14 Jun 2007 08:24 pm

DEFINING INTIMACY

The place to look to find the definition of a word is, of course, the dictionary. Though the word intimacy has experienced an explosion in usage, it generally has retained the same basic definition in dictionaries such as Webster’s. The listed definitions for intimacy are few, usually referring themselves to the state of being intimate. The only addition of intimacy to the state of being intimate is that of “illicit sexual relations”.

Definitions of the word intimate are far more numerous, but not necessarily wide ranging. To summarize, each definition is a variation of the idea of closeness. Most definitions center around close personal relationships with an individual or group. They also refer to being intimate as a deep or detailed familiarity with any object or subject.

The Latin roots of the word intimate focus on something being “pressed or put into”. Along with this primary root is a secondary one implying one is pressing into the “inmost” or essential elements of the thing being scrutinized. What this implies is that even though intimacy is a word usually associated with relationships between people, it also applies to relations people have with any object, feeling or thought. In other words, one could be intimate with anything experienced or imagined, whether it be something as concrete as a lover, or as abstract as a scientific theory.

This broad definition, the state of becoming close to any aspect of our experience, is the definition of intimacy I have always functioned under. The one major difference would be that I look at intimacy as being an on-going process, while the dictionary seems to portray intimacy as an attained completed state of union.

Becoming intimate with something, therefore, means to gain a familiarity with a desired object, to become more at home with it. There seems to be no limit to what we can become intimate with. We can become intimate with another human being, ourselves, or human nature. We can become intimate with art, music, science or knowledge itself. We can become intimate with nature, statistics, trivia, fantasies, or spiritual realms. Whatever we feel, think, imagine, or do, all potentially becomes aspects of our lived intimacy.

Some of us are very possessed in our desire to become close to things around us, others passively let life happen. Yet, even the most passive or lazy individual harvests intimacy in their life.

Acquiring intimacy does not require a passionate quest. Just through sense experience itself we all have preferred objects to see, taste, smell, hear and feel. Any object or activity which gives us joy or attracts our attention provides our life with a basic amount of intimacy. Even if the action is thought of as being self-harming or vegetative (such as watching endless hours of television) we still become closer and more at home with so many things.

All our countless habits provide us with intimacy. Even activities or thoughts which seem to alienate us from others (or ourselves) are a form of intimacy. When you look at intimacy as being the process of becoming closer to an object, alienation itself could be something with which a person could become intimate. Intimacy is not something we can escape except through death, and many would argue that death itself may not be a true termination of intimacy.

Now, for some it might seem strange to think of becoming intimate with trivial, negative, or common things. They may view it as a waste of human energy and an insult to the very integrity of intimacy. Yet, almost everyone has a mundane interest or hobby. Every collector of stamps or baseball cards takes a certain delight in what they know about their field. Every breeder of poodles, or collector of sad songs finds joy and satisfaction in the expertise they have acquired through their hobby.

I myself love to keep statistics of the sports teams I follow. To an outsider this may seem to be a great waste of time, and from a cosmic view I would have to agree with them. Yet, I love sports and want to know as much as I can about any team I follow. I feel much closer to a team I know statistically. Part of my joy in watching a game is anticipating what play they will call next, or evaluating performances according to a statistical criterion I have identified as important.

Though it is true intimacy can be gleaned from even the most mundane experiences, this does not imply that all forms of intimacy have the same value. Many activities and things which we become closer to, and more intimate with, provide us with greater satisfaction than others.

Intimacy, like all aspects of human nature and activity, has a hierarchy. There is not only one kind of person worthy of being loved, yet there are qualities which are generally accepted as being better than others. A cold, brutal, and self-absorbed individual is less likely to find love than a compassionate and kind one. Likewise, though there is no perfect set of interests which will create the most intimacy, there are certain tendencies of interest which promise a higher yield of personal happiness and satisfaction than others.

Throughout this book we will be exploring what qualities and activities promote intimacy in its most fulfilling form. Yet, at this time, when we are attempting to come up with a working definition of intimacy, it is best to avoid a premature exposition of exact qualities promoting intimacy. When talking about the depths of human experience and happiness, one needs to move slowly and patiently to avoid becoming unrealistic.

Most of us intuitively experience a sense of hierarchy in our experience. We often choose activities according to how much satisfaction they promise. Often we will make a schedule for ourselves prioritizing our activities in the order of importance. Many times we sense a lack in our lives, feeling that we have been using our time poorly.

