Why make money, form friendships, fall in love, suffer people and things you don’t like, and all that jazz? What are we really looking for?
The answer to that question is not easy, and it does vary from person to person – but if there were one thing, just one thing that I could say pretty much all of us are looking for in our lives, one thing that could roughly cover it all, it would be this.
Nothing that we go through in life doesn’t have a meaning of some sort. Intimacy is present when we are in touch with this meaning and have a sense of certainty in it – when we can feel it in our blood and our bones. But the search for meaning is a never-ending one; finding the meaning of one thing only leads to 5 other questions about the meaning of 5 other things. This is not at all a bad thing as long as you don’t put yourself under the pressure of having to make sense of 100 percent of it. Because you never will. And that’s ok. Are you ok with that?
Life loses meaning when we hide away from these things that are vivid and stimulating in ways we don’t understand, or when we try too hard to fit these experiences into boxes that we do understand. There is a basic balance of understanding to be had here; you need a minimal amount of understanding in order to have a sense of direction and purpose in life, it is true. However, too much understanding, too much comfort, too much insulation from what is wild and unknown can lead to a state of blocking out huge chunks of our truth.
Sometimes, the disturbing, untamed, wild stuff is not just around us, on the outside; very often, it is inside of us that these crazy, zany things happen. And these things, as much as we avoid them, are part of the truth:
- inconvenient feelings that we don’t want to have;
- desires that we feel both a burning need to satiate and, at the same time, feel ashamed to admit;
- habits we almost never think about, but without which we would be quite lost (including addictions and obsessions, however mild we may think they are);
- past happenings that we wish we could change which in fact greatly influenced the path we have taken up to today, for better and worse;
- hangups and fears that our conscious brain tells us have no logical reason to be there, yet never go away
Especially in modern society, self image is very important to us. How okay are we all alone, even without the presence of anybody else, with these imperfections of ours? By imperfections, I am not simply talking about what is not perfect. I’m talking about those parts of us that don’t feel right, that don’t appear to jive with the ideas we have of ourselves, that make us feel unsettled to think about as being part of who we are. No matter what attitude you take toward such embarrassing, uncomfortable, shame-inducing things, they still exist and are part of your reality anyway, no matter what you do. How okay are we to face those blemishes on our self-image, alone? When there’s nobody to sell a better version of yourself to? When you have no choice but to truly accept these imperfections, because they are impossible to ignore?
In my case, for the longest time it was very hard for me to accept that I needed to be put in a classroom for children with special needs when I was young. My image of myself was that of an independent young adult, somebody who could run his own life and keep himself amused and occupied profitably, even if there were other things he could not do so well. I didn’t care about what I couldn’t do well, but I did care about my autonomy and my freedom to make my life as I pleased. But the reality of my behavior as a child made it totally necessary, in retrospect, that I be put in a special needs setting. I was indeed a child unlike most others, in some quite negative ways as well as positive ones. And it’s only relatively recently I’ve been able to be at peace with that.
Those shortcomings of ours [that are so hard to admit that we don't even admit them to ourselves most of the time] do not go away. They stay in the background of our lives, quietly delineating the boundaries beyond which we do not dare go – boundaries we often desire deeply to transcend, but have no way of knowing how, because we shut out these things about ourselves that scare us and creep us out so much.
And yet – even as we so often can’t accept and appreciate ourselves in all our imperfection – so many of us are still desperately looking for that very same acceptance and appreciation – that intimacy – from others. And ohhhh, how we hunger for it. Arguments are started, tears are shed, relationships are broken, opportunities are lost, insults are thrown, grudges are held, walls are put up, and so on… all in the name of trying to secure some intimacy. Some sense that we are accepted and appreciated completely, including the truth of all these warts and imperfections whose real existence we often hide from within ourselves, never mind other people.
I remember a shining moment in my life: the first time I was ever insulted and actually felt happy! Why? Because something had to give. Because I knew that the person insulting me was holding resentment toward me, yet it remained bottled up there, unverbalized for a long time, but still quite noticeable. I knew something was amiss. And then, she called me a jerk and told me “fuck you.” And in that insult, I saw the intimate longing she had for me to come help her with this pain she was feeling as a result of something I had done that hurt her. The fuck you was a plea for me to snap out of la-la land and see her intimately, with all the distress afflicting her. It was a “strong invitation” for some intimate, authentic acceptance and appreciation, which I had been wanting to give but didn’t know where to start.
It does make a difference that this event happened with somebody I know very well and was getting very close to at the time. There was an established history of intimate sharing there, something that may not always be there when such an event happens. But you still can encourage more intimacy by gently “peeling back the layers.” For example, when you see a sign that somebody is probably uncomfortable with something, you can share, in a not-so-direct manner, something that makes you uncomfortable, also, and then ask the person “do you ever get that feeling?” If you are wrong about their discomfort, nothing bad happens – but if you are right, you are sort of identifying with their feelings. Even if they say nothing back to you, this kind of thing is likely to be noticed on some level, and it will influence the other person’s view of you positively.
