Individually Together

In his book United, Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey has an interesting observation about American togetherness in a country that is undoubtedly focused on individual rights, liberties, and successes. Very early in his book he writes, “Our nation speaks of individual rights and freedoms, personal responsibility and self-reliance, and yet we have consistently demonstrated, in spirit and sacrifice, the idea that we are better together—that while our differences matter, our nation matters more.”

 

I like this quote because our individual focused nation often forgets or downplays just how much we rely on one another for the lives we lead. It is very tempting, and even encouraged, to think about what we have done on our own to achieve success. We focus on our individual sacrifices to get the things we want, we reflect on our own hard work to get the promotion we wanted, and enjoy the spotlight when we win accolades and awards, but Booker is acknowledging something operating in the background of our individual focus. We could not have made those sacrifices without help from others, we could not have received the promotion had we not been given the opportunity by someone else, and we would not have received those accolades without the support of others. What we do on our own is only possible with the connections we share with the world.

 

Below the surface we recognize this. We have pride in being American even if we put stickers on our car that say, “Don’t tread on me” and we engage in community service to help strangers we have never met before. But because these connections are hiding away from our main focus, we fail to acknowledge them as powerfully as we should, and we risk isolation over unity. Booker continues, “We make a grave mistake when we assume this spirit of connectedness is automatic or inevitable.” Reveling in our own glory makes it likely  that we will forget just how much we rely on each other, and will make it possible for us to turn against each other or downplay the struggles of others in the face of our own challenges.

 

By recognizing that our individual desires are best achieved when we work and cooperate with others, or that our own goals are only possible in a system where others are united with us, we strengthen ourselves, our communities, and the American democracy. The more we elevate ourselves and turn inward, the more we turn away from bonds that connect our nation, and the more we risk the devolution of the American democratic experiment. Seneca wrote, “he is self-sufficient-and yet could not live if he had to live without the society of man.” Our existence is completely dependent on others, on society, and without others we may subsist, but in no way could we truly exist in any semblance of our current self. Non of what we are is purely born of our own greatness and effort, everything is interconnected with others and with a society that was built and shaped long before we came along.

Deep Human Connections

Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey reflected on his life journey, lessons, relationships, and values in his book, United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good. Throughout Booker’s experience, giving the title its meaning, he has become profoundly aware of how connected everyone is. Not just everyone in a small community or everyone in a country,  but truly everyone on earth, even including those who have passed away and those yet to be born. Government is about organizing society and society’s resources in a way that allows people to function together, and for Booker, our connections run deeper and are more profound than many of us realize on a daily basis. Focusing on our connectedness he writes,

 

“One of the most valuable things I’ve learned since moving to Newark almost twenty years ago is the need for a deeper awarenss of our human connection. I’ve learned that we must be more courageous in the empathy we extend to one another, we must shoulder a deeper responsibility for one another, and we must act in greater concert with one another”

 

I think it is very easy to become isolated from those around you, and to turn away from community activities and events. We have constant contact to the internet and television provides us with nearly endless entertainment. As a result we find ourselves content to experience reality through digital devices and do not spend as much time outside and in our community as we did in the past. A common complaint of government today is that it is too large and performs too many functions that should be left to the private sector or to charity. The problem with such a complaint is that as we become more isolated and shut in, there are fewer people and community groups willing to put forth the effort to provide food or shelter to homeless, to ensure impoverished communities receive healthcare, and to maintain recreation facilities. As we have lost our sense of being united in the physical world in preference of our sense of being connected through the digital world, we have left much of society without support, and government has been the necessary agent to step in and support the communities and individuals left behind.

 

The paragraph above is my observation, but I think it helps explain how we have ended up in a place where Booker’s comments on unity are refreshing and profound. The more we can recognize and rekindle our connections with those around us and with the world as a whole, the more we develop empathy by understanding the challenges that others face. By getting out and being receptive to the difficulties of the human experience, we can share our lessons in overcoming such difficulties as we help raise up others. When we think of another’s failure as our failure to connect with another person by encouraging and supporting them, we find a new perspective of interconnectedness on our path forward as human beings living together on planet earth.

