Every once in a while I read a book that seems in some way to be describing me, and seems somehow to understand me better than I do myself. The latest is The Shack by William P. Young.
The Shack describes perhaps the worst experience a father can go through – the loss of a daughter to a kidnapper and murderer. The enormity of that experience is something most of us will never have to face, and it would be an insult to pretend that I could understand the shock waves of grief, despair and self-recrimination that ricocheted through the lives of the protagonist and his family after the tragedy.
But there is something about the way Mr Young tells the story, a warmth and an inclusiveness, a generosity, that somehow makes it about all of us – at least, if we want it to be.
Above all, this is a book about living relationally. Its protagonist, Mack, revisits the shack where his daughter was murdered, and experiences perhaps the most profound and vivid encounter with God I have ever seen described in print. Its message is simple yet overwhelming: that we live our fullest, truest lives not in isolation but in relationship.
Whatever one’s religious (or non-religious) perspective–and I, at least, am certain only of my own uncertainties in that respect–one cannot discount the extraordinary, transformative effects of living in deep connection with the people around you.
It is thus perhaps no coincidence that I read The Shack only a few weeks after re-reading The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers. Like Miss Garnet’s Angel and The Cleaner of Chartres, but perhaps more than these and all her other novels, The Other Side of You displays Miss Vickers’ unparalleled talent for discerning what makes human relationships tick.
Her protagonist, psychiatrist David McGuire, says this: “Two people with open hearts, and the willingness to speak from them, create a reality more powerful and more salient than either individual.”
That is a very big ask of any relationship, something that few of us will have the courage to pursue or to experience with more than a handful of people in the course of our lives. It demands extraordinary trust and a special kind of vulnerability, a willingness to open up one’s whole soul to another, and to be willing to accept theirs in return.
Opening the soul
Trust is at the heart of any relationship, of course. I’ve come to realise that there are (at least) three different types of trust.
- Trust in terms of fact: believing the things someone says – telling the truth, in other words – although even here, God knows, we need to learn how much of the truth to tell and how to tell it, particularly when it may hurt the other person. All too often we can tell the “truth” about what we think and feel in the name of honesty, when in fact it’s more of an emotionally charged opiniuon than an absolute fact.
- Trust in terms of commitment: trusting that the other person will do what they say; keeping one’s own promises, given or implied, in return.
- Thirdly there is what might be called emotional trust, where we are willing to share to some extent the unvarnished truth of what is in our hearts, and to accept what is in theirs without judgment.
(It was interesting to read, after I’d written this post, an article talking about the three layers of truth in relationships; it contains some useful parallels and some helpful insights into the degree with which we should tell the absolute truth. Nine months on from first writing this, I came across the term “companionate love“–a blend of intimacy and commitment–which describes precisely what I am talking about here. More recently still I encountered these compelling descriptions of intimacy and friendship in the Fool’s Dictionary, which add an extra depth to the idea of companionate love.)
We cannot invest our every relationship with full emotional trust; nor should we. But it is dangerous to go for too long without sharing our deepest, truest selves with someone. After a while we forget to share it with ourselves. But as we do so with one or two others, we remember how to live fearlessly, and we can begin to live out of our “original shimmering self” with everyone we meet.
As our relationships grow and develop, we learn (do we not?) to calibrate them, to offer as much of ourselves as the other person wants and welcomes, and to understand that this may change at different times. In their book Safe People, Henry Cloud and John Townsend give a list of things that might be asked of a friend, including this: “I need to know that within your own resources, you aren’t going to leave me” (p. 175, emphasis added). Friendship can thrive when both people are aware of the resources, the emotional capacity, of the other, both overall and at any given time.
