Two trees growing close together, but not in each other’s shadow

Nature is a great teacher. A walk in a forest can teach us about life and help us to experience something far greater than ourselves. Suppose you came upon a colony of mushrooms decorating the forest floor, what would you see? At first, we may believe the hundreds of mushrooms are individual plants, but actually they are all parts of the same organism. You see, they are all sprouting from the same underground fungal network called a mycelium. We are like mushrooms. We appear separate and distinct. Yet, we all spring from the same invisible network, which in our case is called humanity. Each of us is just a small part of the whole. Once we understand that, it becomes much easier to develop close relationships. If we wish to learn about ourselves, what we are and what we can become, we have to learn about others.

As we continue our walk in the forest, we may stop to watch raindrops roll down the surface of a leaf. In their gleeful slide down the leaf, the drops of water collide and separate, traveling along different paths. Each time one drop collides with another, part of each drop merges with the other, so when they separate, each carries a part of the other. We are like raindrops. As we run into one another and interact, we exchange part of ourselves with each other. As we learn how to grow in intimacy, we exchange more and more of ourselves when we meet, each benefiting from the process, each being enriched by the other.

A young husband said to his wife, “I will work very hard for you and someday we will be rich.” And his wife replied, “But honey, we are already rich, and someday we may have lots of money too.” Yes, intimacy enriches us; it makes us rich. What is intimacy? It is what we see in the forest: two trees growing side by side, but not in the shadow of the other. Intimacy is about mutual support, encouragement, and growth. On the other hand, estrangement stunts growth and devalues life.

A tree that is struck by lightning falls silently, unless there is a person or animal to hear it. Similarly, a person’s life ends with little meaning, unless there was someone to share it. Can you see how important intimacy is? It may not be essential for physical survival, but it does seem necessary for emotional survival. Just as a drab landscape is magically transformed by a snowfall or crimson sunset, so does a simple friendship grow into a source of joy when it is stoked by intimacy.

By now it is clear that today’s topic is intimacy, so before we continue, let me describe it in slightly more detail. Intimacy is about reaching out to others, not with our arms and hands, but with our minds and hearts. It is about accepting people and sharing our lives with them. It is also about exposing ourselves, removing our mask, and dismantling the many layers of protection that we use to hide our true selves from others. Revealing our thoughts and feelings is like peeling the outer leaves of an artichoke one by one, until we come to the best part, the tender part, the very heart of the artichoke.

To be intimate is to be vulnerable. It is to say, “Here I am. This is what I am really like. These are the things that inspire me. And these are the things that inspire fear in me. Here are my dreams, hopes, and ambitions. Here are my doubts, worries, and concerns. Here are my beliefs and values. Here are my weaknesses and faults. Can you accept me for whom I am and help to bring out the best in me?”

It takes courage to open up and speak frankly to others. After all, many of us have been damaged by past criticism and have lost faith in others. Once our weaknesses are exposed, we fear rejection, betrayal, ridicule, humiliation, and loss of control. Yet, we can regain our trust in others by peeling away the leaves of our artichoke a little at a time. In fact, if we were to reveal everything at once, we may overwhelm and frighten others, causing them to distance themselves from us. So, a good rule of thumb is to proceed by baby steps, so that you and your partner slowly and carefully build a solid foundation of mutual trust.

Support builds intimacy. Criticism destroys it. If my close friend is slightly overweight, why mention it? Do I think he is so stupid that he doesn’t know he is overweight? And why is he overweight? Perhaps he seeks the pleasure of eating to escape the pain of feeling inadequate. So, if I tell him to lose weight, all I do is reinforce his feelings of inadequacy, which leads to more compulsive eating. But if I were to accept him without criticism, this would boost his confidence and reduce his need to look for pleasure in food. Also, as we grow closer, he may decide to join me at the gym for workouts, which may remove his excessive weight and give him even more confidence.

But isn’t it true that at times we should speak up? Yes, if a close friend or spouse has an addiction that is destroying their life, for example, we should use full force in encouraging them to seek professional help. Too often, however, we are tempted to ask others to change when we are the ones that need changing. We need to change by growing more accepting of others. Any advice that we offer should be used very sparingly. Buddha offers some useful guidelines: “If it is NOT truthful and NOT helpful, don’t say it. If it is truthful and NOT helpful, don’t say it. If it is NOT truthful and helpful, don’t say it. If it is truthful and helpful, WAIT for the right time.”

Dr. J. Allen Petersen also has wise words to share: “Most people get married believing a myth – that marriage [or any relationship] is a beautiful box full of all the things they have longed for: companionship, sexual fulfillment, intimacy, friendship. The truth is that marriage, at the start, is an empty box. You must put something in before you can take anything out. There is no love in marriage; love is in people. There is no romance in marriage; People have to infuse it into their marriages. A couple must learn the art and form the habit of giving, loving, serving, praising – keeping the box full. If you take out more than you put in, the box will be empty.”

Well, what do you think? Shouldn’t we see ourselves as mushrooms; that is, individuals, yet a small part of the human family? Shouldn’t we learn the secret of intimacy from raindrops, which is to give part of ourselves to our partners and friends? Then, like Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809 ~ 1892) we will say, “I am a part of all I have met.” Finally, in our most intimate relationships, let’s live as two trees, side by side, without casting our shadow on the other.