Infinite navel-gazer that I am, I spend a lot of time thinking about love and kindness and how these ideas manifest themselves in my life. There are few things more important to the human experience than love, but I think it’s always important to remember that love is so much bigger and richer than romantic love. Even romantic love itself is more satisfying in the context of a friendship—that’s a lesson that Matt taught me.
Another lesson that has stuck with me from recent experiences is that there is nothing like a serious crisis to reveal a person’s true colors. It’s one thing to yammer on about love and kindness when everything is good and happy; it’s quite another to put those principles into practice when you’re being squashed by life. I think that’s part of why I’ve struggled so hard with 2012: because I wanted to prove to myself that I could live according to my own values. Heaven knows I had plenty of moments when I just wanted to run away from my problems or, at the very least, hide in a closet until the storms blew over.
But I chose not to hide. I tried to be brave. My brand of bravery demanded a certain amount of honesty that was, to be honest, scary even for me. That’s what I wanted to write about today: the way that honesty in relationships frees us to be our true selves. Honesty is what lets us love and be loved. Honesty is the union of courage and vulnerability.
I’ve struggled a lot in my relationships this year. A friend whom I assumed would be there for me failed to do so, which was deeply disappointing. Another friendship threatened to sail into forbidden territory, so I had to throw out my anchor on that one. In both of these cases, I felt like I was out of my element, overwhelmed by need and grief. How do you say to a person, “You can’t give me what I need”? It sounds like an accusation, and yet it would have been the most honest thing to say.
Eventually I came to the conclusion that some friendships simply have built-in limitations, and this is okay. With some people, I can’t have a deeper connection due to personality mismatches or outside commitments that deserve respect. I wonder if being with Matt spoiled me because I felt like I could tell him anything, and without his steady presence, I
wanted, no, I needed a replacement. But some losses can’t be replaced on demand.
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This week I’ve been thinking about the difference between being liked and being loved. Jessica Valenti wrote this provocative piece about the female desire to be liked at the cost of being true to our authentic selves. What I wonder is this: what is the distinction between wanted to be kind versus wanting to be liked? To put it bluntly, I could give two shits about being liked. That doesn’t matter to me at all. But I care very deeply about being kind, and I’m not entirely sure what the difference is. Maybe the distinction is arbitrary. To me, being kind is some combination of the following:
* Help where you can.
* Act with love.
* Know the difference between speaking your truth and saying something mean. Honor the truth; stay away from being mean-spirited.
* Assume good intentions. (I cannot tell you how valuable this one has been for me.)
Four guidelines is pretty succinct, don’t you think? This list works for me in professional and personal settings, and I like to think that it has relieved a lot of anxiety about being liked by others. Because I’m encouraged to speak my truth and assume good intentions, it keeps me focused on finding common ground. As a friend of mine said about her relationship with her fiancé, “I like to win, you like to win, so let’s win together.” I really like that.
Built into Jessica Valenti’s analysis is the insidious notion that women can choose to be liked or they can choose to be successful. I think there is a third option: we can choose kindness as we pursue our goals. Inherent for me in kindness is gently pushing aside my own ego because let’s face it, it’s not all about me. For many of us, success is something we seek in cooperation or collaboration with others—spouses, families, colleagues, bosses. I would like to believe kindness honors the collective quality of our experiences.
Maybe I’m lucky in that I have always moved through life with a deep sense of my own worth. I don’t have to care about whether other people like me because I know I have so much more to offer than a shallow likeability. I am not an easy-going person, which means I’m not always easy to like. I know this. (And oh, my family and friends—they know this too, poor souls.) But what I lack in shallow likeability I make up for in the depth of my relationships: an appreciation of other people’s strengths, a willingness to hear and consider positions that differ from mine, the way it’s not hard for me to apologize and open up the chance for meaningful conversation. In short, by not trying to be liked, I choose the freedom to be loved for who I really am.