Cloud and Townsend’s list is helpful for those moments when one has to focus on the mechanics and routine maintenance of a relationship. Like cars, though, relationships shouldn’t have to spend all their time in the workshop for servicing and repair. They should be out on the road, taking us places. They should be fun. Otherwise they become legalistic and moribund. Friendships can only work fully when both people make the active, positive choice to be in them. I was brought up short by this passage in The Shack:
“Let’s use your two words: responsibility and expectation. Before your words became nouns, they were first my words, nouns with movement and experience buried inside of them; the ability to respond and expectancy. My words are alive and dynamic, yours are dead, full of law and fear and judgment…
“Mack, if you and I are friends, there is an expectancy that exists within our relationship. When we see each other or are apart, there is expectancy of being together, of laughing and talking. That expectancy has no concrete definition; it is alive and dynamic and everything that emerges from our being together is a unique gift shared by no one else. But what happens when I change that ‘expectancy’ to ‘expectation’ – spoken or unspoken? Suddenly, law has entered into our relationship. You are now expected to perform in a way that meets my expectations. Our living friendship rapidly deteriorates into a dead thing with rules and requirements. It is no longer about you and me, but about what friends are supposed to do, or the responsibilities of a good friend.”
The V word
I have not been able to escape the V word recently – everywhere from The Shack to the more secular but no less relational world of TED and The Good Men Project. In the words of one recent post on the latter site, “It’s hard to create genuine friendships without being genuinely vulnerable.” Brené Brown, in a 2011 TED talk, describes vulnerability as “the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love”. (11’55” in the following video, but it’s worth watching the whole thing.)
Vulnerability implies a risk of emotional injury against which there is no possible insurance. In the words of C.S. Lewis (and for the avoidance of doubt, he is not talking about romantic or sexual love here):
There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no-one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbeakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be prfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell. (The Four Loves, p. 147)
Perhaps the greatest insight in The Other Side of You is that this kind of relationship, this intimacy of the soul, can exist outside a marital or sexual relationship. For David McGuire, it comes through an encounter with a patient, Elizabeth Cruikshank. The relationship itself is transitory, but its effect both on David and (we are led to believe) on Elizabeth is lifelong.
I cannot help but see a parallel with Salley Vickers herself, who has said (as I’ve discussed elsewhere) that “until the reader engages with the book, I’d say about 45 per cent of the book isn’t even there.” Although she has been careful to say that her characters do not reproduce her own thoughts and feelings, Miss Vickers writes with an honesty and a vulnerability that invites the reader to open up to him or herself with equal vulnerability – in much the same way (if not to the same degree) that one can open up to a friend in the safety of an emotionally intimate relationship. It is not always comforting to open up like this. It is not meant to be. But it is worth it.
The same trait can be seen in poets such as Sharon Olds (Stag’s Leap) and Robyn Bolam (New Wings), both of whom write from experience about the way that people affect and shape each other at the very deepest level, and about the glorious, life-giving, painful vulnerability that goes with it. It must take a special kind of generosity and courage to publish anything this intimate, to expose one’s inner self, without expecting anything in return from the reader.
Vulnerability can offer something else in a friendship too: the willingness to see beyond what we think we know about a friend. At a recent RSA lecture, Devorah Baum made the point that “we are not passionate about people or ideas we think we have the measure of”. (We’re back here to Francis O’Gorman’s comment that “some things are simply too important to get right”.) My best friendships have been the ones that have room for half-formed ideas, where we can share the things that take us each beyond our comfort zone, beyond our knowledge of ourselves and of each other –
…Where I can start to find out who I am;
Where I am not afraid of who I am.
Most of us will never be called upon to face and overcome the depth of trauma that Mack experienced before his return to the Shack. Most of us will never want and never dare to share our innermost selves with the world in print, in the way that Sharon Olds or Robyn Bolam have have done. Still less will we have the capacity or the vocabulary to do so.
For those of us prepared to open up our whole hearts and souls to another, however, Salley Vickers sets us the ultimate goal. Here is Gus Galen, David’s McGuire’s friend and mentor in The Other Side of You, describing how David had responded to Elizabeth:
‘Sometimes it’s all you want in the world and you’re prepared to fight for it. To death. Your own if need be. You were fighting for that Caravaggio woman. And in a particular way…. Against yourself. You were prepared to take on yourself for her.’
I would be proud and humbled to have that said of me.