Welcome everybody to The Greg McKeown Podcast. It’s really a pleasure to have you, to spend a little time with you as you’re walking, maybe you’re running even, maybe you’re driving to work or back from work, tidying up in the kitchen. One thing that you certainly have in common with me and everybody else who’s listening is you are in many relationships. In fact, in a certain way, you’re in more relationships now than probably anybody has ever been because of the advent of social media that at least promises to connectors. But meanwhile, at exactly the same time, we’re living in the loneliest period perhaps in recorded history, and the solution to that is simply not going to be found in more shallow, distant digital connections.
This is episode three in a series on fewer but deeper, that is, how do we establish the kinds of relationships that can actually meet our need for connection, our need to be known, to be seen, to be understood, truly, to use those words from the classic book Howard’s End by E. M. Forster to connect? That this matters to people is, I suppose, self-evident, but, as we shall see in today’s episode, that’s not always been true. It’s not always been obvious, not always obvious, even to the psychologists and the therapists. Indeed, they taught something quite the opposite.
By the end of today’s episode, you will feel a renewed commitment to build deep relationships and deep connections with the people who matter most to you, and you will have a key to being able to understand those closest relationships more clearly. Let’s get to it.
Remember not to try and take this journey alone. This journey we’re on together. Go with someone. Go with your partner, your spouse, your family, your closest friends, and even your teammates at work. Think about who you can share this with so that the conversation begins when the conversation in this episode comes to an end.
A few days ago, Erik Newton went onto Twitter and wrote a series of posts, but they were unusual, not the kind of thing you’d normally see on social media, and he himself was surprised, in a way, at sharing it, but felt compelled to do it, still – wanted to share with the world a tragic and life-changing experience.
Literally, because of this series, fewer but deeper. Somebody sent this to me because they said this is what you’re talking about. This is what you’re writing about, and they’re not wrong. I don’t think I can in any way improve upon the words that he wrote, so I’m just going to read them to you verbatim.
He wrote, “I lost my wife to cancer last month. Our daughter lost her mother. I’ve hesitated sharing any of this, but there is something I want to record. Fair warning this is mostly about love. I’m devastated. A hall has opened where I thought my identity lived. I’m discovering new ways that I loved her every day and grieving each and trying to celebrate them. Our daughter is doing the same in her toddler way, asking questions about mama, slowly understanding what happened, and grieving in stages.
“We had a delightful life together, full of intense highs and lows, food, travel, all the surface things. But two elements were vastly more important to us than any of the rest. One, our extraordinary little daughter, and two, the quality of the time we all spent together.
“Aubrie and I fell in love early and fast, but we fell more in love during the time she was convalescing than I thought was possible. Facing death every day allowed us to set aside the silly things and focus on what matters. Our new depth made her death all the more painful, but of course, I wouldn’t trade it for the world, not for anything. The privilege.” he writes, “of knowing and loving her so deeply outpaces every other experience I’ve had. It’s the one thing that matters.
“I’ve considered whether to share any of this. It’s obviously tacky to make a personal tragedy into a public spectacle. I want to avoid that, but there is something that I want to capture. It’s what I’ve said above. We had an epic love affair, and yet we reached a depth of intimacy while Aubrie was on her deathbed that we’d never had access to before. That depth of love wasn’t available to us any earlier, for whatever reason, but it is available. I want to make it available to everyone by reminding you it exists.
“Aubrie shifted into a deeper love about six weeks before she died. During her time in the hospital. Her one regret was that she hadn’t spent more time deepening relationships with the people she cared about. Looked at from the other direction, her regret became an insight the only thing that matters at all is the quality of the relationships with the people we love. Focus on that. And yes, we all have obligations in life that need our attention, and those things pull us away from contemplating love with 100% of awareness. That’s true, but at the same time, we must remember what’s behind our desire to do those things in the first place. We must remember. I offer that at the center is family, community, and connection. I know it sounds trite in a tweet, but I can guarantee you with absolute certainty that when you’re dying, and you will die, these are the only things you will care about.
“Aubrie realized this deeply, in the most fundamental way, because she was running out of time, so she put it into action. It was mostly instinct at first, but by the end, her deeper way of loving had become very conscious and intentional. Her change was palpable. She softened and opened. She began to be with those around her in a kind of total surrender. We all felt that she was experiencing us without a filter, somehow. We were seen and loved. It was beautiful, it was overpowering, it was humbling beyond measure.
“As she did all this, those around her began to learn how to do it as well. I learned that being loved completely is overwhelming in the best way. It’s probably all any of us ever crave. I’ve tried to carry that love forward ever since it’s her legacy. Loving that deeply is a practice. It’s like anything. Sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes it’s very hard, but it’s always worthwhile. I’m pretty sure this depth of love is available to anyone. I only know one way to get to it: Complete surrender to the inevitable death of yourself and those you love. I’m not writing this to proselytize any given path. I simply want to say out loud that it is possible to love with a depth and breadth that I used to think was fiction. It’s not. Aubrie showed me the way.”
He concludes with this line, “Progressively deepening love is the goal and end in and of itself. If there is a point, it’s that.”
I reached out to Erik Newton to see if he’d like to come on this podcast. I’m pleased to say that he would like to and will have that as soon as it makes sense for him in a future episode.
