My summer loving, sun seeking-self had a good week that began with 48 hours on the ground in Los Angeles and ended with a relatively warm weekend back home in Virginia. Meanwhile, the rest of my selves spent the remainder of the week all over the map, intellectually and emotionally speaking. The most poignant moment came during a conversation I had with a woman who approached me while I was downing my tea in a Starbucks just down the street from the UCLA campus where I was doing some work. What began with her telling me that she guessed I was from out of town because “no woman from LA would ever wear a tank top when it is only 56° outside”, ended about 15 minutes later with a friendly farewell. I never turn a fellow extrovert away.
Because she was so pleasant, smart and engaging, I failed to notice that the pretty spring sweater, blouse and scarf she was wearing, were faded and not entirely clean. I was not aware that the cross hanging on a silver chain around her neck was missing most of the rhinestones it originally held. It was when I invited her to sit down and join me after nearly 10 minutes of chatting with her standing across the high-top table from me, that there was a subtle shift in her expression. She turned and looked to a table in the corner.
My eyes followed and I immediately sensed her reluctance to acknowledge that a large, grimy bag left sitting on another table was both hers and fearfully unattended. Looking at her more closely, it suddenly dawned on me that this woman likely lived in the streets of Westwood. Understanding her awkward predicament with the bag and wanting to preserve her dignity, I casually glanced down at my phone and with genuine regret told her that I actually couldn’t stay. Our conversation had made the time fly by and I needed to head out shortly to get to the airport.
On my flight home I thought about how the quality of our lives reflects our fears and perceived vulnerabilities and the way our life experiences, particularly those in childhood, have taught us to manage to them. Signs of healthy self-interest and making careful decisions in terms of time investments, are reflected in upward trends in the three leading indicators of well-being I identified in Part 1 of this blog series- financial security, mental and physical energy levels and the strength of the bonds we form with other people.
Ironically, the central theme of my conversation with the homeless woman had been about the challenges of forming deep human connections in the modern world and how lonely it could be living in a big city, particularly LA. She peppered me with questions about where I was from, the nature of my work and whether or not I had a family. She listened intently to my answers. I detected an accent when she spoke and asked if she was originally from Iran. She said yes. I asked her name and how it was that she had made her way to California. She told me her name was Janet. I asked if that was her real name.
She smiled warmly at me and then, in beautiful French, said her name was Jeanette but the American embassy worker spelled it incorrectly on her immigration documents. She had arrived as Janet in Boston, lived with family, got a college degree and then, in her words, confessed to “making a mess of my life”. It was clear from the story that her current life is devoid of the kind of nurturing care that only comes from close healthy relationships with family and friends. Her openness and honesty with me were not a plea for pity but rather an earnest expression of both responsibility and regret. In short. she had not been able to build and maintain a personal safety net.
I would never have guessed that she was close to me in age. I assumed that her tanned, lightly weathered face simply reflected a greater number of years than I had spent under the southern California sun. But I quickly did the math. She had told me how old she was when she left Iran just before the revolution in 1979. We had to have been no more than a year apart in age. I did my best to conceal the fact that I was overcome by a sudden, painful sadness.
For reasons, both beyond and within her control, Janet’s survival now depends on the transactional compassion of the individual people she meets, non-profit organizations and the governments that are elected. Yet I couldn’t help but feel our common humanity and the universal vulnerability in human existence. To be mortal is to be vulnerable to death. To be sentient is to be vulnerable to physical and emotional pain. To be human is to be aware of those vulnerabilities and to respond to them. To live well is to successfully manage the perpetual susceptibility to harm and death that we always face.
Being realistic, means recognizing that whether or not you survive and thrive is a result of factors beyond your control as well as how it is you deal with vulnerability- both your own and that of others. What I have found is that people with an optimistic view of life, tend to feel powerful. They expect and plan for success. But what seems to differentiate those who achieve not only a high standard of living but also reach a high quality of living, is their capacity to form mutually beneficial relationships.
What exactly does mutuality mean? I like how Judith V. Jordan, a Harvard psychology professor and Director of the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at Wellesely College, describes the concept in a paper she presented at the Stone Center Colloquium: It is not merely a balancing, an “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine”, but a kind of matching of intensity of involvement and interest, an investment in the exchange that is for both the self and the other. The process of relating is seen as having extrinsic value. In practice this means avoiding been too accommodating or too controlling in relationships.
The scientist in me constructed the graph below to make the point that behavior in relationships exists on a continuum of self-interest. Movement away from mutuality has a negative impact on the quality of the support networks formed. How strong do you perceive your social support network to be?
Locate your level on the vertical axis. It can also be used as a scale for loneliness going from high to low instead of weak to strong. Either way, locate your level and draw a horizontal line across the curve from that point. Unless you believe you have an optimal support network and never suffer from loneliness, your horizontal like will intersect at two points on the inverted U. Drop two vertical lines to see where they fall on the scale of self-interest. Now think about your important relationships- can you see yourself as too accommodating or too controlling? If so, explore the origins of your behavior. What is it that you fear in relationships? What are your biggest fears in life?
I am ending this post thinking about Janet, and hoping with all of my heart that she will find the help and support she needs to go from surviving in the streets of LA to thriving in some place that Jeanette can truly call home. At the same time, I encourage you to evaluate your personal safety net and take action to strengthen it. As always, focus first on what matters most and the people who mean the most to you.
 The Meaning of Mutuality Ó1986 Judith V. Jordan