This past month I turned 54. It's a staggering number to me and I'm still not sure where the past 30 years went, but here I am. I am of course feeling the affects of aging, that I thought for some reason I would be immune to. For instance, in my continued support to exercise and stay relatively fit, I am sore all the time now. It never seems to go away--much like my continued craving for ice cream, which in turn prompts the endless need to exercise. It's a cruel cycle.
The positive aspect of getting older though is that I am finding out that I am getting better at sifting through what really matters in life and what doesn't. The need for relationships is finding its way through all of the clutter I am trying to clear away that won't have real value after I am gone. I find that I not only crave these relationship, but that connecting with others is proving to be a vital part of how I deal with both the joys and stresses of life. But, navigating them is hard and I haven't always been very good at it. They are hard because the ones that really matter are the ones that require us to reveal the deeper parts of ourselves and that's scary.
The dependence on connection with others is strong and one of my favorite examples of this is in the movie "Castaway". When Tom Hanks' character is stranded on a deserted island, the loneliness he felt was so intense and so debilitating that in order to find the strength to survive, he created a "relationship" with the "volleyball man" he named Wilson. It was important for him not to feel alone because God created us for connection and numerous scientific studies have supported that both our physical and emotional health depends on it.
So, if we understand that relationships are vital to our overall wellbeing and can increase feelings of happiness and support, why, is our seemingly socially connected society showing increases of chronic loneliness? Also, why are designers turning to technology to help alleviate this problem by developing social robots to provide missing time and attention to the elderly and young children instead of learning better ways to do that ourselves?
In Sherry Turkle's, TED talk, "Connected But Alone", she sees a trend in our society to hide from each other. As a psychologist studying the affects of internet use, she has found that "people want to be connected to each other, but only if they can have each other at a distance and in amounts that they can control". She claims that we want to have the power to edit, delete and retouch our connections that we have with each other in order to make them safe.
That's why superficial surface conversations are so enticing. We think they fill our need without requiring much from us in return. In a recent article by Debra Fileta on the 4 levels of communication, I learned that in the first level, we stick to facts and can have this kind of conversation with anyone, even complete strangers. Most of of time I find that this usually includes the weather; I suppose because that's a topic we all can relate to. The second level goes a little deeper and requires a little more connection since it acknowledges opinions, likes and dislikes. We need to let our guard down just a bit to connect on this level, but still not too much.
It's the 3rd level that can get stickier because this is the deepest level where we need to both identify what we are feeling and then be willing to share it with someone else. The writer of the article points out that as a counselor, she deals most with this level of communication. Most of her clients end up in her office due to a breakdown in relationships because of their lack of reaching this 3rd stage of communication. She states that "in order for relationships to be significant, you have to go deep" and many important relationships are falling short.
Developing deeper, more meaningful relationships takes a lot of energy, is often awkward and is certainly risky. It requires a certain amount of safety to be comfortable sharing the most intimate parts of your heart with someone without the fear of being judged, ridiculed or taken advantage of. Because of this we can't have this deeper level of communication with just anyone. The other person essentially earns the right to walk into our secret world. The problem is that we won't be able to determine if they are "worthy" to handle the intimate pieces of our heart unless we are willing to test the waters and share slowly, bit by bit. That's where the courage comes in.
So once we have decided that developing honest, authentic relationships with at least one and hopefully a few other people is important and that we were created to both give and receive within this context, how on earth do we go about it? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Be Willing.
We need to be willing to not only be vulnerable and reveal ourselves to others, but we need to be introspective enough to figure out who we really are and what we are really thinking. Sherry Turkle says that "we learn from deep conversations with each other how to have deep conversations with ourselves."
It's difficult for those who grew up in environments that didn't teach how to identify, accept or manage the wide range of feelings that we all deal with to be able to know how to even have those conversations with ourselves. I remember in one of my own counseling sessions, being challenged to identify specific emotions outlined on a chart was difficult and it was hard to clarify what those feelings even were. I normally didn't give myself permission to feel negative emotions (out of shame) and while they certainly were there, I did whatever I could to ignore or deny them. I didn't have a clue how to communicate them to someone else, and certainly didn't feel that it would be allowed. It was only when the counselor shared how he had experienced some of them himself that I was able to feel safe enough, or even normal enough to be able to accept and admit them.
