Monday, 4 February 2013

Different Faces

Last year London’s Asia House had an exhibition called the Different Faces of Pakistan.  It sought to highlight aspects of a complex country which we rarely hear about.  I was sorry to miss the exhibition but thought it a great idea to try and break the unyielding mould of perception.

Recently I heard Billy Joel singing his signature track from The Stranger.  I like the melody but hadn’t given much thought to the lyric:

Well we all have a face
That we hide away forever
And we take them out and show ourselves
When everyone has gone…

From Shakespeare’s Hamlet we get: God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another… suggesting we have inherent as well as evolving qualities, with a challenge to keep the essence of our ‘faces’ authentic and pure.

Together that got me thinking about the different faces we show people; or more particularly, the different aspects of personality and character.  For if we all have attributes we tap into and share in differing circumstances, then what is our ‘true self’?  It’s not always easy to put a finger on, is it?  It isn’t a static concept.  Yet in moments when there is clarity… we feel “this is me”.   If we’re honest we also know when “this isn’t me”.  It’s the in-between that’s blurry.

Indeed, forward and back like the tide, we strive our whole life to honour Polonius’s wise counsel to Laertes… To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man. 

Putting aside that Polonius was not himself being transparent in episodes around this sage advice… which may mean Shakespeare’s comment, though supremely poetic, was at best inspirational or at worst tongue-in-cheek… I find that not only different circumstances or experiences bring me closer or further away from my ‘true self’, but that also people do.

That’s why we need different people.  There are mates who make us laugh; mates who shake us up to try something new; colleagues who engage our intellect; associates who share our passions; friends with whom we feel most relaxed or entertained; friends for sport and adventures; friends who make us feel loved and understood; friends we go to for advice or encouragement; friends who see something in us that no-one else sees; and friends or partners who (for whatever reason) bring out the best in us.  

There are also people who (for whatever reason) bring out the worst in us, but that’s another story.

I was reminded of this rich tapestry when I woke early one morning in January, after quite a few days being bored and sick in bed.  Messages from special friends made me feel deeply connected, and the comedy video clip sent by Tim made me laugh heartily; as he knew it would.  These people know different aspects of me - strengths and weaknesses, ambitions and failures - but interactions with each touch parts of my ‘true self’.  That’s why I’m so comfortable with them and why they are so dear to me.

Yet what about one’s significant other?  It’s trickier to get that relationship right… as intimacy may be rich in diverse ways, meeting different needs… but for the satisfaction (and commitment) to last it needs to speak to the core of our ‘true selves’… to connect on multiple key levels… to the ‘faces’ or ‘elements of self’ which, unique for every couple, are the most important dimensions.

Let’s use food as a metaphor.  If you’re genetically, mentally or emotionally predisposed to being a chicken curry, it’s unavoidable, you need chicken and you need curry.  If you’re a Thai stir-fry you simply can’t do without coriander or lemongrass.  And if you’re a spaghetti bolognese then tomato, meat and basil are non-negotiable.  When it comes to a primary romantic relationship - before human failings and other aspects come into play - success is likely to depend on whether or not you share or communicate through some key ingredients.  It’s one thing to do without onion and use more garlic - that’s compromise - but if you’re a classic bolognese you simply can not replace basil with coriander.  I’ve done it myself, of course, when the attraction was fierce, but frankly it’s not sustainable for an apple-pie to hook up with a hot-dog.  

That’s not to say I don’t enjoy or need difference. I do.  I couldn’t possibly fall in love with a clone of myself and don’t expect one person to satisfy all my belonging or social needs.  I’m simply not a ‘do everything together’ kind of person.  I need a range of stimulation and interaction.  I need a partner who’s fairly independent and sure of himself, different in many ways but who compliments me on levels which matter most.     

Luck and timing enter into the equation, of course, and love is rarely led by the head.  Sometimes we learn lessons about sustaining relationships too late for our own good or simply get the communication wrong.  Yet I think it’s also true I’ve not always been clear about the nature of these core elements… so have sometimes prioritized the wrong ingredients. 

I haven’t had a fixed idea about what my partner in life should be.  I’ve never been concerned about his job, for example, but rather his intelligence, talent or dedication to his craft.  I have walked away from as many rich guys as I have poor ones; tall ones as short.  So my desired ‘recipe’ has been fairly broad and undefined.  Is that a mistake or a strength?  I don’t know. 

I do know a male flat-mate warned me once when looking through a pile of photos.  “Julie, all your boyfriends have been good looking” he said, with a hint of accusation.  “So, what’s wrong with that?” I asked, fairly certain it was no problem.  “Don’t you know that for men, very good looks are a road block to maturity?  They get everything too easily.”  I did some research - Italian studs a case in point - but even a drab-looking guy can be a jerk so why not look at someone pretty, right?

Anyway, as it happens, in less than a year I’ve grown a connection with someone which has been rather enlightening.  We started out as friends.  He does happen to be good looking (and ok, if you must know, take-your-breath-away sexy), but the point is that he knows himself.  He is more true to himself, to his nature, to his heart, to others, than I’ve often found.  And simply by being genuinely himself, he has highlighted ingredients in an intimate relationship which (for whatever reason) are to me the most important.

It’s hard to explain how this has come about.  I have simply observed that when I’m with him or talking to him, even exchanging messages, I am extremely comfortable and content.  I have no desire to change a single thing about him.  The dynamic is so natural and easy that even when occasionally something potentially contentious comes up, I can not seem to find it in me to get mad or impatient.  This is significant for a passionate red head.  Somewhere along the way it became more important for me to understand him than to be understood.  And anyway he doesn’t do stuff which gives me reason to brood or worry.  He tells me what I need to know.  He’s honest, and doesn’t deliver less than he promises.  That’s not to suggest he’s perfect, but the combination brings out the best in me.  And as the style of our interaction allows me to feel emotionally fulfilled, without complex translation, I am peaceful and happy.    

That’s pretty special right?  And when you add a whole lot of other fun stuff on top I can only say, WOW.

Factors beyond our control make it likely this friendship won’t blossom as far as it otherwise might… but that doesn’t mean the connection isn’t precious.  He is such a treasure that, even when he’s telling me something I don’t want to hear, he is so naturally caring and considerate, so willing to get in the arena and engage with me in an honest, open and gentle way, that everything seems (comparatively) simple and ok. 

Don’t ask me how he manages to be as sensitive as he is, while still being a rugged and sexy alpha male… but he does. 

So, I am grateful for the chance meeting which brought us together.  And if ever I’m in doubt again about my ‘true self’, and what is right for me, I am going to use the dynamic I have felt with him as a benchmark. 

For when it comes to managing a world of different faces, it’s good to have some quality control.