Today is my parents’ anniversary. They have been married for 38 years. So, I asked my mom if, after all that time, she felt like she knew my dad entirely, like there was nothing new she could learn about him. Luckily, her answer supported my thesis. She replied: “Definitely not. How could I when people continually grow and change?”
A quick caveat about what I am going to say here: it isn’t limited to spouses—it applies to any close relationship—friends, family, long-time lovers. And what I want to say is this: that the best of these relationships, the ones that endure and deepen and exceed our understanding, cultivate strangeness more than likeness. If you aren’t asking, “who am I?” of your self and “who are you?” of your beloved each week, each day, even, you are setting your relationship up for failure. Because the moment you believe that you have learned all there is to know about your beloved is the moment your relationship closes in on itself, suffocating the possibility for growth.
It’s commonplace to hear phrases like “S/he knows me inside and out” like it’s a good thing. And while this idea might be comforting for someone about to walk down the aisle, it’s foolish, even toxic, to actually believe that. It’s easy to mistake knowing a person’s routines or behaviors for really knowing that person. Just because you can guess what your spouse will order for dinner doesn’t mean you’ve plunged the depths of his being; it simply means you’ve picked up on some of his behavioral patterns. And of course many attribute their dissatisfaction in a relationship to this sort of “predictability”—we want new and exciting experiences because we are humans with desires and curiosities and needs. But think about it—if you can never fully know yourself, altered as you are one day to the next, incoherent as a “self” is, how or why would you want another person to claim to know you wholly and completely? And what kind of hubris does it require to claim to know the same of another? The thought is stifling, and so is the effect.
Now, maybe you claim the opposite: you recognize that there is so much you don’t know about your beloved. But: do your actions and attitude move beyond this mere recognition to accept and probe this strangeness? This gap between who your beloved is and what you can know about him is an erotic space that must be cultivated, not cloistered. Because eros, as I described in a previous blog post, “teaches the soul to long for its completion and its wholeness, through love for another”; and yet regardless of your efforts, “the beloved is always just beyond your grasp.” That space between your reach toward the beloved and the beloved’s self is strange, mysterious, and necessary. However, many of us sense this gap and fear it, attempting to ignore or stifle it instead.
But the truth is: there is always a gap, and this gap is troubling—it aches to be filled. It would be easier to live a life in which you can say with certainty who you are and who your beloved is. But ultimately you will discover that this type of certainty is false and unfulfilling; you will have merely convinced yourself that you have closed the distance between yourself and your beloved, when all you have done is obstructed that life-giving strangeness necessary to any lasting relationship. So rather than filling this gap with hobbies that make you feel like you have more in common than not, what if together you explored that strangeness—appreciating and harnessing its erotic energy?
We artists do this in our work—so why not in our relationships? Every poet knows that her reading of the poem is only one facet of it—that every person who picks it up will show her just how estranged she really is from her own poem. And if you can’t even know the whole about an object of your own making, how much less can you know of your beloved? But cultivating this gap is a terrifying experience in both art and love as it can echo back your fears: What might I discover in that uncertain terrain? What if I become lost in the process? What if there is only silence on the other end? However, when the poet does plunge into that strangeness and comes to the end of the poem, the only thing left to do is to write the next poem, to continue the endless process of reaching toward mystery. The same goes for entering this space between yourself and your beloved: you might only experience a fleeting fullness before the shadow of your death, the limit of your body encroaches—the fear that this uncertainty will be too great to live with. And so many will choose the illusion of certainty over uncertainty. But I think that is a choice dictated by fear, not love.
So let me ask you: how are you cultivating strangeness in your relationships? How are you becoming estranged from yourself, and in doing so, seeing yourself and your beloved from a new perspective? And how is your beloved doing the same? Because it takes two to cultivate this gap, and only one to build a wall around it and the uncertainty it breeds. And to build a wall around this gap is to close yourself off from your beloved. It seems paradoxical—to revere the distance between yourself and your beloved—but this distance is what teaches us to reach rather than retreat.
So maybe next time you are with your beloved, rather than saying “I love you,” ask: “who are you?” Lie awake at night and wonder at the strangeness of choosing to yoke your life to another’s. Allow the fear and uncertainty to build, and be filled with the erotic strangeness of your selves. Because, as Gregory Orr writes in River Inside the River:
Intimacy not yet a science:
No one knows How or why Bodies come close Then recede.
One day, the abyss Between you Is infinite, And distance Mocks your shout.
How can we welcome this place calledHere—this unyielding stranger that bears no resemblance to the future we had dreamed? What I know to be true is that profound beginnings often have their start in places that appear void, formless, parched, and foreign.
The book is no mere introduction to Catholic worship for outsiders; it is a piece of spiritual autobiography that invites us into the vulnerable moments of reflection, resistance, reawakening, and simple rejoicing that occur on “an ordinary Sunday” in the course of the Mass.
This quiet, then and now, makes me feel like I’m cupped in the palm of a hand. But who is holding me? Is someone beyond the summer speaking in this silence? I’m not sure it matters—not as long as I keep listening.
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