"It's very hard to hate someone if you look them in the eye and recognize them as a human being." Maya Angelou, poet and author
Maybe it was thirty-five years ago that I was told I had to look into a stranger’s eyes for three minutes. It was an exercise to increase our ability to really see each other as human beings. As soon as I heard the instructions, I looked around for a way to escape the room. I didn’t mind looking into the eyes of another if they were passed out or something and their eyelids were propped open, but this person would be looking back at me for 3 minutes.
I am okay speaking to a large group of people (which I am told would cause others to prefer death) but to look into a stranger’s eyes and, even worse, have them look back at me...terrifying. I did do it and lived through it. It was uncomfortable, but also rather amazing. We both wept. I can still remember the experience as well as the face of the woman who was my partner. She became more and more beautiful as I stared into her eyes.
Then, many years later, I participated in what is called “Challenge Day.” I was asked to be one of 12 or so mentors for high schoolers. I really didn’t know much about it beforehand. I only knew the school was doing this program because there had been some bullying and three suicides in the last few years. The school administrators, teachers, and parents were devastated. They wanted some intervention to foster student relationships and inclusion.
Pretty early in the day, each mentor was told to get with their group of five or so high schoolers. I looked at my group. I wasn’t eager to interact with them. They looked like typical, self-absorbed teens. Actually, they sort of looked unattractive to me. I was imagining how I probably looked to them.
The small group exercise started with this prompt, “If you really knew me, you’d know that…” We were to complete the statement and keep talking about ourselves for two or three minutes. No interruptions, no comments. Afterwards, I was simply to say “thank you” and move to the next person.
Oh, and the mentor was to start the ball rolling. We were advised, “We want these group sharings to go below the tip of the iceberg. The students will only go as deep as you do. So don’t share superficial things like you sleep with one foot out of the covers at night.”
I mustered up my confidence and started with some self-disclosure. I shared something I was really worried about, something bad that had happened recently which kept me awake at night. I could feel myself choke up. All eyes were on me. They seemed interested and as if they were sharing my fear. It felt good to open up.
Next, one by one I listened to fears about parents divorcing, grades not being good enough to get into college, worries about money and how to help their mom with kids while the mother juggled two jobs, concern about an uncle in jail. Afterwards, I realized something exceedingly surprising. These kids had become beautiful right before my eyes. I could feel my heart break open. I loved them.
Researchers like Dr. Arthur Aron have long believed that mutual vulnerability fosters closeness. “One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure.” Allowing oneself to be vulnerable with another person can be exceedingly difficult, however.
We go through our lives hanging out with a few people we are comfortable with, we bump up against each other on the street, in stores and offices, perhaps at movies and sporting events. We might talk more personally occasionally at work. We make up narratives about each other without really knowing much about each other. What do we honestly know about others’ fears, longings, wounds, unique gifts, needs, and disappointments – near nada. The result of this is lives of increasing loneliness, judgments - even fear of each other, and smallness.
How can we turn this around? Well, it is going to take some getting out of our regular comfort zone - disclosing ourselves to others and opening opportunities for others to do the same. Listening deeply. Sharing at increasing levels of intimacy.
Here are several ways to get the ball rolling. Look at the 36 Questions (below) Aron and his colleagues devised. Imagine yourself answering or asking them to someone.
Check out a video (about 15 minute excerpt) of a Challenge Day https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D12o6zNose0 Notice the disclosures and the impact on relationships. Imagine how it might be for you and me to reveal a bit more of ourselves to each other.
Dr. Sylvia Boorstein writes that the essential healing element in all therapeutic collaborations is the sense of being truly seen. Boorstein reminds us that when we see people as people, just like us, we remember that everyone suffers and delights, just as we do. The realization provokes compassion and joy and love.
American Trappist monk, writer, theologian, mystic, poet, ordained Catholic priest - Thomas Merton, wrote after experiencing an intimate encounter with others:
“Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts…the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time, there would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.”
How might we Journey to the Good Life by mutually disclosing ourselves to others?
(as always, if you are a subscriber, and hit respond to this blog in your email, the comment will come directly to me)
36 Questions Devised by Arthur Aron and Colleagues
To Accelerate Intimacy Between Strangers (and can be used with people we already know to increase trust and connection)
1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
2. Would you like to be famous? In what way?
3. Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
4. What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?
5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
6. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?
7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
8. Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
9. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
11. Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
Set II (more probing)
13. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?
14. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
15. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
16. What do you value most in a friendship?
17. What is your most treasured memory?
18. What is your most terrible memory?
19. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
20. What does friendship mean to you?
21. What roles do love and affection play in your life?
22. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.
23. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
24. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
Set III (more intimate)
25. Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “We are both in this room feeling ... “
26. Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share ... “
27. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
28. Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
29. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
30. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
31. Tell your partner something that you like about them already.
32. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
33. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?
34. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
35. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
36. Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.
From the website http://36questionsinlove.com/, final instruction:
Congratulations, you've answered all the questions! Now for the hard part.
In order to solidify your love, you have to look into your partner's eyes for four minutes. In silence. It's hard, and you'll squirm, but you'll learn an incredible amount. Good luck…