Twenty years ago, I developed three guiding principles for my life: listen deeply, love widely and be transparent. These concepts serve as a trio of touchstones, a system of spiritual checks and balances. To listen deeply means to hear what is being said. When someone is speaking, our human reflex is to hear what we want to believe, rather than the words actually spoken. My practice is to be attentive to what I hear (or read) while simultaneously noticing my own thoughts and feelings. To love widely requires a profound appreciation for who and what is present in my life, as I deepen some relationships and release others. To be transparent demands a life without masks or pretensions. It is a call to intimacy with the world.
Of course, I fail sometimes. I listen through the filter of my fears or I love poorly. On occasion, I fall into the trap of wanting to be “good” as defined by a narrow ideal seeded in my childhood. But I am a work in progress. Failure is inevitable and must be embraced.
During 2011, as I responded to letters written to the Ask Joey column, my touchstones inspired clarity. I could see how so many relationship dilemmas are caused by an unwillingness to listen or love or act from integrity. Consider the following:
Listen deeply: Some readers were outraged by my response to a grandmother worried that her high-school aged granddaughter was dating a college boy. The grandmother heard about the relationship from a neighbor whose teenage daughter said the young couple had been sexually involved. I advised the grandmother to spend time with the granddaughter and open the lines of communication about the relationship. Some readers spit hellfire at me for not demanding that Grandma report the crime of statutory rape. I sassed back that the story was, at the moment, gossip, not fact. And, when the grandmother followed my advice and talked to her granddaughter, the gossip unraveled. The granddaughter had never dated the college boy (who lived in another state), never been alone with him and had no interest in him. When the grandmother confronted the neighbor’s daughter, the teen confessed that she had made the story up, because she was jealous of the granddaughter.
Over and again, as I respond to letters, I am grateful that listening deeply allows me to hear the truth right in front of me.
Love widely: Many of the letters I received in 2011 revealed a startling misunderstanding of what love is. Men and women of all ages sought advice about how to hang onto dating and marriage partners that they were better off without. To love widely, include yourself on the list of people you care for. Love yourself enough, dear readers, not to tolerate abuse, addiction, serial adultery or habitual disrespect. And remember, love is a journey, not a destination. Once you manage the basics of self-love, practice putting your own needs aside. Selflessly extend yourself for the benefit of your partner, children and the world. In a healthy relationship, both individuals are working on this, and that makes being a couple such joy.
Be transparent: A lot of heartache occurs because two people discovered chemistry, had sex and then tried to create a relationship around their hot sexual connection. Intensity in the bedroom does not guarantee a lasting relationship, I reminded readers several times a month. It’s easy for most people to strip off their clothes. But those same individuals resist sharing their naked feelings, thoughts or spiritual beliefs. That’s not intimacy. My advice? Let honesty go viral in your life.
Writing the Ask Joey column is one of my cherished spiritual practices. It invites me to remain committed to my life principles and to grow with them, and with you, dear readers. Here’s to another year of listening deeply, loving widely and being transparent, together.