I suspect that many of us, at some point in our lives, have fantasised of disappearing without a trace – starting a new life elsewhere. From a relational stance however, we can’t simply just start over because we, ourselves, embody the essence of all that has gone on in our lives.
We might think of this as a relational blanket, its weave and texture a representation of our lives. From Charles M Shultz’s cartoons, Peanuts, it’s like Linus’ security blanket, it goes with us everywhere and is a comfort to us. It’s nearly attached to us and can’t be abandoned easily much as we might like to do so.
Metaphorically, our relational blanket is woven with all of our memories and the experiences of all the things that have been created in our world. If we were to move to a new location, form new relationships, and try to create a different life, we would also have the lessons, memories, and ties to much of which we’re trying to leave behind.
These non-physical artefacts, comprise everything of which we’ve been part. Even as we change settings they continue to influence our feelings, thoughts, and attitudes. This influence is felt almost as if it were independent of ourselves, and is impossible to ignore.
Nonetheless, we may be able to escape a place and the specific ways it influences us: we do however take our blanket with us when we move. Perhaps beyond the scope of this post, there are real merits to changing the physical, and often these changes can serve as a catalyst for non-physical changes.
Hence, the idea of leaving our relational blanket and just starting over, no matter how much we might like a clean start, simply is not that easy. Our relational blankets help keep us intact, whether or not that’s our wish. Nothing says that we can’t mend the holes, adorn them differently, or… ahem … even give them a good wash from time to time.
Recently, I had some serious sickness which caused me great physical pain and some emotional despair. I guess I’m a wimp when it comes to pain. I experienced such confusion about what I want for the next part of this life — however much time is left. I spent much of my waking hours thinking about mortality.
A cascade of questions continued to roll back and forth in my mind like a big marbles in a wooden box, clumping against the sides. The questions: “What is it that I am maintaining? What effect does maintaining everything in my life have on my time, time that I might like to use for a variety of other things?” As I thought about possible answers to these questions, the next obvious question became: “why am I maintaining these things? How much of this maintenance work might be taking me away from the activities that would help me create the life and identity I’d like?”
Much of my writing to this point has been about how our identities are formed, how we can recreate them, renew them and find ways to become the people we’d like to be. Relationships need attention, and as such we find ourselves obligated and committed to them and them to us in a cycle of constant maintenance which uses our capacity and time to make changes, or take on new things.
What are the maintenance activities that use up our time? Do these activities contribute to the identity we want to create? What are we maintaining and why?
If we want to reset or consider making new space for new activities or new undertakings, then it becomes important to consider how our time is being used now. Some would say, how we are spending our time, but this places the control entirely on us. The world does demand things of us and uses our time. There are perhaps two categories to examine: 1) What of our time the outer world uses? and then, 2) what of our time our inner world uses?
When we begin to list our commitments and obligations we see the weave and pattern of our relational blankets.
Finally, if we think about our time as something finite, one question might be: where is our time leaking away and what can we do to change or maintain our relationships differently so that in the end, the time is delivered to activities of our choosing, as much as is possible.
The bidirectional nature of relationship.
Let’s break this down into a series of pondering questions. At the moment I see two broad categories, since all relationships are bidirectional. We exert influence outward, and the relationships exert influence inward. Even our relationships with ourselves might be thought of as outward and inward — self-talk could be framed as participant and witness, observer and doer, student and guide. In this way we can be mentors to ourselves. Let’s group our questions bidirectionally.
Outer world influences on our time.
What are the relational structures in the world outside our minds that act upon us in ways that compel us, both consciously and unconsciously, to maintain what exists?
The outside world exerts influence on us and as a result we use our time to maintain relationships with the outside world. Some of these are societal expectations, political obligations, financial structures and laws that govern who we are as a society. They consume our time in their maintenance. We must earn a living, pay our bills, participate in our organisations, have the car serviced, cut our lawns, walk the dog, be an attentive partner …
A lot of this has to do with being a ‘good’ citizen. We have a finite amount of time, and it gets used because we perceive obligations to the world and we receive various things in return for how we use our time.
