Wednesday, December 16, 2009


This is less of a post and more of a plea. And it goes something like this:

How do relationships end? I'm talking about all relationships -- romantic relationships, work relationships, friendships, family relationships -- heck even international relationships between countries. How do they end? It seems to me that most of the time they end when one or both people conclude that the other person has so clearly violated the common sense norms by which we all operate, that he/she must be exiled. And apparently, the best means of exile in our current culture is to stop communicating and walk away.*

But here's the thing, as I touched on in an earlier post, there is no such thing as the one common sense set of rules for anything. We are all walking around with really complex sets of rules in our heads about how things obviously should be -- and no one else is walking around with that same set of rules.

So then the only way that we can ever come to any sort of lasting relationship with another is through extensive on-going dialogue about our respective sets of rules. What are my rules? What are your rules? Where did they come from? What end do they serve?

That conversation is so much harder than it appears for a lot of reasons.
  • For that conversation to work, each person has to realize that his/her ironclad rules are just as arbitrary as the next person's.
  • Because our own internal sets of rules are so hard won over a lifetime of experience, it's difficult to even acknowledge that they exist, let alone hold them loosely or even (gasp!) consider letting them go.
  • Furthermore, to even open up that conversation is to engage not just in a process of sharing, but also in a process of negotiation as to what the new rules will be between two people. Because anytime we start sharing we will see that the two sets of rules don't match and will eventually be in conflict. So most people in a dominant position won't even want to start the conversation for fear of losing power through renegotiation of the rules.
My thinking on this matter has been sparked by starting to read bell hooks' book, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. I don't hear about bell hooks as much as I used to, perhaps because I'm running in the wrong circles, perhaps because I'm not in school anymore, perhaps because black feminism has been co-opted by Oprah Winfrey's emphasis on the power of positive thinking (which apparently helps sell lots of consumer products too).

What I take away from reading bell hooks is that only through a continual dialogue about: who makes the rules? what are the rules? why are the rules that way? to what end do these rules serve? what shall the new rules be? says who? based on what values? to what new end? -- can we ever hope to come to any sort of deeper truths as individuals and as a society. It's exhausting, I know. But it is also the path of freedom and liberation I believe. Because really, only through such a dialogue can we ever hope to truly see another, honor another, and find mutuality with another -- which is the basis for love.

[*I should add: sometimes another person really does operate in bad faith, and then ending the relationship and walking away is the best strategy. I just don't think other people operate in bad faith nearly as much as we think.]

1 comment:

Jeanne said...

two things...

first, when you said "what are my rules?" i thought for sure you were going to lay them out there for us. of course, i just as quickly realized that that would not be the case. nevertheless, i was disappointed to not have that to contemplate.

secondly, your list of questions in the last paragraph is pretty close to the guiding questions that we have been contemplating all semester in my classroom. we have been talking about human relationships, and doing so on a lot of levels with some amazing / brilliant thinking by my students. you should visit my classroom sometime. i think you would dig it.