Why Relationships Matter
In an increasingly depersonalized world, why love and giving is the key to creating networks of relationships that make a difference that matters.
Abandoned and Alone
During 2019, I spent most of the year, traveling the country doing book events. Every event was memorable because of the engagement that I got to have with people. Let me show you.
Typically at these events, people come up to me and ask what my book, Circle of Impact: Taking Personal Initiative To Ignite Change, is all about. My answer: “It is a book for people in transition.”
At a book store in Salt Lake City, a woman approached me, looked at the book, and began to tell me a very sad story about the transition that she was in.
She said that two years before, her husband left for work one morning, as he always had, and never came home. No note. No phone call. No text message. No email. No nothing.
Let that sink in for second. Here is this man that you slept next to a couple hours ago, who walks out the door without a word, and never comes home. He disappears. Gone with the wind. Just how devastating are your feelings of abandonment?
By this point in her story, she was in tears. I had her sit next to me while I spoke to other people who came to talk about my book. Between those visits we talked. She cried for a half hour. She told me that it took four months to find him. He was with a woman in Nebraska that he had met online. This wasn’t the first time that I had heard this story. I am sure it won’t be the last.
We talked some more about what follows a traumatic experience like this. As she gained her composure, stood to leave, I said to her,
“The person you are today is not the person you were two years ago when he left you. The person you will be in two years is not the person you are today. You are in transition. You need a guide to help you orient your life to who you can be in the future.”
My words seemed to help her. I signed a book for her, then she left the store. I did not write the book to fit into some org chart leadership role. I wrote it for people who as they experience transitions in their life they find ways to make a difference that matters. I call these people impact leaders.
Relationships and Social Structures
Relationships don’t exist in a vacuum. They are not a role description. They are a context for the interaction that we have with people in various social structures.
I am concerned about our capacity to have relationships that are healthy and giving to one another.
The social, civic, and organizational structures of modern society treat relationships as an economic exchange. When we speak of developing social capital, we are using economic terminology to describe our relationships.
Are your relationships simply a form of economic exchange?
Is this what your marriage is?
Is this what your relationship to your children is?
Are your relationships just another context for projecting your influence and power upon society?
Are people simply tools for your aggrandizement, just a means to an end?
Do your most important relationships transcend the transactional nature of your relationships in order to become transformational?
Have you reached the point where there is nothing beyond the material world its mechanistic structures?
If these questions are even a close approximation of reality, then it is understandable why relationships are losing their value.
I know most of you don’t THINK this to be true. I am asking that you consider that how we BEHAVE suggests that it does.
Do your relationships matter because they are a means of transcending the mundane realities of life?
Does your life transcend the mechanics of discipline and work that contains your life?
Do your relationships provide you a context for intimacy, transperancy, and emotional connection that is honest and supportive?
Our networks of relationships are where we work these questions out to some resolution.
Our networks provide us a way for our human connections to become human relationships.
Our networks provide us the social structures where we can explore, discover, risk, and achieve the kind of impact in our lives that we could never do alone.
Look at the list of contacts in your phone. These connections do not contain the stories of greatness, of transfomation, and of hope and love that are embedded in our relationships.
The Challenge of the Future: The Visual
I believe we are losing our capacity to form relationships of shared respect, trust, and mutual accountability. With that we lose our capacity to love, to forgive, to sacrifice for those whom we love, and to become our very best selves because of the gifts of love and sacrifice that are given to us by others.
As our digital age expands its reach, social media connections are transitioning from personal connections to connections of visual content. Charles Arthur wrote a provocative Substack post called, The approaching tsunami of addictive AI-created content will overwhelm us.
He ends his post with this thought.
“I suspect in the future there will be a premium on good, human-generated content and response, but that huge and growing amounts of the content that people watch and look at and read on content networks (“social networks” will become outdated) will be generated automatically, and the humans will be more and more happy about it.
In its way, it sounds like the society in Fahrenheit 451 (that’s 233ºC for Europeans) though without the book burning. There’s no need: why read a book when there’s something fascinating you can watch instead?
