I was reading a book last night and the author told a story about wandering around an art show with her husband. There were a pretty good number of people there, but they all seemed to be gathered around a single painting. Out of curiosity, she walked over to see what had garnered so much attention. What she found was a painting titled “Relationship”. The canvas was mostly blank except for two boxes: one in the upper left hand corner and another in the lower right. Inside these boxes, the artist had painted two human hearts. As you might imagine, the crowd had gathered because each person was trying to figure out, what does this mean? Why boxes? Why such empty space? And more than likely, they each came away with their own explanation. The writer who tells the story felt that it suggested a need to break down the walls around our hearts, to let people in with all their messiness, inconvenience, and pain. That’s how to have a true relationship. And to a certain extent, I agree. I’ve talked in the past (the so distant past, I can’t quite remember what post that was or when) about breaking down the walls around my own heart. But sometimes, it’s not just about what you let in, it’s about what you let out.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about trying to take a step back from a person in my life who’s been driving me a bit crazy. Crazy in kind of the best way if you can actually enjoy it. When we talk, he sucks me into this little bubble of our own little world, populated by inside jokes, casual teasing, and a bedrock of support that no matter what is said we genuinely mean well. Which is wonderful. Except that inevitably, he leaves. Or I leave. Life intervenes and we shut down gchat, put away our phones, fizzle out on a Facebook comment thread, and generally go back to our separate lives. But in the immediate aftermath of our sometimes hours-long conversation, I feel bereft. I didn’t want it to end, even though I really did need to get to the gym or hop on a train to class, or he needed to get to work. And I feel a sense of what can only be described as withdrawal and a hankering for the next fix, which is often unreliable, unexpected, and far between.
When I wrote that post, it came from the realization of holding on too hard. Of course, in the interim, the cycle has repeated itself. With his grinning face appearing on my gchat along with an equally sunny greeting that cracks a smile across my own face and opens the door for another fix, and another withdrawal. Sometimes, it’s not what we push away with our walls, but what we try to hold in all Rapunzel-like. We can’t trap the princess in the tower, and we can’t bar the people we love in our hearts, expecting them to stay there forever.
In another story in the same book, the author talks about the turtle she captured along the pond at her grandparents house as a little girl. She set up a beautiful little environment for her new pet with everything she could imagine his little turtle heart could desire. But the animal had other ideas. It spent a week scrambling around his new home, trying to escape before eventually sullenly sitting in a corner of his habitat and refusing to move. Despondent, the writer asked her grandfather what was wrong, what she should do. The wise old man told her that the turtle missed being a “real” turtle. So they went back to the pond and set him free, with the last words of wisdom from the writer’s grandfather, “The best thing you ever do for the ones you love is set them free.”
Eventually, for a relationship to exist in more than name only, we have to let the walls come down and break our hearts out of their protective boxes. We have to trust that the messenger of peace approaching our fortifications isn’t an assassin in disguise. And the other person in turn has to believe that entering our domain will not result in being taken hostage. It’s a difficult and often terrifying thing to do. With friends, with family, with prospective partners. There is probably no time where both parts of the equation feel easy or effortless. We may let someone into our hearts or find that they have entered of their own accord, but we then have to resist the urge to force out the incursion or imprison the invader. To leave an open pathway in and out of our hearts, without booby traps, spies, or strategies from B to Z, seems like an open dare to the universe to throw pain in our paths. But just as everything looks like a nail to a hammer, everyone looks like an enemy when you build your walls high and strong.