That’s just a short, hypothetical situation. The key is to remember: people are pretty much always looking for intimacy. Very few people are completely ok with everything about themselves all of the time.
The signs and manifestations of intimacy
Intimacy does not always show up in the same way each time. For one thing, “intimacy” is not always a synonym for physical closeness. What it’s really about is seeing somebody deep enough that you can touch needs of theirs that are not completely apparent – needs that they themselves may not know they have, or may have trouble expressing. Intimacy is extremely important for young children especially, whose limited self-understanding and ability to express themselves coherently very often leaves them feeling disconnected and afraid of all the things around them that they cannot control. This is where the importance of family gets its oomph – that it is most of all in relationships that last a lifetime that one can have the deepest, most intimate view inside another. Even if the relationship is far from perfect, even if the participants would surely not choose to be friends if they weren’t part of the same family, still – the sheer amount of time and observation of a person going through the many stages of their life brings an intimacy to things that is hard to find a substitute for.
The modern world is one that is increasingly devoid of free time – where, if there is any hope for you, you must go forth and work nonstop to realize its potential – or else drop out and be a “loser.” However, anybody who values fulfillment and intimacy knows that, even if life sometimes appears black and white like this, this is not the case. In order to find intimacy, you must necessarily make time to stop and smell the roses, to go out of your way sometimes and do things that don’t fit in harmoniously with the big picture.
So we do such things. At least we try to, for a moment or a short time. In fact, we often speed up the process of an intimate encounter or experience, so that we can have the illusion of diving deep into something and satisfying our hunger for intimacy – when, very often, there are even deeper things we aren’t touching about ourselves, that will only become visible with the passage of more time. For example, many people who desire love, passion, connection, devotion, and so on – they get into interactions involving “hot sex,” or BDSM, or prostitution, or sleeping with somebody who is unavailable, when this may not be what they are really looking for. It’s fast, furious, and sometimes dangerous, so we feel alive – but it’s not long-lasting. Or we’ll go to therapists who listen to everything we have to say and make us feel better when we come out, until the next week when the time comes to recharge once again. Short dips into the world of sizzling hot intimacy in order to keep ourselves warm.
There is nothing sinfully wrong with doing any of these things in and of themselves. In some ways, it’s a stage of life, a place one must pass through in order to get to those deeper levels – you test your desires and your limits without fully confronting them head on. But then the time comes when you’ve got to go further, and on some level inside of you, you know it. You’re still alive… and thus, by definition, there is more. There is more to keeping yourself warm than just mini-visits to an intimate state of mind.
How to find this extra intimacy?
I’m a big advocate of truth, including those truths that hurt. The thing is, every truth that you deny to yourself and others creates one more layer of obstacles that must be penetrated. Intimacy can only exist when there is truth – when we strip away all attempts to make things be as we’d like them to be, and accept them for what they are. When we stop trying to convince ourselves and others of things that seem to constantly need re-convincing.
A lot of people are afraid of the truth: Things like “my spouse doesn’t really love me,” or “I don’t have what it takes to achieve my goals” take massive emotional tolls on us. But here’s the thing: the worst stuff happens when we try to fight off and deny the truth embodied in such statements – which is to say that often, such “awful truths” do not actually tell the whole story! For example, most of the time, a statement like “my spouse doesn’t really love me” is an oversimplification, and thus not a total truth. Perhaps something like “my spouse is unable / unwilling to be there in the ways I need him/her” might be getting closer to the truth. And don’t forget that just because they are unable or unwilling now to be there doesn’t mean things will always be this way. Life is a film, not a photograph - it moves and changes, and it is always possible that things can change, even if it’s not in the ways you expect.
If you want more intimacy, you must embrace more truth. Do not content yourself with half the truth when a part of you scratches at you for the rest of the story – that’s being un-intimate with yourself, for starters. And here’s the other thing: if you can’t be truthful, and thus intimate, with yourself – it is a lot less likely that you will find such intimacy with others. The two are inextricably related.
Truths that hurt are like needle vaccines and necessary surgeries; they’re scary, but you come out on the other end feeling much better and more secure. The road to intimacy passes through such places sometimes – places that are uncomfortable, where you are not in control, where you are vulnerable and unable to dictate the terms of your progress. But hey – life is going to throw curveballs at you anyway! You ain’t always gonna be in the driver’s seat. So you might as well learn how to face what feels uncomfortable head-on and make the most of it, right?
The secret is that the less you fight against hard truths and the more you let them in and teach you what they have to offer, the better prepared you will be in the future for such events. The more at peace you will become during those times when you do not have any control. You will learn to trust the process, and that will make it so much easier to unconditionally love both yourself and those around you.
That’s what intimacy is. And when you are in a space like that, you are much more likely to attract other people, and coax their intimacy out through your own example. And you are then much less likely to end up lonely, even when there’s no one around.