For the last 10 days, I’ve been struggling to collect about a thousand dollars from a woman for my company. It shouldn’t be that big a deal, but she won’t communicate clearly with me about it.
I’d like to help her work out a solution for whatever’s going on — because I genuinely like her — but she dodges my phone calls and won’t call me back. Some days, she’ll text me a reply. She’ll promise something but when she doesn’t do that — let’s assume she really can’t — she doesn’t call me to explain. I have to pick bits and pieces out of her.
I’ve been left to wonder what’s really going on. How much of what she’s telling me is the truth? I don’t know. I can tell that she’s scared and freaking out about something she can’t control — and that fear and shame have led her to alienate me. And I’m the only one who can help her right now.
Maybe I’ve thought about this so clearly this week because I’ve been thinking about how people damage lots of their relationships by not being clear and honest about their thoughts and feelings. And it makes me realize that we destroy our personal relationships — romantic, friendship and otherwise — because we refuse to be direct and honest.
As I told you a few days ago, I’ve been reading Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel, “Anna Karenina.” I’m almost finished with the book now, and one of the things I keep thinking — in almost all of the relationships between the characters — is how so much conflict and personal pain could be avoided if the characters could simply be honest and open with one another.
It’s easy for me to say that, of course, because I read what’s going on in the minds of people on both sides of these various relationships. It’s easy for me to judge Levin for having too much shame about having had his marriage proposal turned down for him to pursue Kitty again later. And it’s easy for me to judge Kitty for being too scared to somehow let Levin know she had made a mistake in rejecting him and now wants to correct her mistake.
He is too full of shame to act. She thinks he can’t forgive her. So both are miserable — and it’s easy for me to think they’re both being ridiculous.
It’s easy for me to look at the characters of Anna and Vronsky and realize that their hidden fears are leading to a tragic end — one that will destroy him and leave her dead — all because they won’t be open with each other. Despite the horrible social situation into which their forbidden 19th century love has brought them, there are clear ways out — if both of them could talk about their fears and help each other to work through them.
Over and over in the book, I want to feel that people are being ridiculous not to open up to one another — but then I realize Tolstoy has captured the truth of human relationships in tragic and painful ways.
That will lead to a tragic end for Anna and Vronsky, but Kitty and Levin will overcome their issues. Kitty and Levin make ridiculous mistakes — just as you and I make ridiculous mistakes in our relationships at times — but they keep coming back to one another. Both of them keep discovering that their love for one another makes it worth working through their unspoken feelings — fear, shame, jealousy, resentment and more — to find peace together.
As I read about these relationships and think about the ways in which various characters are handling (or not handling) their issues, I can’t help but think of my own life. At times, I’ve done remarkably well in overcoming such hidden fears when I needed to. At other times, I’ve let fear and shame get the best of me.
When I realize that, I know I can’t point fingers at the characters. I realize that Tolstoy is gently pointing a finger at me — and reminding me that we have the power to have powerful and loving relationships with each other, but we also have the power to deprive ourselves of the power and beauty of what we could have.
I still can’t get over that powerful question that I read earlier in the book, when a character kept asking himself of the woman he loved, “How can we be reconciled?” And I see how much this applies to so many of us in our relationships with one another.
When I was still in my 20s, I had a crisis point in a romantic relationship. I had been in this relationship for a couple of years and we had never argued about anything. But something came up — some misunderstanding that I can’t recall now — and I felt myself about to angrily say something confrontational for the first time.
In that moment, I remember seeing clearly that I could go down one of two different paths. I could stay on the path I was about to take — and we could argue in ways that might permanently damage the relationship — or I could put a stop to what was going to happen before it started.
I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I do know that I had to make myself vulnerable. I was feeling emotionally threatened by something — and so was she — so I had to say something like, “Look, you and I are both feeling something that’s threatening to our relationship. We don’t need to argue. Can we figure out why we’re both feeling this way and deal with that instead?”
I was uncomfortable saying that. It would have been easy for her to strike out at me anyway, because she was primed to argue in that moment. But she didn’t. She agreed with me and brought her level of anger down, too, so we sat down and talked about how we both felt. I didn’t understand what she was really feeling — and she didn’t understand what I was really feeling.
We resolved the issue and we understood each other better than we had before.
That laid the foundation for a peace that lasted for the rest of the relationship. Even when we broke up, we parted gracefully — and we still correspond as distant friends occasionally today.
I’ve had other times when I can’t be so proud of the things I did. I’ve told you before about someone I almost married about 12 years ago, but I let my own internal conflict — one which wasn’t really about her — force me to back out of marrying her and hurt her really badly. Six months later, she hurt me badly. In both cases, things could have gone differently if we had been willing to be open and honest with each other. But we made both poor choices — out of fear.
The more I’ve thought this week — partly because of “Anna Karenina” and partly because of my faltering business relationship with the woman from work — the more I’ve come to suspect that every relationship that ends up broken does so because one or both people won’t find a way to gently and lovingly tell the truth.
Another thing I’ve realized — looking at myself and others — is that it’s often the people who act the most confident on the surface who are really the most terrified inside. That outer layer of supreme confidence often covers fear and shame that we hide from others — and that we often hide from ourselves most of all.
It sometimes seems easier to give up a relationship we desperately want than it is to get past those fears and shame, because writing off a relationship can allow us to avoid the reckoning that we will have to go through in order to grow in love or peace or friendship with someone else.
So we run away instead of dealing with hard truths.
Last Saturday night, it was really foggy in my neighborhood. As I walked late at night with Lucy, I took the photo you see above. Every time I’m in such fog, it reminds me of what it feels like to try to navigate through one of those relationships when something makes us feel lost and afraid.
Every time I’m going through such a relationship, I feel as though I can’t see clearly. I feel as though it’s impossible to tell which are the right choices to make.
Our terrible hidden feelings — the ones we hide from others and ourselves to avoid dealing with — are the fog. They’re the things keeping us from seeing what would be clear otherwise. They’re the emotional drivers of the terrible decisions we make — the ones that leave us later asking ourselves, “Why did I do that? I wish I could make that decision again and get it right this time.”
It’s taken me way too long in life to learn all this — and I still can’t be sure I won’t make similar mistakes again when I’m afraid. I suspect this woman I’m dealing with in business right now is the same way. I suspect she’s so scared about what’s going on in her life that she’s making irrational decisions to avoid dealing with her fears. And it’s going to hurt her in ways she can’t see.
Everybody I know has done at least some of this. I doubt there’s anybody who hasn’t gone through it, because we’re all hopelessly human.
But that doesn’t mean we have to accept it. The fact that it’s common to human nature doesn’t mean we have to keep hurting each other — and ourselves — because we’re afraid.
We can make different choices, but accepting that we have a problem is the first step. Learning to live in different ways — in honest vulnerability with those who love us — is a difficult choice, but it’s the only way we can learn to stop living our lives as though we’re wandering blindly through a fog.