The Greatest Thing You’ll Ever Learn
One of the great things about traveling, especially the kind of travel that takes you to far away places where people have customs, practices, beliefs and values that are different from your own, is that you get to see how different people can be in some ways and how similar we are in others. A wise person once said, “People are people.” In other words, the essential concerns, longings, desires, fears, and aspirations, of human beings throughout the world seem to be universal. While the particular ways in which people go about dealing with and addressing their concerns may vary from culture to culture, the underlying needs that drive us all are consistent, as are the challenges inherent in the process of meeting those needs in a world that doesn’t always support those efforts, no matter where we may live.
Over the past three decades we’ve taught in many places throughout the world and the same messages are consistently revealed, whether we’re teaching in a third-world country, or an advanced industrial nation: It’s relationships that makes the world go round, and what fuels relationships is love. So, becoming a more loving person is a worthy goal, whether you live in a tribal community or a first world megalopolis.
Unfortunately, confusion about how to become a more loving human being seems to be quite prevalent as well. During a recent overseas trip we were once again reminded of how easy it is for all of us to fall into the trap of mistakenly thinking that the problems of our relationships have more to do with the other person than with ourselves. So if you’re one of those people who often forgets that making relationships work is NOT about fixing, changing, correcting, enlightening, or teaching your partner what they need to know, the good news is that you’re not alone. You’re in the company of a great many folks who feel the same way. As anyone who has ever been on either end of a relationship that is characterized by this pattern knows, the endless, closed loop that this kind of thinking creates makes for serious suffering whether you live in Timbuktu or Kalamazoo.
It’s not that things might not improve if the other person were to change, they probably would. It’s just that in the context of relationships, the other person’s work is irrelevant, and focusing on what you think they are doing wrong, rather than what you can do that might improve the relationship, merely deepens and perpetuates the cycle of blame, criticism and defensiveness.
Difficulties in relationships usually arise out of learning deficiencies on both parts. Trying to educate another when we still have a few things to learn ourselves is generally an ineffective strategy. It’s about doing our own work, which is not to say that our partner does not have her own work to do too, it’s just that focusing on their problems is not going to help even though it usually is much easier to see their shortcomings than our own. The “work” that we are referring to in essence has to do with becoming more able to engage with others in ways that invite openness, honesty, authenticity, respect, non-defensiveness, and vulnerability. The best way to promote this is to embody those ways of being ourselves. This is easier said than done, but with practice and intentionality, it is possible. Doing this does not, of course guarantee reciprocity on the part of our partner, but it does make it more likely that they will be more inclined to feel safer and more open to us than they would otherwise. These challenges aren’t easy to take on, but the alternative to doing so is to reinforce and perpetuate the defensive patterns that we’ve inherited, learned and reinforced for years, if not generations.
The divorce rate in Western and Northern Europe isn’t much better than in the USA where it is around 50% for first marriages and over 60% for second marriages. Third marriage divorces are currently running close to 75%. The good news is that it is sometimes the experience of failure that compels us to find the humility and motivation to become a committed student to some of life’s more difficult but valuable lessons.
If it is in fact love that makes the world go around, then it may be the lack of it that causes suffering and can move us to find the courage, inspiration and commitment to do our own work. In so doing we may, like the boy in the Nat King Cole standard “Nature Boy” find that “the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”