By Harvinder Kaur
Why do we find it hard to make friends as we grow older? and what is the cost of this emotional atrophy?
Have you ever experienced deep, intense, emotionally warm relationships? Even on reaching adulthood? The answer for most people is a sad but resounding ‘no’.
Does the heart freeze after a certain age? Do we lose our ability to connect, trust and have intimate relationships?
To begin with, what does intimacy mean? For some, it is “a wordless understanding”. The ability to sit quietly without having to explain or talk; a comfortable silence, where a twitch of a facial muscle or a raised eyebrow will speak volumes. Aditi Mehta, a recent postgraduate from the London School of Economics, puts it very simply, as “the freedom to be, sans the fear of being judged.”
A friend from the education fraternity, Shouquot Hussain, explores it deeply: “It means putting my head on my wife’s bosom and finding solace there, conversations in bed after making love, brewing and having tea together thereafter in the middle of the night, discussing our other relationships, sharing dreams (hazaron khwaishen), making up after a fight, exchanging anecdotes.” The definitions differ but what is common is comfort characterised by unguarded intensity.
Emotional closeness or intimacy seems not only a blessing but also a deep human need to connect, to understand, to share. Why then do we dry up as we age – what happens to our ability to lose ourselves to the wind, to go on a roller-coaster ride, to sing and dance? A deep dive into one’s own heart gives such treasures, yet we sit at the edge and paddle our feet. Why not jump?
No time to stand and stare
A ‘reason’ that most cite is lack of time! There is no time to address matters of the heart. People opt for a comfortable circle of friends, ideas, paths and then live in it. The fluidity, the exploration, the wonder of an ever-evolving mind is lost. This cemented approach holds the heart back.
How you treat your own heart is a choice we all make. If you make the time and space to cultivate sensitivity, to weed out the choking superfluities and make space for the flowers of closeness, then chances are that something will bloom. Making time for introspection, sharing, and developing sensitivity is important, as this creates the inner atmosphere and space. It is simple but significant to understand that you need to be sensitive to experience closeness with another human being. If you simply don’t have the capacity to be sensitive to the beauty around you, it is unlikely you will be alive to the beats of another person’s heart. Finding time for one’s self, where you can nourish your heart and mind is a necessity. Unfortunately, we realise it when it is often too late to do anything about it.
The perpetual complaint about not having time to ‘stand and stare’, takes its toll on the heart. The hunger of the heart is seldom understood, and almost never satisfied. Awareness of one’s emotional needs is the beginning. Otherwise, it does not take long for the well of the heart to dry up – and we wait for the ‘blessed rain from heaven’ to fall! Life must not be lost in merely mundane livelihood.
The secret in life is to learn to weather storms.
To know that the ocean has gems even as
it has its share of sharks
Through tinted glasses
This might hurt but sometimes people don’t get close to anyone because of their own fears, which are often unfounded. Believe that the world is good and you’ll get better. An unhealthy prejudice can develop from a bad experience or a negative outlook in life. If all your life you have been taught to ‘watch out for cheats,’ you may also miss your treasure.
The world is largely good. People usually care and want to love. Accept it. If you wear armour all the time, you will attract an arrow or two – not a hug! I have often seen people living in self-created hells. If you are not close to anyone it is worth asking – why?
Once in a while, it’s worth taking off your spectacles to see just how tinted they are. A perception problem can prevent you from living a full life. An overcautious or suspicious approach can deprive you of the sweet joys of life. One needs to constantly ask oneself where one’s fear comes from – reality or imagination. More often than not, it is founded on fears which have no real grounding. If one has to suffer or be deprived, it should be for real reasons, not imagined ones!
The ability to be close or intimate with another person goes hand in hand with openness and also vulnerability. After a certain age, many of us weave a safe but cold cocoon around us. It is not uncommon to find examples of those who have been once bitten and are now twice shy. Many tell me they have been ‘betrayed’. This species has a number of reasons never to risk having a friendship. People are cunning, selfish, you don’t know whom you can trust, you can never find a friend in your workplace especially, they are just colleagues, they rant. The heart seems to be locked up in a safe not to be opened in your workplace where you spend most of your working life! It’s strange, but I’ve made the closest of friends after the age of 25 and that too in the places where I’ve worked. Maybe because I had never learnt to be overcautious. Of course, there’s the other side, when predators pounce on vulnerable prey – a risk you’ll have to take.
If you wear armour all the time; you will attract an arrow or two- not a hug
Close and intense relationships are emotionally risky, and sometimes you get hurt. Those who have plunged and have shared a close relationship with anyone at any point in life may well have also known what it means to be left sailing alone, or worse, dashed against a cliff, to fall off and collect splinters of a broken heart, to be terribly mangled.
