Better Relationships

Dear Seeker of the Truth,

Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee… No man is an island.

—John Donne

There is a reason Dante’s lowest level of hell is for the betrayers. Placing your heart on the line is a daunting task indeed. It is no wonder that past slights and hurts manifest themselves deeply later in life. Think about the abused woman struggling to be open with her spouse, the fatherless child avoiding the responsibilities of fatherhood himself, or the bullied kid lashing out. It is no wonder suffering of the heart cuts deep.

Regardless of the cut, confronting suffering often reveals the meaningful. As many a parent knows, one can find some of the greatest meaning in life in raising children. The happily married couple can attest to this on their fiftieth wedding anniversary only after making it through sickness, health, riches, poverty, and everything in between. Is it easy? Nope. Is it worth it? Yes.

Where do you start? First, you must put your heart out there. You must risk. Having a strong and conditioned (note: not hardened) heart helps find meaning. By an overwhelming margin, the fear of public speaking is most people’s greatest fear. Why? It risks the heart. When you speak publicly, it means you risk judgment by your community, your peers, and typically the people closest to you.

“The graveyard is the richest place on earth, because it is here that you will find all the hopes and dreams that were never fulfilled, the books that were never written, the songs that were never sung, the inventions that were never shared, the cures that were never discovered, all because someone was too afraid to take that first step.” – Les Brown

It is one thing to say you will risk judgment, but you must also take responsibility for that judgment. Athletes understand this; they go into competition to be judged. If they blame their judges, we call them “poor sports.” It cuts more deeply in real life because you must take responsibility for your children, your spouse, your friendships, and your communities. For example, a spouse may judge you as inadequate and leave; alone that creates heart suffering, but taking responsibility for your perceived inadequacy is a deeper pain.

You want to be loved for who you are, but this is the great lie. After all, you are inadequate, fallen, broken, and misled in countless ways. Any spouse, business partner, or friend can leave for many justifiable reasons. Take responsibility for this. It is your responsibility to confront these illusions and lies in your life and to work toward becoming more. You are not a mere animal trapped by your nature! You can become more if you take responsibility for change, but you must admit this about yourself, and that is difficult.

The first step in taking responsibility for the heart is to take responsibility for your own feelings, a novel idea in today’s time and age, and perhaps easier for men. Women have unique challenges here, but they are just as responsible for their feelings. The second step in taking responsibility for your feelings is not to deny them but to address them, and this most often is where men and women differ. Women typically address their feelings outwardly, usually by talking. Men typically address their feelings inwardly through self-reflection. These are not always absolutes, but they are common enough traits to be helpful. Step three: you must act. All too often we fail at step three. For the man, he buries the emotion. For the woman, she brings the emotion out in the light but leaves it unresolved. These are actions, but neither is good. Unresolved emotions or buried emotions will fester, one causing suffering on the surface and the other causing suffering inside.

The most meaningful relationships connect at a heart level. This is different for different people because individuals have their hearts in all kinds of places. You need to take responsibility and identify the heart of the individuals with whom you have relationships.

This week’s action step: if you want better relationships seek first to understand the heart of the person you care about before seeking to be understood by them. We all have the tendency to spend too much time trying to be heard over all the surrounding noise, to express ourselves, or to pursue our own happiness. These are not meaningful things if we are not listening to others around us. Begin trying to listen to the heart of other people. For the empathetic this is natural, but for those more analytical, charismatic, or driven this may be awkward and take some practice. The empathetic may tend to think other personalities are somewhat heartless, but remember people have their hearts in different places. Seeking to understand is not about understanding from your perspective but understanding from their perspective. For women this may mean listening to a man’s actions in an absence of words. For guys this may mean sitting and listening to a woman. Different relationships, scenarios, and people make a difference in how you listen; and you must be cautious with your own biases and avoid autobiographical listening.

An excellent resource that can be used in romantic and family relationships is the Five Love Languages. We can learn to speak the language of those to whom we want to show love. Additionally, understanding yourself, your personality, persona, or archetypal place can help you better navigate relationships because you are able to be more aware of your own biases, weaknesses, and dominate traits. You can read more about this here and there are four great YouTube videos on the subject on The Assent Podcast channel under playlist Self.

Assent to Truth,

Christopher Clay 

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