I was late that morning, running as I was prone to do to try to make up for the ten extra minutes of sleep I had stolen. Why did I do that? Knowing what would happen, how I would rush and then beat myself up for being out of control. Why? Everyday I would ask myself the same question. Somewhere I started to push the envelope of time, a few minutes here, a few minutes there. Sleep mostly. That was what I wanted. But really it was about discipline, or the lack of it.
I slipped into the room through the back door and feigned composure. A quick glance around the room revealed a diverse group of twenty or so, divided into smaller groups gathered around tables. The topic being discussed was conflict resolution in the team setting. I slid my scarf from around my neck, and quietly took a seat at one of the tables.
Conflict resolution happens to be a topic which interests me, as do all things pertaining to relationships. I guess it could be said that I’m a relationship “junkie” of sorts. Most of my emotional energy is spent thinking about the relationships I’ve been in and what can be learned from them, about the relationships in which I find myself at any given moment and how they are functioning, or about the relationships I’d like to pursue. My curiosity was piqued on this morning by the psychological profile that the facilitator asked the group to complete. A retired psychologist, he had administered more than a few of these through the years and I got the distinct impression that he had it memorized. Still, one can never really predict the dynamics that a group will introduce. One of the questions had to do with expressing and receiving affection. Specifically, does one easily offer displays of affection, or does one wait to be invited or asked? And in receiving affection, does one seek it out (as in, I need a hug!) or wait for others to offer it. It was an interesting twist which allowed people to peek through a different window into their behavior.
My tablemates were mostly white middle-aged women who were like-minded in many of their answers, but also sharing our table that day was an African man. Many things about him struck me as being unique in his surroundings, not the least of which was his name – rolling and lyrical. He had printed it on a name card that stood in front of him on the table and my eyes went to it periodically. He seemed small as he sat there with his arms crossed, his manner quiet and attentive. When he finally spoke, his speech celebrated the accent of his native country, and I leaned forward to catch the words.
He began to talk about how his family had always had a natural way of showing affection to each other, but it was only as an adult that he became aware of his own role in that process.
“When I went to college,” he said, “I thought I would starve to death.”
“Excuse me?” asked the facilitator, somewhat confused. The room grew quiet.
“Yes, this is true. I thought that I would starve. It was so lonely there for me. When I was growing up in my country, my brothers and sisters and I would always eat from the same plate. Not because we were poor, or because we did not have enough, but because it was our custom. As my mother cooked, we would all gather around one plate full of food and all our forks would go on to this same plate. This was a time for us to be together and talk with each other. It was a time for us to be close, something that we valued. When I went to college and had to eat in the cafeteria, mine was the only fork on the plate. I could not eat this way. I could not eat for days. It was a very lonely time for me.”
Nobody moved as we visualized in our collective mind the image of what this man had felt. Spellbound, I knew instantly that he had given voice to something deep inside of me that life had failed to teach me how to articulate adequately. The longing for intimacy, the idea of a family where one could find safety and encouragement in each other’s words and actions, of shared values that would sustain me, and of belonging somewhere and to someone who knew me and wanted me. Belonging. I ached for that, but not just a belonging that springs from mere proximity; rather, something that happens out of a conscious decision to build a meaningful life, teeming with energy and connectedness. This man shared his frustrations in searching for that same feeling of connectedness in his adult relationships in America. It was elusive. Indeed.
Reflecting on my own experience while growing up, I realized that my family had been functional, I suppose, in that widespread dysfunctional way. Days, weeks, months, and years came and went with all of their good and bad times and we marched on. That was what we learned: to be persistent, to be tough, to endure. It was expected. And what choice was there, anyway? Unity and bonding were not values that were openly discussed in our home. We stuck together because it was our lot, but never learned to forge the kind of bond that would fortify us. We assumed that we were united because we lived in the same house, but inherent in all assumption is a weakness that results from a lack of clarity. How can one really know that others agree unless there is communication?
In fact, the only things that I recall being taught to me directly were the concepts of strength, independence, having a right to express an opinion, and that I absolutely did not need a man. My sisters and I were brought up on a steady diet of such ideas, and I guess if you can call those values then we had them. To my mother’s credit (and she deserves a lot), I will say that she thought these to be the most important traits she could instill in her daughters based on her experience as a woman. She had learned the hard way that when the chips were down, she only had herself to count on. It was a matter of survival. Unfortunately, the strength she developed was rooted in pain and bitterness, and in her attempt to teach us how to take care of ourselves in the world, she inadvertently showed us how to alienate what we would need the most: love, connection, and relationships that would last. Our challenge as women would be to find a place of balance.
As other people began to tell their stories the evanescence of the moment prevailed, but it had left its indelible mark on my psyche. I continue to ponder how I give and receive affection. I admit that I am better at offering it freely than asking for it when I need it. But it’s a new year ripe for new healthy habits, and as a good friend reminded me recently, it’s never too late to turn things around.