“You are in this water…It put you in here so that if your spirit ever wandered, you would know where home was.” -Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing
“Know thyself,” goes the old adage. The Perks of Being A Wallflower says “We accept the love we think we deserve,” as though we must come to understand or value ourselves before we can accept another’s love. I’ve heard people say that (and, hearing, I’ve repeated that) for most of my life: you can’t work in a relationship until you can work on your own. You need to understand yourself before you understand another. In this model, my first, foundational relationship is with myself.
Of course, there are other models. You could believe that your foundational relationship is with others (your parents, your siblings, your friends), and that through this relationship you build a connection to yourself. From that perspective, you come to understand who you are by seeing others, and seeing yourself as brother, sister, friend. I think America’s individualism is suspicious of this model, and I’m usually pretty individualistic myself, but right now it feels powerful: I can’t be something I’m not, but I certainly consider others in choosing how to grow. When I look at parents, I might see this: they become (in part) what their children need.
I like the self-first perspective, too. Compassion can start with the imaginative understanding that other people are “like me:” they want, and hope, and are hurt. (We ask children, “How would you feel if…”). That looks like using a cultivated relationship with yourself as the foundation for an imaginative understanding that other people are just as real as you.
Me, or you–but it’s really a third perspective that I want to consider today. Years ago, I heard a Native American teacher explain that your foundational connection is really to a place. It is to the stream and the forest and the field where life flows. It is to the coolness of the lake that gives us and others water, and has given others (plants, deer, ancestors) water for time uncounted, and will give water, we hope, for generations to come. It is not to the idea of the earth, but rather to the specific landscape that is your home–to here. He said this a a lot more eloquently than I am, but even so, I had trouble following–my whole worldview was so human centric that I had a hard time making room for this thought. But ever since then, quietly, I think I have been making room..
“Know thyself,” the saying goes. Okay, but how do we do that? Do we look inward at ourselves? Do we look to our family, our parents, our community? In some ways, the third step is a broader version of the second–instead of just looking around at people, you look around at earth. You consider who you are within the context of the ground beneath you, the rain that falls from above you, and the overlapping waves of life that surround you. I like this third way. I’m going to try to sit within it, feel it, and see what I find.