. When people become a bigger part of our lives, it becomes easier to expect certain things from them, and having those expectations can lead to a lot of suffering. People will say to themselves, “If you really loved me, you would do x,y, or z…”. I’ve been guilty of getting frustrated when my friends won’t do something for me. I remind myself that another person’s boundaries have nothing to do with me, but it has everything to do with what they want or need.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received was from Reddit. I couldn’t find it again, but the tip went something along the lines of “appreciate your friends for the person they are, not the person you want them to be”. Let go of the person you want your friends to be and accept them for all their faults and differences. If your friend is always late, I am guilty of this, the more you try to make them a punctual person, the more frustrated and upset with them you’re going to get. My friends, for example, have begun anticipating that I will be late to things and my tardiness has even begun to rub off on some of them. We all laugh about it because no one is expecting anyone to change. Some of my friends are not the “let’s have religious debates until two in the morning” friends or the “let’s travel the world and have insane adventures” friends. At points, that has really frustrated me, but the good thing about having a web of people you love is that no individual has to meet 100% of your needs. It allows you to appreciate each person fully for who they are and the specific things they bring to the table.
You don’t need to do life alone. It’s okay to be vulnerable and weak. In fact, it’s better. Remember that you want people to be a part of your life and you there’s, so share heartbreaking moments and stomach cramping laughter with them. Create your own unique identity, so you can become an important point in a larger web of people. Learn to say no to the ones you love, and don’t hold it against them if they say no to you. Love people for who they are, faults included, and remember that no matter how far you go in life, it won’t if you can’t share it with anyone.
It only took me five years, but I think I’ve learned what my honors Algebra II teacher was trying to tell me. I’ve spent a lot of time this past year thinking about why we form relationships and what I want mine to look like, and these are the conclusions that I’ve reached about relationships. They have made all of mine stronger and healthier, and I hope they can help you.