“Fully alive people learn to go out of themselves in genuine caring and concern for others.”
– John Powell, S.J.
Today, I continue to explore John Powell’s “five essential steps into the fullness of life.”
Part 3: To Forget Oneself in Loving
You can’t love somebody wholeheartedly if you don’t love yourself.
I did not know what I was getting into when I got married at 25 years old. I knew that I loved Theresa and that she loved me but I had no idea what that meant or what that required. It was a hunch, we were blessed with the wisdom to make a lifelong commitment and we continue to do the work to live into the wide-eyed sense of possibility we held over 24 years ago.
There’s a part of me that considers it a miracle that we’ve made it this far. Not because of any explicit trauma or challenge that occurred. Not because of the wedge three children can drive between a husband and wife. And not because the daily grind of life can steamroll even the most ideal of married couples.
The reason I sometimes consider it a miracle is because it took me a very long time to forget myself in loving my wife. If you read my posts on Monday and Tuesday you have some insight into why this was true. In short, until I learned to accept myself and to be myself it was impossible to forget myself. In not forgetting myself, I could not “remember” her as an independent person whose individuality could become larger by our relationship instead of as a dependent person who would be subject first to meeting my needs.
In other words, until I learned to forget myself it was far too easy, too convenient, to treat her (and others) as a supporting actor in the movie called “My Life” instead of as someone worthy of a feature film all her own.
So, if the path to forgetting oneself in a way that leads to true empathy and full regard for another comes through accepting oneself and being oneself, how do you get there?
Partly, it’s through maturity. Sometimes you have to learn how to live a life by living it and, if you’re surrounded by enough good people they provide the checks and balances that help you grow. That’s a more passive approach but for some people, if those checks and balances come early and often enough, it can be enough.
In my case, the facade of competence I had developed in order to mask my insecurity was so well built that I required professional help. Not through my own courageous decision-making but on the indirect recommendation and encouragement of a mentor, I visited a therapist for the first time at 35 years of age. I went back once a week for 6 more years, long enough to finally know myself well enough to learn how to forget myself.
I know that that decision made the current quality of my marriage possible. By deconstructing myself I was able to see how what I had constructed was a barrier to authentic connection. The rebuilding experience was hard but not so hard that a loving and loyal partner would choose anything other than to be an integral part of the process.
Aliveness is a dynamic state of being, a continuous flow of energetic insight, evaluation, connection and compassionate correction. It starts within, of course, but has to include others, significant others especially. The gift of aliveness is in recognizing that this work to accept myself and to be myself is why I am ultimately able to forget myself in the embrace of another. There is no separation, only a sprawling network of connecting tissue that stretches out from the first decision to just be.
I know that this is getting long and I also know that some readers may rightly ask what any of this has to do with organizational life. I did, after all, commit on Monday to offering these reflections in that context and so far have spent the lion’s share of my time on high school achievements, college and early career insecurity and the triumph of my marriage over my selfishness.
The glib answer is that this has everything to do with organizations and the leaders who lead them! The math is pretty simple. If it’s tough in an interpersonal relationship to relate to someone who doesn’t accept himself, who is uncomfortable being himself and who, as a result, cannot forget himself in favor of a true commitment to the welfare of others, how tough is it on the employees who have to work for him?
Business is a human enterprise first and foremost. And each and every one of those humans who have chosen to lead must claw and scratch their way to aliveness if they are ever to become the leaders we deserve.
Tomorrow: Part 4, To believe