- Relationship expectations — doing what those around us expect of us
- Societal expectations — doing what society expects of a good citizen, participating in ways that allow society for function reasonably.
- Systemic obligations — working for a living, paying the bills, contractual commitments such a financial or legal.
- Societal pressures to conform — social media pressures, fashion.
Make no mistake, we do these activities in relationship because we perceive a benefit. We exchange our time for something, such as pleasure, learning, harmony, and laughter. Therefore, making choices about what we’d like in return will help inform what changes we might like to make with our relationships.
As you go about what you do daily, think about the benefit or negative return you receive on your investment of time and consider if each activity is high or low on your list of worthwhile activities.
Is what you receive in return worth your time to maintain a particular relationship? If you are serious about making changes you might ask yourself about the value of what you receive. For example: does social media offer enough of a reward that you want to invest a lot of time? Does having a green lawn offer enough joy that you want to mow it every week?
How can you pare down the list of things that draw on your time? Can you free up time to do things that take you in the direction that you would like to go? What activities help you shape your identity and being in ways what thrill you? What activities might you eliminate, reduce or give more energy?
Inner world influences on our time.
Like outer world influences which exert themselves on our time, we also create our own internal demands. Our choices come with rewards and negative consequences as well. However unlike outer world influences, we have much more control over our choices. Obligations and commitments are to ourselves primarily and to a great extent we need only answer to ourselves for our choices. Nonetheless, much of what we choose will exert influence on the outside world which in turn will invite a response.
How we use the time that is left after all of the other things ‘required’ by the outer world are done is our choice. In many ways, it’s what is left over that is all we have to work with. There is a lot of time during activities however — that’s a wonderful thing about being human, we can often do more than one thing at a time.
Even as I write this, there is a repairman here in the condo to fix the bamboo blinds. As he works he hums to himself. It’s lovely to be around. He’s obviously happy. Perhaps his humming is an expression of the joy he finds in the world, or perhaps he fills the gaps in times less exciting. Maybe it helps him concentrate.
Our attitudes alone can slip into all aspects of activities. It’s important to consider not only what we do, but also how we treat ourselves, and how we talk to ourselves. These are all ways that we use our time which then shapes our identities.
Activities that we engage in shift our identities. We need also to make room for these new or increased activities by letting go of some other things. This is why the question of maintenance becomes so relevant. To live the life you want to live, to do the work you want to do, to enjoy the friends you want to enjoy, what are the competing factors? Here are some of the influences on our choices to use our time:
- Personal expectations — doing what we expect of ourselves as we enact our relationship with ourselves and others.
- Habits, vices and addictions — activities that compel us to act in a certain way, often contrary to our preferred identity.
- Excuses and reasons — choosing to act in ways to avoid or to do things we hold as an ideal.
As you go through your day, notice how what activities you are doing that are not required by the outer world. Notice how you treat yourself. Notice how you talk to yourself.
Are there things that you do that keep you from doing activities that would help you be the person of your ideals.
Looking around your inner world, are there things that you do or think about often? Are your thoughts and actions in good repair? Are there things that you keep doing in spite of their low enjoyment or benefit? Do you hold onto ideologies that serve you or hold you back?
What we do with our time is a question that is covered in many popular leadership and self help books. To pay attention to how our time is used is not new. Where this writing differs is that I propose that when you think about time within a relational framework it’s no longer just about the benefit we achieve from using our time wisely but also the shift it makes in our identity and the world. Each activity has a relational influence for ourselves and others which makes it easier or harder for us to become the people we want to become.
A consideration of what we are maintaining help us make changes to our relational blanket and how we are in the world.
Until next time, I wish you much peace, thoughtful pondering, and strength in being your own best guide. As always people, do comment below, share this post or others with anyone whom you might think it could be of interest.
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