A Relationship With Yourself

When we think about relationships, thinking about ourselves is easy. What do I want, what kind of person will make me happy, why is my partner acting this way toward me? We spend a lot of time thinking about ourselves and about what we want, but all this thought rarely leads us to actually reflect and get to know ourselves better. We spend a lot of time with our impulses, desires, and the things that satisfy us, but we don’t often take the time to truly know ourselves. Author Colin Wright believes that we must focus beyond our desires and what makes us happy to understand who we are deep down in order to become better people for the world and better people in relationships. At the end of his book Some Thoughts About Relationships he writes,

“Your most intimate relationship is, and should always be, with yourself. Acknowledge and maintain that foundation, then reach out into the world and help others do the same. Ensure that your sense of “me” is mighty so that your sense of “we” can follow suit.”

Inward reflection helps us understand our impulses, emotions, reactions, and expectations. When these remain hidden from us, we act in ways that are guided by thoughts that we do not always understand, and our life is likely to be out of alignment as we strive forward based on ideas and pressures that impact our lives without our knowing.  Getting to know these parts of ourselves helps us make better decisions and act more rationally in any situation.

Knowing who we are also means reflecting on the parts of ourselves that we try to hide from the world so that we understand not just the positive side of who we are, but also the negative side. The end of Some Thoughts About Relationships aligns with previous work from Wright. In Considerations he wrote, “Reach deep and acknowledge the dark parts of who you are, then sand smooth or sharpen those aspects of yourself, just as you would with any bad habit or misfit trait. It seldom serves us to conceal any part of ourselves, especially from ourselves.” The better we become at working through the negative parts of ourselves, the better we can empathize with others and connect with people facing the same challenges. In this way, our obstacles help us grow and help us aid others in their growth. A strong relationship with ourselves helps us better know humanity, and helps us connect with others on a more personal and meaningful level.

Present Minded Relationships

Self-reflection is a central theme in all of Colin Wright’s writing, and his book Some Thoughts About Relationships provides us with real life examples of how self-awareness and reflection can help us in our day to day lives. In his book, Wright describes how our relationships can be strengthened when we focus on the context around our relationships and can identify our ideas, expectations, and reactions surrounding our current relationships.  Focusing on past relationships without considering context can take us away from our current relationship, and trying to live in a relationship while constantly thinking about what we will want from our relationship in the future risks damaging our current interactions with our partner. Focusing too much on either past or future relationships makes it difficult for us to engage in a meaningful way with the people in our lives right now.

 

In his book, he writes, “The ‘you’ of this moment should judge relationships based on who you are now and what you want today, not standards made up by someone else, standards developed by you at a very different time in your life, or standards that you think may apply to you at some point in the future. Allow your happiness to be now-centric and enjoy it.”

 

Wright is not encouraging us to live a wild lifestyle based purely on hedonistic desires, but rather encourages us to be present in our relationships and to be aware of what we and our partner want, expect, and enjoy. His quote is powerful because it addresses many of the hang-ups that people face in relationships when they are not honest with themselves or their partner.

 

Seeking a relationship to mirror that of your parents or to avoid the troubles of your parents can put a lot of pressure on you to build a relationship that fits a preconceived notion of what a happiness is, how you should act, and how your partner should act. Approaching a relationship in this way is an act of giving up control of your own relationship and self, and places unrealistic burdens and demands on both you and your partner as you try to live an idealized life meant to impress others rather than bring about growth and fulfillment for you and your significant other.

 

Similarly, focusing on past relationships or future expectations can be dangerous as it may lead you to try to change yourself or your partner to fit environments in which you do not actually live. Asking your partner to fit into a mold built by past relationships may be unrealistic since your relationship with your current partner is between you and them, and not you and your past self or a past individual. Asking your partner to fit your future expectations is equally challenging since you can never truly predict what you will want and need in your future life. Living outside the present forces you and your partner to constantly live in a balance where fictional ideas of relationships impact who you at the expense of what you actually feel, want, and experience.

Trying to Change Others

Author Colin Wright has an interesting perspective of the efforts we make to try to change other people in his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships. For Wright, trying to change the person in our relationships is a very selfish act, limiting the growth of the other person and of ourselves, and preventing both of us from expanding who we are. He writes, “Finding someone you intend to change means you’ve decided that who they are, what they want, and how they live is inferior to who you are, what you want, and how you live.” By trying to change another person you are forcing them into a mold that you have preselected. You are not working with them to soften your own rough edges, and you are not allowing each other to grow according to independent desires, interests, and shared commitments and connections .

