The other day a young man asked me innocently, “Whom should I please? There are my parents, siblings, wife, children, boss and others. How should I choose between them or do I try and keep everyone happy?”
“You forgot the most important person,” I said.
Eventually, happiness in our daily lives depends on how happy I’m able to keep myself and others, neither of which is easy. Please note the word eventually. In the short term, you can make a lot of sacrifices and keep everyone happy but as time wears on, this will leave you weak and unfulfilled. And forget everyone, even to keep yourself happy is particularly tricky because no matter how talented, skilled or successful one is, regardless of how many hobbies you may have to keep yourself busy — you can’t keep yourself happy all the time on your own. Unless of course, you have mindfully and compassionately disassociated yourself from the world and turned inwards in which case you’ll be happier than most people. If you are one such person, this post is not for you. My focus today is on people living in the real world with real challenges where we undergo a whole range of emotions on a daily basis.
Have you noticed that whenever we are suffering, it’s generally due to the presence or absence of someone else in our life? We are sad because we have the wrong person in our life or we are sad because the right person is no more (or not as much as we’d like them to be) in our life. (What have we reduced ourselves to? I wonder…)
The newly elected prime minister went to a mental institution to show that he cared about everybody.
“What’s wrong with this man?” He asked the warden about a man who was alternating between wailing and laughing.
“Sir, he was in love but his girlfriend ran off with somebody else. As a result, he had a major nervous breakdown and he went mad.”
“That’s very sad,” the prime minister said sympathetically and moved on to see other patients.
A block later, he saw another person who was acting most weird. “And, what happened to him?”
“This is the man, sir,” the warden replied, “whom she ran off with and married.”
We go mad in happiness as we do in sadness (figuratively, generally). Relationships are difficult and loneliness can be even more difficult. Primarily because you can’t resolve loneliness by entering into a relationship, it’s not the opposite of togetherness. People can be incredibly lonely even when surrounded by their loved ones. Loneliness is difficult because it’s a feeling of isolation, you’ve become distanced from yourself; others have little or nothing to do with it. Having said that, most people are lonely for the lack of quality in their relationships. They tried, maybe they tried very hard but something was amiss, it just didn’t work out. Usually, it’s all fireworks in the beginning and then gradually it loses its charm, like new cutlery that’s shiny and sparkly clean in the beginning and then suddenly one day, after a while, you find that it’s looking old, it’s lost its sheen. Loneliness bites you the most when you don’t want to be lonely. You’ve got a promotion and you want to call someone to celebrate and partake of your happiness or if you just got fired, once again you want to share your sorrow with someone. Whether we suffer out of loneliness or togetherness, it’s often because we miss having a quality relationship with someone. Quality — that’s the key. What do I mean by quality and how to have a quality relationship?
I came across a nice little writeup in Nassim Taleb’s The Bed of Procrustes.
Procrustes, in Greek mythology, was the cruel owner of a small estate in Corydaluys in Attica, on the way between Athens and Eleusis, where the mystery rites were performed. Procrustes had a peculiar sense of hospitality (if we might call it that): he abducted travelers, provided them with a generous dinner, then invited them to spend the night in a rather special bed. He wanted the bed to fit the traveler to perfection. Those who were too tall had their legs chopped off with a sharp hatchet; those who were too short were stretched.
In the purest of poetic justice, Procrustes was hoisted by his own petard. One of the travelers happened to be the fearless Theseus, who, after the usual dinner, made Procrustes lie in his own bed. Then, to make him fit in it to the customary perfection, he decapitated him.
We humans, facing limits of knowledge, and things we do not observe, the unseen and the unknown, resolve the tension by squeezing life and the world into crisp commoditized ideas, reductive categories, specific vocabularies, and prepackaged narratives, which, on the occasion, has explosive consequences. Further, we seem unaware of this backward fitting, much like tailors who take great pride in delivering the perfectly fitting suit—but do so by surgically altering the limbs of their customers.