Quite what effect this has on social warming is unclear. Possibly it accelerates polarisation, but rather like the Facebook Blenderbot, people are just segmented into their own world, and not shown things that will disturb them. Or, perhaps, they’re shown just enough to annoy them and engage them again if their attention seems to be flagging. After all, if you can generate unlimited content, you can do what you want. And as we know, what the companies who do this want is your attention, all the time.
Remember Arthur C. Clarke’s comment that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. The magic is among us now, seeping into the everyday. The tide is rising. But the real wave is yet to come.”
I’m not sure how you react to this description of the future, but to me it points to increasing social and emotional isolation. We will see increasing instances of mental illness from the absence of genuine human interaction.
The Challenge of the Future: The Relational
René Girard and others tells us that we develop our personalities by mimicking other people, especially our parents. Then, does the future look like one where interpersonal relationships become non-existent for people.
If we learn to be ourselves, by doing what we see others doing, what then does this mean in terms of the shift that Charles Arthur describes above. If how we learn to be ourselves is by absorbing 240 fifteen second TikTok videos an hour, three or four hours a day, then what does that mean for our relationships with people?
The most important network of relationships are our families. There the most important relationship is between the child and the parent or parents. I began my leadership work in ministry fifty years ago with high school students. There I saw the effect that absent and detached parents had on children. In many respects, I saw children raising children. Now, we can see that on our screens. It is why research into attachment and abandonment in human development is so important.
I am still engaged with people under forty years of age. I find that the quality of the parenting in families is the single most important factor in people being able to process the multiple transitions that they are going through in their lives. Young people need older mentors. Older mentors need relationships with young people so that we can better understand the historic transition that we are experiencing. We need each other. Yet our networks get closed in to being only for those we feel safe and confortable with. This is why I think Ron Burt’s work on social capital in networks is to important.
When a healthy adult presence is missing, some other influence enters the picture. If you spend any time on social media, you’ll see how this pattern gets expressed. One pattern of behavior fosters a narcissistic hunger for other people’s attention and validation. The Law of Attraction as it is called is how narcissism spreads through a society. Instead, The Law of Giving to others is how healthy self-perception and sustainable network of relationships are formed. The visual nature of social media feeds an emotional isolation of desire and longing that can never be fulfilled by passive attention to the screen. The alienation of modern life can only be resolved by taking initiative to establish relationships of respect, trust, and mutual accountability.
Recently, I had a conversation with a friend and his wife about what they were learning in their marriage. They were making a distinction between being a taker and a giver in a marriage. Their conclusion is that giving, and by extension, receiving is how a relationship becomes healthy. It reminded me of a quote from the Trappist monk Thomas Merton that influences early in my career. I will end with this quote from him that has helped me to understand why relationships matter.
"A happiness that is sought for ourselves alone can never be found: for a happiness that is diminished by being shared is not big enough to make us happy."
"There is a false and momentary happiness in self-satisfaction, but it always leads to sorrow because it narrows and deadens our spirit. True happiness is found in unselfish love, a love which increases in proportion as it is shared. There is no end to the sharing of love, and, therefore, the potential happiness of such love is without limit. Infinite sharing is the law of God's inner life. He has made the sharing of ourselves the law of our own being, so that it is in loving others that we best love ourselves. In disinterested activity we best fulfill our own capacities to act and to be."
"Yet there can never be happiness in compulsion. It is not enough for love to be shared: it must be shared freely. That is to say it must be given, not merely taken. Unselfish love that is poured out upon a selfish object does not bring perfect happiness: not because love requires a return or a reward for loving, but because it rests in the happiness of the beloved. And if the one loved receives love selfishly, the lover is not satisfied. He sees that his love has failed to make the beloved happy. It has not awakened his capacity for unselfish love."
"Hence the paradox that unselfish love cannot rest perfectly except in a love that is perfectly reciprocated: because it knows that the only true peace is found in selfless love. Selfless love consents to be loved selflessly for the sake of the beloved. In so doing, it perfects itself."
"The gift of love is the gift of the power and the capacity to love, and, therefore, to give love with full effect is also to receive it. So, love can only be kept by being given away, and it can only be given perfectly when it is also received."