 

This selfish type of relationship is never going to be based on reality as you force another person to be an incomplete version of what you think a successful partner looks like. The other person won’t be able to fully express themselves, and you will only know a false version of them. There are parts of ourselves that we know well, parts of ourselves we don’t know well, parts of others we know well, and parts of others that we don’t know well. Assuming that you can change another person into what you want assumes that you fully understand yourself and the other person, something undoubtedly impossible.

 

Wright continues, “approaching relationships this way means you’re partnering with someone who you consider to be a block of raw material that you can chisel into whatever shape you prefer. You want to whittle away who they are so that they become the person you want them to be, or whom you feel you should want them to be. This typically results in negative complexes and disappointment on both ends.”

 

When you set out to change the other person in a relationship you are setting out to force them to be an incomplete version of themselves. Because we can never fully understand even ourselves, we can never predict and prescribe who another person should be. Development as an individual, both within and outside relationships, is filled with value judgements about relationships, about other people, about ourselves, and who we think we want to be and be with. Allowing both ourselves and the other person in our relationship to be complete human beings allows for growth, both personal and as a pair, and working together to understand this growth is the only way you can help develop another person.

Archetypes

One of the things we often do in life is take shortcuts to understand the world, our place in the world, and how everything relates. These heuristics allow us to develop mental models of how we think things should interact, helping us build narratives of meaning, moral frameworks, and pathways toward success. The problem thought, if we let these heuristics run amuck without constraining them through self-awareness, is that we begin to cast people, situations, and reality into buckets defined by things we have experienced in the past or seen on TV. In his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships, author Colin Wright encourages us to go beyond archetypes in our relationships to understand others as full people and not as character types from TV shows or stories.

 

In his book he writes, “Don’t try to force a person to be someone they’re not. … Let’s start with self-archetyping. We’re given examples of people to emulate from a young age, an this generally means being presented with role models who represent a certain ideal to our parents, educators, older siblings, or someone else with influence over our growth. The result is that we grow up with a notion about the “correct” way to act, and this carries over into how we behave in the context of a relationship.”

 

In this passage, Wright is encouraging us to understand our selves and not force ourselves to be a character that we believe others want us to be. He is also encouraging us to allow other people to be original versions of themselves, rather than trying to force people into boxes that describe them based on other people that we know. This means that you don’t try to assign roles to yourself and your friends to see who matches who from shows like Friends or the Big Bang Theory, and it means you approach each person as if they are themselves, and not as if they are like a character from a movie or even a person from your past.

 

What we can do when we avoid archetypes is avoid conflicts that arise from hidden expectations of what we want ourselves or another person to be. We can be honest and open about our roles in our relationship, and build a constructive partnership or friendship based on who we truly are as people. Archetypes and shortcuts help us learn lessons about the world and build models, but they are necessarily constrained versions of reality that limit our lives when we enact them in the real world. Avoiding archetypes means that you can be the person that makes you happy, that lives life in your regular resonance, not in the image of someone else. You can allow your spouse to be the spouse that fits with their lifestyle, and makes you happy, rather than the idealized spouse from story or fiction. Driving beyond these narratives of people and roles allows us to interact with people in the world in a much more authentic manner, thought it requires that we take more time to understand those around us.

Independently Fulfilled

Some Thoughts About Relationships is a set of reflections from Colin Wright about how we interact with other people. Wright focuses on stoic philosophy and principles based on self-reflection, awareness, and rational consideration of the world. He merges these ideas with our relationships with other people, both romantic and collegial, and helps us understand some of the feelings, frustrations, and tendencies we experience in relationships. His views of the importance of self-reflection and awareness are evident in his belief that to have a strong relationship with another, you must know yourself and be confident in who you are as a person outside of relationships. He writes, “If you want to find fulfillment with another person, and ideal first step is to become personally, independently fulfilled.”

 

When I talk to my friends about relationships I often return to this idea. Being a complete person on your own is important to finding someone that you can spend time with. Believing that you are not complete on your own leaves you in a place where your own happiness is dependent on another person, and in effect what that means is that you are giving up control of your mind, the one thing we may actually have some degree of control over.

 

By reflecting on ourselves and learning to be happy with who we are, even if we are already in a relationship, we can strengthen ourselves to be able to better interact with those around us. Once we live in alignment with our goals and ideals, we can better build relationships into our lives.

 

It is a heavy burden to ask another person to be themselves and to be part of who we are, completing some part of ourselves. If we cannot define who we are on our own, then we will never be satisfied with the definitions we receive from another person. It is simply too much to ask another person to be the thing that makes us a whole person, especially if we expect them to be a whole person as well.