2. Be Intentional.
I am learning that just as I feel the need to be known and to be able to share deeper thoughts and feelings with someone else, others feel that same need. Since God calls us to confess our sins and pray for each other (James 5:16), we need to be intentional and take the first step. As I am learning how to do that, I admit I am very awkward. It's unnatural for me to not only hide areas of pain and struggle since that has been my pattern, but also as an introvert, to come out of my very comfortable place of withdrawal that seems much safer. It's been 3 steps forward and 2 steps back but at least I am stumbling forward.
A lifecoach once told me that this new way of relating may look a bit like Bambi trying to walk across the ice, which it has been, but it gives me the empathy for others who may be feeling the same way as I try to engage them in this process with me. The rejection we may feel that will tend to make us shrink back may be just that same awkwardness. We need to be constantly thinking about the needs of the other person before ourselves and take the risk, thinking that they may be hoping that we are brave enough when they are not.
3. Be Ready to Both Share and Listen.
Sometimes we need to be able to share our own heart, but sometimes we need to be the ones to listen. It's often hard to not input and give advice, especially for those of us who naturally want to figure out ways to alleviate the pain others are feeling or to fix the problem they have. But sometimes listening is exactly what someone needs, like it is for us at times. I recently read that it's appropriate to ask if they need us to just listen or if they want to hear our thoughts. That is, simple, honest and caring and helps us to determine how to truly minister to them. And like I said earlier, often as they share their hearts with us, they are in turn dealing with the issue internally at the same time.
One bit of warning is to be mindful of James 1:19, "Know this my dear brothers; let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger." Proverbs is full of warnings to be careful not to judge what people say with harshness but rather to listen out of love, while also being willing to share God's truths to bring someone in pain back in alignment with God's teachings. We need to give room for honest emotion without condemnation.
4. Ask Good Questions.
There are a lot of techniques that can help you to ask good questions during deep conversation. One is to reframe what you are hearing the person say so that they are reassured that you are truly listening. Using phrases such as, "I think what I hear you saying is ....is that right?" can be good but I have sometimes found that to be fairly patronizing so we need to be careful to not overuse it. Also, in my lifecoaching training, we had to practice using open ended questions (not just ones with yes or no answers). These kind of questions help the person to get in touch with their own emotions, start to come up with their own solutions, and helps develop deeper conversations as they reveal more pieces of who they are to you, which can then be reciprocated. This helps us to move beyond the trivial and can start some great conversations.
5. Put in the Time and Energy Needed and Follow Up.
Developing more meaningful relationships takes time and energy. Sometimes its hard to participate in other people's lives--especially in their pain. There have been times when I would have rather not known what people are dealing with and it was hard emotionally to enter into their world. But, I've also been on the receiving end when I had warriors walking through my mess and my muck. If I were them I would have wanted to run. Most did, but a couple of dear friends were willing to put both the time and the energy in and it was costly I'm sure. But I wouldn't have made it without them.
One of the most difficult things I have experienced is the lack of follow up after sharing deep struggles, asking for help in some form and then not being asked about it ever again. We need to be mindful to be willing to talk further, to check in every once in a while and ask how things are going, or if they are finding some level of success in a problem area. In some situations it's not doable, but if it is appropriate and possible, we need to at least honor them in their willingness to be vulnerable. Most of the time a more intimate relationship will never be formed, but a simple "I've been thinking about you and wonder how you are" can go a long way.
6. Encourage Others.
Hebrews 10:25 says, "Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching.". We need to connect and be willing to not only be aware of how others are living out their gifting but also to be willing to actually verbalize it to them. This affirmation can work wonders in deepening a surface relationship to something more important. The challenge in this is to feel confident in our own gifting and to not see serving Christ as a competition. As we become more in tune with ourselves and are more honest with each other, this competition fades away and seems silly. We start to see that we are all in this thing of life together, we are all flawed, and that we need God and each other to make it though this damaged world.
The 4th Level of communication is the very best of all. This form engages our soul and our spirit. It's the part that shares what God is doing in our lives, in our heart and in our minds-really doing. To do this right, we need to be truly vulnerable, honest, and intimate with ourselves, God and others. This isn't the kind of sharing that is saved for surface level Bible Studies or casual friends. This kind of communication shares our weaknesses, our fears, and the worst parts of ourselves that we see God working on and transforming.
This connection is so deep that it is saved for our relationship with God Himself first and then with only a handful of people in our lifetime. It can be a gift for us as well as a gift we give to each other. It just takes courage and a willingness to give of ourselves like Christ gave to us. It's what we were made for.