As part of my work with death and dying I support people in facing their own death. Over the years I’ve listened to what people celebrate about their life, and what they most regret, and a clear theme has emerged: More than any grand career achievements, and certainly more than the acquisition of status or possessions, what has made their life worth living are their emotionally connected relationships and the ways in which they’ve been able to use their gifts to support or uplift others. Their greatest regrets most often involve the breakdown of significant relationships or the pain or abuse they have inflicted on others, human or other-than-human.
I listened to a fascinating program on the radio a little while ago. It cited a Harvard Study still in progress today, 80 years after its inception. The study has followed two groups of men, from opposite extremes of the socio-economic spectrum, beginning in their late teens and continuing throughout their lives. As part of the study these men have had regular physical and psychological evaluations exploring and documenting all aspects of their lives. The findings of the study to date have shown that, taking into account childhood influences, education, economic circumstances, spiritual orientation, exercise, diet and lifestyle, there is only one common denominator that determines their happiness and physical wellbeing: the quality of their relationships.
I can certainly relate to this in my own life – relationship, with both human and other-than-human beings, has been the source of my greatest joy, my deepest pain and my most potent learning. There is the love and unconditional acceptance I still feel when I think of my father, even though he died when I was seven. In my teens, whilst in the midst of a drug overdose, and believing myself about to die, I wrote a letter to my mother all over the sheets of my bed telling her how desperately sorry I was to have been such a difficult child. There was that excruciatingly painful family fallout, taking years to resolve but finally yielding the healing balm of reconnection. When my colleagues at a non-profit provided me the feedback that I was aloof and unavailable it shook the foundation of my identity as caring and compassionate. There has been the long journey of establishing a loving and respectful relationship with myself before I was capable of partnership with my husband, with its gifts of intimacy and abiding love along with the stark, unrelenting mirroring of all the ways I still need to grow. And there is the luminescent love and nourishment of my relationship with the Divine beings, along with their relentless schooling in how to walk with integrity, humility and compassion.
Of course we all know that love and connection are vital for our wellbeing, but what about the exquisite pain that relationships can cause? Unfortunately some of our deepest learning comes through pain. Whether learning how to navigate lack of respect and unkindness in others, or coming to terms with our own shortcomings and the pain we ourselves inflict, relationship provides a rich and multifaceted environment for our growth and transformation.
“When I practice these principles relationships become a wellspring of nourishment, connection, love and respect.”
Relating with others is an advanced skill that asks us to take a really good look at ourselves as well as the other person. This has led me to be on a continuing education program in life’s school of relationship. The guilt and remorse I feel when I have been unkind to someone demands of me that I reach for more compassion and respect. My preoccupation with all the things I dislike about this person reminds me to acknowledge that I can find a shadow of each of those things in myself. When I get triggered into an emotional outburst or reaction it asks me to look at the place inside me that needs healing and to have more compassionate awareness when others get triggered by me. When I feel hurt, frustrated or sad that my needs aren’t being met, how can I find a way to express them in a clear way that can be heard. The anger and grief I feel about being betrayed or abused impels me to set healthy boundaries for myself as well as to look at why I unconsciously attracted that person into my life or why I chose to trust them.
When I practice these principles relationships become a wellspring of nourishment, connection, love and respect. It is also why I love to coach and teach about relating effectively – not because I have mastered it but because I am passionate about how living in a state of respectful reciprocity with all the beings around us is fundamental to experiencing what makes life worth living. It is also the key to our personal and global healing.
If you’d like to listen to a short video on my principles for tending relationship check it out here. You might also like to consider participating in my upcoming Tending Relationship Teleclass beginning in November.