I guess so are most relationships: a kind of Procrustean bed. We work very hard to make the other person want the same things as us. We mistakenly want to work our relationships into some sort of perfection. If that is how you intend to make any relationship work, I’m afraid, it never will. The quality of human bond is not based on how well two people fit together or just even fit in. Instead, it is how much space they give each other. Besides, often when they seem to get along like a house on fire, one of them is quietly smoldering. Freedom is the seed of quality in a relationship. By freedom, I don’t just mean that you are able to do whatever you want to do. In fact, such irresponsible freedom is the termite that hollows even the best of relationships.
Freedom to me is respecting co-existence, it is as much celebrating togetherness as respecting diversity, a sort of fearlessness. In other words, it is maturity. You can’t have a free relationship unless two people are mature enough to voice their concerns, desires and truth. A bond devoid of such maturity will leave both feeling burned out.
I read somewhere once, “We must know that every person in the world has his own object in life, his own interest and his point of view, and that he is concerned with himself. His peace is disturbed when you wish to interest him in your object of interest. If you wish to force upon him your point of view, however near and dear he may be to you, he is not pleased with it.”
Though it may sound too categorical to be real in our world full of relative happiness, it is the uncomfortable truth of human existence: we are too concerned with ourselves. We are told to share, be good and all that, but at the same time we are taught to watch out for ourselves. Even my advice to the young man was that he didn’t count himself in his pursuit of happiness because you are an important part of your life. But, if there’s too much emphasis on winning, on being right then I’m set to be disappointed repeatedly, for no matter how capable I may be, my losses will outnumber my wins. And, that’s where the question of delicate balance arises.
I must be clear about what’s the minimum I require from my life and what’s the best I can do for the other person. Maturity is when two people can sit down and negotiate and work through it. Understanding arises when they acknowledge and respect the fact that each one of us has the right to choose our own object in life. And more importantly, a different path does not mean that you don’t love the other person. That, in fact, is the hallmark of true maturity where you don’t equate everything in terms of what it means for or to you.
There’s bound to be fulfillment and a sense of togetherness in a mature relationship for you know that you can share your joys and sorrows without being judged or reprimanded. That, there’s freedom and understanding. The question of how or who should you please disappears then. The joy of sharing moving from the depths of your heart rises to the brim.
A priest called in sick on a Sunday and went to play golf. All by himself. He wanted to improve his swing for the upcoming friendly tournament. He well knew that his golfing skills were nothing to write home about.
Most miraculously though, however he hit the ball that day, it would end up in the hole. Indeed, the ball that was flying south would turn north and land in the hole. The priest jumped up and down in sheer joy. With sixteen holes-in-one, he swelled with pride like a fresh popcorn.
“Why?” an angel asked God who had been observing all this for the past two hours. “Why did you help a priest who skipped his duty to play golf? Shouldn’t he be punished? Instead, he plays the best golf of his life!”
“Well,” God replied smilingly, “who’s he gonna tell?”
Isn’t one of the greatest joys of our lives is to be able to share our successes and achievements with our loved ones? Just as it’s most comforting to share your failings with the person whom you expect to hear you out non-judgmentally. That cannot come unless there’s maturity in a relation. Maturity, in turn, is not possible without responsible freedom. And, freedom is a synonym of true love. If you want to tie the other person down, dictate rules for their life (no matter how reasonable or moral those rules might appear to you), such kind of togetherness leads to suffocation. And when that happens, it has the opposite effect: it’s no longer their absence but presence that makes you feel lonely. Sometimes, all it takes to fix it is to sit down and ask each other, “What would make you happy?” Thereafter, negotiate what’s doable. If there’s maturity, coming to a common ground is a good possibility. And, if maturity is missing, well then, as it is such a relationship has little meaning. A fallout is only a matter of time then.
Maturity comes naturally in love, like warmth in the winter sun, all else is an illusion of love, perhaps it is attachment.
Take it easy. Work it through.