The Third Door: Being is Relating




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When my daughter was about eight months old, I had my first true experience of solo parenting. Her mother had left on a road trip to help her sister move house, and I was alone with Anne-Marie in her absence. Now I was a good 90's dad - I shared some of the chores and shared the baby-care duties much of the time. But now, mom was not around to back me up in my efforts, and I had to manage on my own. It was a Sunday night, and I was putting her down to sleep. We did the customary holding and singing, and when she fell asleep I set her into her crib and tiptoed off to bed. She woke up. We tried again. She woke up again. With each iteration, it just got worse. She got less and less inclined to sleep, and I got less and less patient. That this would happen this way is exceedingly obvious to me now, as I am sure it is to parents reading this, but at the time I was completely at a loss.

Finally, it became clear that my approach wasn't getting us anywhere, and we needed to do something different. So I put her in bed with me and we played. You know, baby games. Before long, I was having fun myself, and my mind was cleared of thoughts about getting to sleep or how to be a good parent. We were just together, sharing the moment. And of course, it didn't take much play before she fell soundly asleep.

The experience was a revelation to me. I realized I had been caught in a very mechanical way of thinking. I hadn't been treating her as a person at all, I'd just been seeing her as a problem to solve: go through these motions, get these results (or not, in this case). It never occurred to me to be aware of how she might be feeling with her mother gone, or what sort of experience she and I were sharing that night. I was receiving a lesson in empathy and relationship. It was a lesson that ended up changing my life. It made me see a blind spot in my own world, and filling in that blind spot became a calling, a calling that eventually drew me into spiritual search and practice.

Western culture has often been strongly atomistic, reductionistic, and mechanical in its way of thinking. We've come to view the world as a machine made up of separate parts. Those parts act on each other and produce certain effects. But no one questions the intrinsic separateness of each part. For example, our political systems tend to rely on voting; we see each voter as an isolated decision-maker, a switch that can flip one way or the other. Add up all the votes and get the answer. The voting booth is conspicuously isolating; each voter is an atom operating in a world sealed off from each other. Compare this with a system where collective decisions are made by conversation, for example.

Or think of how transient many of our most important interactions with others have become. People are expected to change jobs, change homes, change lovers, and change friends, all in the service of pursuing our individual goals.

Our way of thinking about ethics is dominated by rules and principles, as though we are seeking to answer once and for all what is good and what is bad by abstracting some essential list of truths from the complex realities of interpersonal interactions.

How much of our cultural mythology spins around the rugged individualist, the lonely hero, the rebel, the person with a mission?

All of these things feed into a vision of what it means to be a person: that we somehow carry our identity with us, regardless of who we are with, what larger picture we are part of, or how we are supported and sustained by our communities.

In some Eastern and indigenous cultures, the assumptions are very different. It is the relationships that create the individual, not the other way around. Personal success at the expense of others is anathema. Rather, it is the health and success of the community that is paramount. A person's sense of identity comes from what they are a part of, rather than what sets them apart.

Now, I am certainly a product of Western culture, and it's not my intention to suggest that individualism is wrong. I'm grateful to live in a society that supports creative self-expression (like my web site!). It would feel limiting to me to believe I was nothing more than the relationships I participate in. It just seems to me that we can go too far in that direction, and fail to see the life-sustaining nature of our relationships and connections. Extreme individualism has led to a reckless disregard for our connections with each other and with the natural world. We evaluate everything on the basis of its impact on our personal plans, rather than its impact on the larger fabric of life.

Page Two: Stepping through the Door

Seven Doors is a regular feature of Starweaver's Gems from Earth and Sky

Copyright © 2008 Tom Waters