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The Third Person in the Room

Posted in Adventures With Humans

During the height of the Covid lockdowns, I decided to try to maintain contact, albeit on social media, with a friend who had differing opinions from my own. The friend would post videos mostly, about various elements of our political world. I watched them, and let her know that I was watching them. A few times, I asked her to clarify, to explain how she felt drawn to any summary but never received a response. What tipped me off to the one-sidedness of our communication was when I was posting about an impending surgery that was approaching for me. I mentioned my anxiety around it, and in my friend’s failure to comment, to offer any acknowledgment of my scenario, I understood the problem with this relationship, the trouble at the very root, which was a fear of vulnerability on her part. Everything had to be in defense of her position. She hid behind a drawbridge closed to the empathy and compassion that is essential for a good relationship; the ability to risk being open to the ‘other,’ to be open to possibility, to potential. It is this failure to pause, to open and listen sincerely, and to consider, that is fracturing relationships–the framework of our world.

To begin with, in a conversation, there might be an unspoken contract that something will come of it. There will be an initial deposition, a description by one of the speakers, after which the second speaker will have an opportunity to respond. If both speakers are thoughtful, good ground may be covered in the process, as if both have an interest in moving forward. I can’t remember where I learned this, but a helpful idea is to think of the relationship as the third person in the room, like a child. Both people in the conversation are charged with tending this child, this relationship, in nurturing it so that it can be healthy, can thrive. If you can find your way to it, such a consideration is our duty as humans on this planet.

I didn’t learn this ‘third person’ idea from watching my parents. It is painful to think of the ways they used to try to communicate, and their example, instead of empowering, left me floundering for decades. The lesson, harvested from recent years attending an online mindfulness meditation and talk, began to take root during Covid, thus the reason I tried to maintain my engagement with that certain friend at that time. The value of it, of being fully present in a conversation is clear to me, but it does take an intentional willingness, a commitment to be vulnerable. It’s as if you are saying, “I trust you. I am open to the truth that you speak.” I am not so bound to my ideas that I will hold them in my teeth in front of you, even if I learn that they are wrong. I am glad to let them go. This is how I can move forward, and how our relationship can continue to thrive.

Another way to see this is to consider if your approach is from a place of love, or of fear. If it is from fear, you might be so attached to your ideas as defences that you’ve bound them up–are holding them in your teeth and good luck to anyone who tries to change them. You speak your piece, holler it perhaps, and then close up, run away to avoid any possibility of change. “This is how it is.” There is great suffering in holding on so tightly. “If it’s hysterical, it’s historical,” is an apt description of some wound, some fear that has you looking away, doing your best to avoid opening up and being present. So what’s the threat? Why on earth wouldn’t you want to learn, to find the truth? There is something so freeing, so empowering to admit failure, to let down your guard and accept the better thing. I know. I’ve done it often, but every conversation doesn’t have to have someone who is right and someone who is wrong. The process can be one of growth, of exploration together, and aren’t these the strongest relationships? There is a sacredness in sharing a truth, a light that helps the other along without judgment. You share with graciousness because you feel love and respect for the other.

This is a time on the planet when it is vital to really listen to each other. To paraphrase Yuval Noah Harari, mankind’s reasons for war are based on myths, not realities. This makes the whole tragedy of the Middle East even that much more heartbreaking and foolish. Here, away from the killing, to allow these myths to pit us against each other is just as heartbreaking and foolish. Hollering, and then running away is pointless, and dismisses the reality that we can all be peacemakers. Hate is easy, and so destructive. Hate robs you of your potential to fully experience your humanity and the power of your heart to love. We should be tripping over ourselves to find common ground–brave enough to overcome the myths and find that love so that all of this can stop.