I don’t know if this happens to other people (though I suspect it does), but I’ll be going along believing something about the world and myself and how everything works, and I’ll have been doing some reading, or thinking, or self-exploration – and I’ll realize something might not be or work the way I thought it is or works. Sometimes it comes as a gradual recognition, but sometimes, it can be a blinding flash. Case in point, an epiphany I had the other day.
I realized that the way I thought relationships – particularly friendships – worked, may not be the way they actually work. Although never really consciously, I realized that I have always viewed relationships as basically hierarchical. At any given time – or, in some cases, all the time – one person is superior or inferior to another.
By that I mean, two people in a relationship are rarely equal. One person may be providing and one receiving, one may be supporting while the other is being supported, and usually, one person is more “in charge” in the relationship than the other. This way of looking at relationships probably began, of course, in my childhood and was generally present all through school and growing up.
Everyone is familiar with this rigid academic social strata: the cool group, the jocks, the pretty girls, the losers and stoners, the nerds, and the outcasts. And don’t forget the constant popularity contests that are – classes, clubs, dances, and dating. I ran across a quote in a book I was reading that I really liked: “Deep, nurturing friendship is no easy thing in a rigidly hierarchical social environment where jockeying, competition, and pervasive insecurity and stress are the rule.”
Social environments like school can be a survival-of-the-fittest type of situation, very stressful and insecurity – fostering, and we get through it any way we can by fitting ourselves into the social hierarchy. It is such a strong form of training that I guess it’s not so surprising that we carry this system into our adult lives and relationships. It’s certainly the (unconscious) perspective I have always had – that friendships are certainly possible, but only within certain rules.
Thinking about it differently, however, raises the question of how to avoid this idea of hierarchy in order to truly have the deep, nurturing friendships that the author referred to above, and with all my recent experiencing of true community, I am starting to realize that how I may have thought it worked, doesn’t, in fact, have to be true. An insecurity-forming, high stress, I-owe-you-you-owe-me system might not be the only choice.
A few weekends ago, I bought several hummingbird-attracting plants at the nursery. These plants provide a food source to the hummingbirds, as well as to bees; both of which I am trying to encourage and protect in my garden. To my delight, the plants worked, and more hummingbirds began to showing up and zipping quickly around my garden – doing their necessary job. As I was talking about the hierarchy epiphany I had with Jill, she reminded me about my new plant acquisitions, using my little birds as an example of how relationships can be.
Hummingbirds don’t think about whether they’re doing more for the flowers than the flowers are doing for them, or are better than the flowers, or whether they owe the person who put in the plants or put out the feeder. Hummingbirds do what they do – eating and pollinating, giving and taking. They are not insecure, they just are, engaging in their relationship with the world, which makes me wonder…what if we were the same way in our human relationships?
I have been shown such love and support lately – love and support that was freely given and does not require me to pay it back – that I am beginning to think it might be possible. It seems like the only requirement might be that everyone understood what was going on, and then kept working to make sure it was going as hoped; checking in, communicating, and doing their own work.
True, unranked relationship is being modeled for me: I have it – I give it; you have it – I need it – you give it. Nobody is superior or inferior to anyone else and everyone shares what skills they have. Perhaps completely stepping out of the strata is unrealistic and overly optimistic, but what if every day we considered stepping out of the hierarchy into true give-and-take, and decided not to think in terms of a hen-like pecking order anymore? After all, I’d rather be a hummingbird in this world than a chicken.