Whimsies can be a barrier to quality relationships

Keith Brumley

Keith BrumleyColumnist

One of my friends put it this way: “The problem with the perfect woman is that she’s looking for the perfect man … and vice versa.” This requires an assumption that no one is forever perfect. What’s ideal, however one defines it, is fleeting and momentary. Still, you’d think relationships wouldn’t be so difficult. We’re social creatures.

Relationships, however, never came easy for me 8212; and from what I’ve heard and read, the same goes for everybody else. In point, Stephen Hawking has one of the greatest minds in the history of physics. In the recent Time magazine interview “Ten Questions for Stephen Hawking,” Hawking confessed, “I’m no better than anyone else at understanding what makes people tick, particularly women.”

Ray Hunt, a genius of another sort, was considered one of the greatest and influential horsemen of his age. In his book Think Harmony with Horses, Ray wrote that human friendships8212;real friendships8212;are rare. Friendship with horses, however, is a real possibility with every horse we handle. I imagine many long-time dog owners understand this as well. The question however remains: Why is it that a lasting a bond can develop so naturally between different species, but when it comes to people being with other people, we don’t have a clue?

I have some guesses, and though I make no claims to know even a bit of it, my guess is as good as any. Most human relationships are agenda driven and because of this they’re apt to disappoint8212;unless we’re aware of this uncomfortable facet of our nature.

I was once asked what I wanted from life. This was years ago. Having just read a good portion of Thomas Merton’s 1968 Zen and the Birds of Appetite, I countered that only two things were worthwhile: Good work and good relationships. I defined good work as the will to involve oneself in meaningful activity that not only produces a reasonable living and standard of comfort but also induces change for the better. Good relationships develop from the capacity of one to love and be loved in return.

I’ve since enjoyed the good (and the bad) fortune of being able to follow my own lights and may have even produced at least a bit of change for the better. It doesn’t have to be much, you know. I’ve also experienced the joy of loving and being loved. But with the exception of my relationship with my daughter, I can’t say I’ve been able to love anyone without conditions.

It’s here wherein lies the rub. We necessarily set conditions on our relationships in order to emotionally survive. But in setting conditions, we lose the quality necessary for our relationships to thrive, namely that of having no conditions. When our relationships then die, we behave like buzzards feasting on the carcasses of memory until our grief is resolved 8212; and we can then move on to the next one, and then the next.

This, I imagine, is why it’s easier to have good relationships with dogs and horses. With animals 8212; not counting ourselves, there are few agendas and we’re more apt to simply enjoy their company. People however are not so inclined. We want things. We want gain. Ideally, what we want from another is the same as she or he wants from us and what we gain is mutually shared. But we as a species have this awkward tendency to want more and desire more.

There is, as the existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus suggested, no way out of this 8212; except that in recognizing our selfishness, we strive to become better, more tolerant, less needy, and more sensitive. This leads us to more responsibility and less blame 8212; toward others and toward ourselves. We all, I believe, are doing our best with what we have and if our agendas become more grounded in what we need rather than the whimsies of appetite, our relationships will then become … better.

We have no possibility of becoming perfect but that shouldn’t stop us from trying. Just think of the alternative. And that’s the hell of it.

Keith Brumley is an SDSU alumnus and current journalism graduate student at SDSU. Contact Keith at [email protected]