“To be loved is to be acknowledged as existing.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh
The older I get the more I realize the difficulty of long-term social attachment. By that I mean relationships. The way we see things changes as we grow older, and in terms of human interaction, we experience a lot of heartbreak, betrayal, loss, and other things that make us distrust other people. Ironically, the older we become the more desperately we yearn for things like trust and commitment and ultimately companionship.
I have found it so very true that we as human beings, whether you are male or female, desire to be noticed, to be heard, to be appreciated and to be remembered. At the core of every human relationship are those four tenants. Without those four cornerstones, relationships fail.
We often think of relationships as something romantic or even perhaps sexual, but really every relationship we have, whether mere friendship or all the way to marriage, truly begin the same way. And because of that, we can learn a great deal from all of those collected experiences. Even the bad ones.
I remember my first sexual experience, and for a long time I always saw that as a pivotal moment in my life, one that made me realize at 12 years old that I was attracted to guys, much to my disappointment. But really the complexities of human attraction are far more intricate than simple sexual curiosity or release.
If I go back even further to childhood, the friendships I had back then taught me the first cornerstone: to be noticed.
As kids, we all want friends, people to play with. Fun is the fundamental part of every childhood friendship. But to make friends you have to be noticed. Through those years I made friends who were guys and girls alike. I had guy friends I played video games with and had sleepovers with, girl friends that I kissed on the school bus and who offered to do my homework because they thought I was cute. Normal kid stuff.
From the time I was 6 years old and onward, there was one particular person who’s friendship I wanted most of all. I wanted him to notice me, I wanted us to hang out at recess, to share secrets, to stay over at each other’s houses, to be best friends. Inseparable.
As hard as I tried to make those things happen, it never seemed like it was enough to sate the feeling I had. We even dated the same girl once during elementary school. Despite knowing each other so well, I always had this feeling, even as a young kid, that I wanted more from my friendship with him, but I didn’t understand it and I didn’t know what was missing. All I knew is that I saw him or felt differently about him than he did me. Why didn’t he notice?
Back then, I couldn’t know and nor could he, because we were just too young to understand. You can’t understand those things until your teenage years, when your mind and body change, you go through such a change that you learn the second cornerstone: to be heard.
So many things are going on inside of you, especially your mind, during the transition of kid to teen. You feel awkward, misunderstood, among many other things. You just want someone to listen to you, to understand you as you are. You want to be heard.
Unfortunately for me, I didn’t get to attain this cornerstone until my early twenties, because I had to accept myself before I could open up to someone else. And that process took me nine years.
When I had gained an interest in enlisting in the military I met another young guy who shared the same interest. Immediately, through this common goal, we connected. Even though he and I were also very different.
He was the son of a minister, he was very devout, perhaps the most religiously conservative guy I’ve ever met. An Evangelical Christian who considered himself a Calvinist, the most fundamentally conservative denomination of Christianity.
At the time I was still a practicing Catholic, but our views were different and I still had not yet come out of the closet. Despite these things, he and I would stay up for hours upon hours late into the night just talking about life, our fears, ambitions and our beliefs and thoughts.
For a few years we’d communicate with each other, even after I admitted to him that I was romantically interested in guys. It was awkward for him at first, but by that time he already knew so much about me that we moved passed it.
One night during our intellectual and sometimes playful banter, we had a moment where we brought up feelings and how we perceived each other. It’s important to know that he was strictly straight, had made it clear he was only romantically into females.
We agreed that we enjoyed our long and deep conversations, our willingness to be open and honest, even to the point of being painfully honest when we didn’t see eye to eye. And that’s when it happened, he told me he loved me.
For the first time in my life someone told me they loved me. I couldn’t believe it and I said, “What?” And he said, “Man, I love you.” His words cut into me and they hurt, not because I didn’t like it, but because no one had said it to me before, I had never felt that word before. Love.
My face flushed, my throat tightened, my eyes began to gather tears. In that one moment I understood not only the second, but also the third cornerstone: to be appreciated.
We didn’t just hear each other through those late night heart-to-hearts, but we appreciated them and each other to the point that he grew to love me. And for the first time in my life, I said that four letter word too, right back at him.
Though I wished that moment could have been more, it was never meant to be more. He was straight and therefore he would never be willing to go beyond that boundary all truly straight men set. So it was bittersweet. And even worse, in time we stopped being friends and lost contact.
The last I heard, he was commissioned into the Marine Corps and got married.
The fourth cornerstone is one you can only learn when you have attained an unconditional and unending loving bond. This can only be done when someone retains their connection with you, the type that comes from a life-long friendship or relationship.
One that withstands fights, where even in anger and ill-judgment, you still can’t help thinking about the other person’s feelings. You concern yourself with their well-being and they feel the same way about you. They remember you because they value your existence, cherish the moments and memories that you created together.
So how did I learn the fourth cornerstone? Through pain and suffering, and not just through my own. You see, to be remembered is not just an acknowledgement of other people, but also to remember ourselves and the things that have shaped us into the human beings we are.
Through sharing experiences we become emotionally invested in others, we attach a part of ourselves to them and see their lives as they do, this is called empathy. And through this attachment we bond deeply.
I came to understand the fourth cornerstone through the darkest hours of my life, when I wanted to die. Because I remembered the bonds I shared with other people and how my absence from their lives would leave a void dark and deep, a pain that even in my suffering, I could not inflict upon them. And nor could I abandon the life I had been given to live, for I remembered all of those that I had lost, who no longer could stand in the sun and smile in its warmth.
Through life you learn these cornerstones and they enable you to form loyal, honest and rewarding relationships with the people you meet, whether it be friends or a romantic life-long partner. Stay true to these tenants, not only as a recipient, but also a giver and you will find emotional fulfillment.
Do not just be noticed, but also notice. Do not just be heard, but also listen. Do not just be appreciated, but also appreciate. Do not just be remembered, but also remember.