It is rare that we can go through life without heartbreak. Not everyone you meet or even befriend will be loyal to you or love you throughout life. Relationships change. Sometimes they evolve into something else, and sometimes they just dissolve. The ‘slings and arrows’ of life pierce through the toughest armour at some point in life. The question at hand is – is that reason to stop loving? What happens if we make that choice? In many, if not most cases, we put on a persona – a pleasant, decent exterior, never lifting the veil from the throbbing core, which is not all white, not all black. We create barriers so nothing shoots through and more heartbreak is avoided. There’s a catch though – the closed doors also keep intimacy away. But the secret in life is to learn to weather storms. To know that the ocean has gems even as it has its share of sharks. The drops of ecstasy are for those who are ready to let go of their umbrellas! Dare to be vulnerable! The cunning cannot be intimate. You need to bare the heart, let it melt and pour it into another’s. Accept that you may be hurt but live in hope that there is more goodness and love than pain and victimisation. The heart’s fountain will overflow with love.
Like everything else in life, the closeness of the heart comes at a price. Yet the treasures of intimacy are much too much to be missed. Disappointment and heartbreak must not be met with bitterness or severe emotional distress, but understanding. Awareness and acceptance help us to consciously dissolve the heartbreak. To be aware of one’s emotional needs and capacity is the first step. Understanding and being able to let go of hurt are the subsequent steps, ultimately liberating us from permanent emotional damage, and enabling us to bounce back quickly.
Although the ability to be emotionally close to another human being speaks of a clean and open heart – there’s a catch. Intimate relationships can be a roller-coaster ride with highs and lows and can be addictive. If you don’t watch yourself, it is easy to become a slave of another person, emotionally. Jiddu Krishnamurti, the philosopher who spoke of the pathless path, says, “This belonging to another, being psychologically nourished by another, depending on another – in all this, there must always be anxiety, fear, jealousy, guilt. So long as there is fear there is no love; a mind ridden with sorrow will never know what love is; sentimentality and emotionalism have nothing whatsoever to do with love.”
Even as we experience the bliss and blessing of sharing one’s heart and life, it is important to be aware of one’s capacity to be emotionally independent. Relationships plough the heart and bring to the surface what’s deep inside. We need to see if we are complete within. A healthy closeness is devoid of paranoid possessiveness, or a pathological dependence. Nobody loves a leech, one who derives emotional succour from your heart’s blood. Paradoxically, it is one’s ability to be emotionally independent that makes one capable of closeness. Otherwise, eroding possessiveness sets in, and dark forces take over. A spiritual life teaches one to be independent and detached. This is not to be confused with being cold or indifferent. It means you know how to be happy when you are alone, and how to be happy when you are with someone else. So, somewhere we need to learn to be intimate with our own selves. Ultimately, the relationship that matters the most is the one that you have with yourself. Without finding warmth within, we are unlikely to find it in another. Of course, we can delude ourselves for a period of time.
Can we ever rise above the need for human intimacy? Can we ever reach an emotional plateau? ‘Who wants to!’ one friend tells me. But Bharti Mehta (who runs the website www.mindfiesta.com), shares a different thought, “In spite of having been so close to my dad, my husband, and having had other intimate relationships, I feel a gnawing hunger in my heart. Something is missing. It’s not that I am missing being with somebody. It’s a kind of spiritual void wherein I long for someone to reach the core of my being. It’s as if I am yearning to be discovered for what I really am.”
Looking deep into my own heart, difficult as it is, I have to confess that the burning intensity that characterised some relationships in my 20s has changed colour. At the same time, I have to add there is greater peace in life, quiet contentment, sweet solitude, no hunger, and no ache. I work with passion but can walk away without looking back. I have had the rare blessing of having true and intimate friends, though they are not physically with me and are scattered all over, yet it doesn’t wrench the heart. It would be, however, a joy to have them around! I find that people are not able to break my heart so easily. My heart yet knows how to ripple in joy and to be moved in empathy, sometimes until I choke. Often, I have felt causeless ripples of joy whose source I cannot trace. It almost seems there is a fountain within and sometimes – whoosh! You are drenched with inexplicable joy. Where does it come from? I don’t know, but it doesn’t seem to come from a relationship with another person. I’m not fully aware if this movement to just be and not be in a relationship is a ploy of the mind to save itself from being shown the mirror! The line between ‘dare not’ and ‘need not’ is sometimes treacherously thin.
Ultimately, relationships with others reflect and bring to the surface what is within, often surprising us about our own capacity to experience certain emotions – negative or positive. As we journey through life, what we need to be aware of is our own inner world. This can be a transforming experience. Between the pendulum swings of cold indifference where the heart is incapable of warmth and a desperate and obsessive clinging, is the golden space of a quiet and deep understanding. This is where life-giving warmth glows, which will hold one’s own heart and that of others tenderly and sensitively without clutching.
Educator, writer, poet, but above all a seeker, Harvinder Kaur is currently the head of an international school in Mumbai.
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