Priorities, Lack and Intimacy

Our intuition tells us that some of our experiences provide us with a sense of satisfaction, while others leave us feeling empty. Yet, feelings of emptiness, though important, can also be misleading.

Instead of appreciating the house and comforts we have, we often find ourselves discontentedly looking at what we do not possess. We are often overly critical of our spouse and family and unappreciative of the joy and contentment they provide. In regards to our own skills and talents we are often just as unappreciative, focusing our attention on what we are currently incapable of achieving or attaining.

Sometimes, our unrealistic expectations have us miss or dismiss the intimacy which we are indeed experiencing. Therefore, the feeling of intimacy (or the lack thereof) is not necessarily a clear indication of the amount or quality of intimacy generated in our life.

Though this is a tad confusing, it should not be surprising. If understanding intimacy and attaining it were easy, then everyone would be fulfilled and there would be no reason to write a book such as this one. Yet human goals such as love, happiness, meaning and satisfaction are complex ideals with many variables and obstacles to consider.

Coming up with a list of priorities is a difficult task. By definition, a list of one’s priorities should be in the order of importance. Yet, there are many different levels of importance and categories of needs. Most needs can be broken down into two major headings: those arising from the outside environment and those arising from internal need.

External pressures and expectations such as money, personal and professional security, responsibility, social acceptance and obligations form one major category. Internal needs such as privacy, a sense of personal growth, freedom, accomplishment, happiness, love and purpose form another.

The drive for intimacy is in itself a need, but very often in our lives it is a need overshadowed by social responsibilities, expectations and obligations. Many people view survival as an overwhelming responsibility and satisfying personal needs and feelings are viewed as a luxury not deserving immediate attention. Pleasure, happiness and a sense of fulfillment for such people is something which will have to wait until life’s real needs are amply provided for and resolved.

The problem is that tending to life’s needs, like all human experience, is a never ending process. A person waiting for all of life’s problems and expectations to be taken care of before dealing with more personal needs will never be presented with an opportunity to move on to their needs. In such a scenario (all too common) it is difficult to imagine a person attempting to ignore their personal needs not feeling a sense of emptiness. Leaving that which is most important to our sense of contentment and satisfaction to the future is never a way for us to attain happiness and intimacy in the present. How can it be?

Many of the expectations people place on themselves, or feel shoved on from the outside, are not truly necessary. Our lives are often littered with familial, social, and business obligations which we dread but do anyway. If we were to truly study them, we would find that a good portion of these obligations are unnecessary.

Stripping one’s life of unnecessary obligations is often a task many find overwhelming. Fearing social condemnation, and deciding it would be a sign of selfishness to focus on their own needs, they keep all their dreaded obligations in place. Everyone loses when an individual chooses to remove personal dreams and goals from their priority list. Meeting social obligations is hardly ever a fitting replacement for taking time for oneself.

A person who resents their obligations will at best silently walk through them. With no joy, and usually a great deal of anger, such an individual is bound to be irritable, harsh, demanding and a real pain to be around. Their feelings of emptiness and being deprived will most likely be projected on those around them making it difficult for anyone to have a good time.

A certain amount of selfishness is needed for a person to get their needs met and a person meeting their needs will generally be a happier one. This is why one must always place personal needs high up on their priority list. Likewise, they must allow those around them to make their needs a high priority.

Making our lives more intimate and fulfilling demands we spend a great deal of time reflecting on our personal needs. If we are less than honest about our needs or let our fears speak louder than our desires we will never form an accurate priority list. If we place everyone’s needs ahead of our own, we may derive some joy and fulfillment from our kindness, but will forever feel a lack in our own life.

Our failure in fostering intimacy in our lives often stems from the mistakes we make when assessing needs. Often, individuals place personal needs behind those of their family and career. Financial concerns are often exaggerated or made prominent by having unrealistic goals. The image of the lonely wealthy industrialist and the reality of many divorced and loveless financially secure individuals has done little to help people re-evaluate the importance of money.

Another common mistake is when people place undo importance on smaller issues, clouding up their ability to live let alone see their true priorities. While creating priorities which are not really important, some people fail to appreciate what they have accomplished and what their life has to offer. Only through honest reflection on one’s wants and needs can an individual accurately assess if a perceived lack in their life is authentic or imagined.

One of the most common stumbling blocks preventing people from experiencing and appreciating joy and contentment in their lives is an unrealistic desire for perfection. Some express this compulsion for perfection by perpetually cleaning their home or manicuring every blade of grass in their yard. Still others look for perfection by primping over their appearance for hours, or organizing every inch of their office at work. Keeping things neat and organized is one thing, but for a perfectionist any departure from the ideal is a source of great discomfort.

