To remember this bigger picture, even in the midst of mounting anger and frustration, enables us to retain the capacity to empathize. As long as you can imagine what it might be like inside another person's skin, you keep open the doorway of possible intimacy. As you gaze into another's eyes, you can encounter both a fear of and yearning for such connection. We all long to be able to break down the barriers that we initially insist others respect.

Human beings experience their deepest, most poignant moments of connection through intimacy: We let someone into our lives, and they allow us to enter theirs. Yet for intimacy to grow, the other person must also remain a mystery. Over time, familiarity with close friends can imperceptibly crystallize into fixed images of them. We start to define them in terms of our own needs and desires instead of theirs. No matter how well we know and trust someone, we cannot afford the complacency of taking that person for granted. Even a beloved partner in a lifelong relationship can be capricious and unpredictable. If love isn't nurtured in the soil of unconditional openness, it can succumb to stagnation.

In the moment of shutting off or turning away from another, we can feel the sting of intimacy betrayed. An awareness of having failed to treat the other as an equal, or, in the language of religion, as Christ or Buddha, flashes through our mind. Then in the next moment, we find ourselves startled by the suffering of a stranger. Suddenly, we feel connected to the starving child in Sudan or the homeless person on the sidewalk, and we experience the astonishment of belonging to a body of life that infinitely exceeds our own. The numbness of alienation gives way to the mystery of participation. Closure is replaced by openness. Intimacy is realized in wholly giving oneself while wholly receiving the gift of the other.

More Family and Friendship Lessons
From the December 2004 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.


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