Some perfectionists expect their children or spouse to satisfy all of their needs. Some will not consider anything they have created or done to be completed because it never lives up to the ideal they place on their work. Yet, that is the very problem with perfectionism, it runs counter to the nature of existence.

If intimacy is the process of becoming closer to something, then perfection is the very cessation of intimacy. If something is perfect, it is complete allowing for no further improvement or growth. A perfect union is a complete one where no “getting closer” is possible.

Every experience I have is only possible due to my limitations. If I could see everything, I would see nothing, for any object is a small imperfect fraction of what is available to be viewed. Sight, smell, hearing, feeling and tasting are only possible because they are partial experiences of a whole.

Every increase in intimacy is a move towards a closer union with the thing admired. Yet, total union would end the process and provide no further opportunity for intimacy. Intimacy, therefore, is an endless process, providing us with increased feelings of achievement and unity. A person in love with being intimate does not demand a perfect union, but enjoys the very journey towards increased harmony.

The first step towards increasing the amount and quality of intimacy in our life is to become aware and accurately identify those things which provide our lives with great joy and satisfaction. Our lives become much more meaningful when we allow ourselves to be drawn to the thoughts, actions and feelings we truly value. This, of course, also requires that we not allow things which hold little meaning for us to dominate our thoughts and energy. Without a proper sense of priorities in our life, it is impossible to maximize the amount of intimacy we derive from our life experiences.

The Drive Towards Intimacy

The question now becomes, “How do we decide which things in life to focus on that will improve our sense of personal satisfaction?” There is no formula for every human being because we all have different interests and needs. Yet, the criterion for deciding what to develop in our lives tends to be fairly similar from person to person.

Our reference point, as always, is our experiences and how they effect us. We have already noted how each person senses some experiences more important and rewarding than others. Sometimes something which used to provide joy and satisfaction in our lives no longer attracts or holds our attention. This is not to say that the activity was useless and we wasted a colossal amount of time becoming more at home with it, but only that it no longer provides us with the necessary impact on our lives and self-esteem to warrant our continued attention.

The things we should look to become more intimate with are those emotional, physical and intellectual activities which will have the greatest positive impact on our sense of fulfillment for the longest period of time. When choosing which things to focus on and cultivate in our lives we should always look for those things which provide us with the deepest sense of satisfaction. These would include things we value, provide meaning to our lives, and add to our sense of self-accomplishment.

In Taoist philosophy there is a strong distinction made between the inferior and superior man. The superior man’s heart, mind and activities shape the world and produce harmony where ever they go. The inferior man is forever at the mercy of fate and even when good fortune comes his way, his shallowness and pettiness make it impossible for him to salvage any amount of success or happiness from his good fortune.

There seems to be a strong parallel between our intuited hierarchy of priorities for intimacy and the Taoist view of the superior and inferior man. According to our experience, being intimate with some things is more fulfilling than focusing on others. If we were to apply this to the Oriental view, the intimate superior man would find meaning and satisfaction in his life while the inferior man would feel his life meaningless and empty.

What then, do the Taoist see as the major differences in approach between the superior and inferior man? How does one find fulfillment and happiness while the other finds even the most joyous moment fleeting and transitory?

In Taoist philosophy the stated difference between the superior and inferior man is rather simple. A superior man is said to cultivate things of importance and the inferior man cultivates trite and inconsequential things. This view fits in perfectly with what we have postulated so far on our way to defining intimacy.

No matter what we do, even if we just passively observe life, we cultivate something. Our habits and patterns in life force us to become more at home and more intimate with whatever occupies our time. What we focus on becoming intimate with is exactly what we cultivate. So a superior man cultivates those things which are important and provide his life with meaning and joy.

Some might argue that this sounds a little circular and we are purposely being evasive about what a person should specifically choose to cultivate in their lives. After all, any idiot could tell you to spend your time on important things and not waste your time on foolish stuff.

Yet, what else could one say at this point? Would it be realistic to give everyone an exact list of things to cultivate in their lives? Certainly not. That would be an insult to everyone’s individuality as well as to the very process of intimacy.

We all have to determine what to cultivate and become intimate with in our own lives. There are many common mistakes and road blocks which we will try to discuss as we continue our exploration. Even if we cannot spell out each person’s personal program for self-fulfillment at least we can articulate the very realm of intimacy which is at the root of one’s sense of self-fulfillment.

Intimacy is not an abstract goal, it is a basic human drive. We all derive pleasure and satisfaction from becoming more at home, more familiar with whatever we desire. We all desire to understand or truly feel a strong union with many things in life. This desire to feel, to know, to understand is what we are calling our drive towards intimacy, or our intimacy drive.

Love, Meaning and Intimacy

Why have we chosen the word intimacy to help us evaluate our lives? Couldn’t we just as well have used love, pleasure, meaning or depth of human experience as our guiding principle? What privileged position does the concept of intimacy hold? After all, haven’t we been using all these other terms when defining intimacy?

A word such as love has become vague and even contradictory. People can love almost anything. Lives can as easily be devastated by love as nourished and fulfilled. Love is generally also viewed as a feeling, and often people talk about blindly loving someone or being obsessed by someone. Love, then, is something often opposed to logic and reason and one can love someone who torments and abuses them.

Love, being a feeling, and not a thought process does not allow any opportunity to correct itself. If someone gravitates towards loving things and people that do them harm, it is by thoughtful reflection and not by love that this self-destructive tendency is overcome. Loving and being in love can be very fulfilling, but once distorted through obsession and envy can limit the amount of joy and happiness a person gleans from the rest of their life.

The healthy, or clean part of love, is in fact intimacy. When in love, one begins to feel closer and more united with one’s love object. Feelings of security and understanding dominate an open and undistorted love. Yet, intimate love can degenerate into hate, fear, and obsession if not guided by thought and introspection.

Intimacy, like love, can become sterile or distorted. The difference is that intimacy also incorporates the ability to rectify itself. Through remaining true to the desire to become closer to the world around us, intimacy is able to rejuvenate or transform a distorted love back into a healthy state. When rejuvenation is not possible, the drive for intimacy will recognize and help an individual escape from a truly hopeless and dangerous love.

Just as love is mainly an emotion, the “meaning” we find in life is mainly a thought process. Meaning is also an end product of thought having little to do with the process of acquiring meaning. Love, likewise, is generally a state of feeling and has little to do with the act of becoming in love. An open heart is said to love everything, yet such a heart would be an extremely dangerous (vulnerable) heart. Some things are best left unloved, or at least need our help in becoming worthy of love.

Intimacy is selective, we choose (even if just by habit) with what we want to become intimate. Unlike meaning and many aspects of love, intimacy is always both a process and an end product. We achieve intimacy through being intimate.

This is not as vague an ideal as finding love by being loving, but a practical program of how to acquire intimacy. Just as the healthy parts of love are incorporated in our concept of intimacy, so is meaning included in intimacy.

Meaning comes from understanding, to “stand under” something. Ignorance comes from ignoring something. Our drive towards intimacy has us stand under (understand) everything we become intimate with. We do not ignore life, but strive to become as close and unified to that which stimulates and fulfills us. Meaning is the intellectual component of intimacy just as love is its emotional component.

The more emotionally and intellectually balanced intimacy is, the cleaner and more rewarding it becomes. Distorted intimacy, whether from the intellectual or emotional side, is always able to be rectified by the very process of becoming more intimate. The more you know and understand something, the less chance there is that you are being intimate with the object in an unhealthy fashion.

Now we can sufficiently answer the question in the beginning of this section regarding the privileged position of intimacy. Intimacy is a superior term because it is a balanced and comprehensive term, accurately describing the very process and dynamics of human experience. Our desire to be intimate is a never ending process by which intimacy is its on-going reward.

Every human experience involves mental and emotional components, and it is only human analysis which has separated them. This is not to say that we should never divide up human experience into such categories, but only that it is unnatural for human experience to not include both emotional and intellectual aspects. In fact, breaking down human experience into a host of elements and categories is one of the major ways we become more intimate with life. When our goal is to help us derive the most satisfaction from our experiences it would appear foolish to focus on only one element of our total experience.

While attempting to define intimacy we have learned a few fascinating things. First, though intimacy is a natural drive we have to become closer to the world around us, it is a skill which can be refined and improved. Since intimacy is a natural response to human experience, it can (like experience) become distorted and diluted. Yet, intimacy being both a practical process and end product can be used to refine and improve itself.

Unlike words such as love, meaning, understanding, achievement and self-fulfillment, intimacy does not place an emphasis on one aspect of human experience. Instead of focusing on just an emotional or intellectual element intimacy remains balanced and open to the totality of human experience.

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