It’s a beautiful story. It’s devastating and life-changing, but not just for Erik, for me too, maybe for you too, because in a time that can be captured beautifully by the Irish poet John O’Donoghue, “There is a huge and leaden loneliness setting like a frozen winter on so many humans.”
There are so many forces in modern life that pull us away from and apart from exactly the pinpoint precision of purpose that Erik Newton captures in his story. If he’s right, can’t we feel that he’s right? So, if he is, just think of all of the things that pull us away from each other. And among the things that pull us away from each other is a mindset that has been deliberately, repeatedly academically written, published, and taught for decades now about what even makes a relationship healthy in the first place. And even though it’s wrong, it’s still often taught in a whole variety of ways in social media psychology, that pretense for real research or for the latest ideas. We are taught that it’s all about us. We are told to not let anything get in our way. The word dependent itself has only a negative connotation. Maybe it’s fine for little children, but not for an adult, and this we will see really matters.
I’ve been reading some of Dr. Sue Johnson’s book Hold Me Tight, in which she gives a history of exactly these contrasting ideas we’re talking about, and I think the best thing for me to do is to read you some of what she’s written and then maybe to make some comments as we go.
Dr. Sue writes, “Clues to love’s true purpose have been circulating for a long time. Back in 1760, a Spanish bishop, writing to his superiors in Rome, noted that children in foundling homes, though they were sheltered and fed, regularly quote die from sadness.
“In the 1930s and 1940s, in the halls of American hospitals, orphaned children deprived only of touch and emotional contact died in droves. Psychiatrists also began identifying children who were physically healthy but who seemed indifferent, callous, and unable to relate to others. David Levy, reporting his observations in a 1937 article in the American Journal of Psychiatry, attributed such youngsters’ behavior to emotional starvation.
“In the 1940s, American analyst Renee Spitz coined the term failure to thrive for children separated from their parents and caught in debilitating grief. But it remained for John Bowlby, a British psychiatrist, to figure out exactly what was going on.”
So who’s John Bowlby? Listen to this shocking story.
“Born in 1907, Bowlby, the son of a baronet, was raised in the fashion of the upper class, primarily by nannies and governesses. His parents allowed him to join them at the dinner table after he turned 12 and then only for dessert. He was sent off to boarding school and then attended Trinity College, Cambridge. Bowlby’s life departed from tradition when he volunteered work in the innovative residential schools for emotionally mal-adjusted children being started by visionaries like AS Neal.
“These schools focused on offering emotional support rather than the usual stern discipline. Intrigued by his experiences, Bowlby went on to medical school and then took up psychiatric training, which included undergoing seven years of psychoanalysis. His analyst apparently found him a difficult patient, influenced by mentors like Ronald Fairbent, who argued that Freud had underestimated the need for other people. Bowlby rebelled against a professional dictum that the crux of patients’ problems lay in their internal conflicts and unconscious fantasies. Bowlby insisted the problem were mostly external, rooted in real relationships with real people.
“His experiences spurred him to formulate his own idea, namely that the quality of the connection to loved ones and early emotional deprivation is key to the development of personality and to an individual’s habitual way of connecting with others. In 1944, Bowlby published the very first paper on family therapy 44 Juvenile Thieves was its name in which he noted that behind the mask of indifference is bottomless misery and behind apparent callousness, despair. Young charges were frozen in the attitude I will never be hurt again and paralyzed in desperation and rage.
“Following World War II, Bowlby was asked by the World Health Organization to do a study of European children left homeless and orphaned by the conflict. His findings confirmed his belief in the reality of emotional starvation and his conviction that loving contact is as important as physical nutrition. Along with his studies and observations, Bowlby was impressed by Charles Darwin’s ideas of how natural selection favors responses that help survival. Bowlby came to the conclusion that keeping precious others close is a brilliant survival technique wired in by evolution. Bowlby’s theory was radical and noisily rejected. Indeed, it almost got him thrown out of the British Psychoanalytic Society.
“Conventional wisdom held that coddling by mothers and other family members created clingy, over-dependent youngsters who grew up into incompetent adults. Keeping an antiseptic, rational distance was the proper way to rear children. That objective stance held even when youngsters were distressed and physically ill. In Bowlby’s era, parents were not allowed to stay in the hospital with their sick sons and daughters. They had to drop the children off at the door.
“In 1951, Bowlby and a young social worker, James Robertson, made a movie called A Two-Year-Old Goes to Hospital, graphically showing a little girl’s angry protest, terror, and despair at being left alone in a hospital. Robertson showed the film to the Royal Society of Medicine in London in the hope that physicians would comprehend the child’s stress at separation from loved ones and the need for connection and comfort. It was dismissed as a fraud and almost banned. In the 1960s, in Britain and the United States, parents still typically were allowed to visit their hospitalized offspring for only one hour a week.
“Bowlby needed to find another way to prove to the world what he knew in his heart. He used an experiment called the Strange Situation that has generated literally thousands of scientific studies and revolutionized developmental psychology. A researcher invites a mother and child into an unfamiliar room. After a few minutes, the mother leaves the child alone with the researcher, who tries to offer comfort if needed. Three minutes later, the mother comes back. The separation and reunion are repeated once more.
“The majority of children are upset when their mothers walk out. They rock themselves, cry, throw toys. But some prove more emotionally resilient. They calm themselves quickly and effectively reconnect easily with their mothers on their return and rapidly resume playing while checking to make sure that their moms are still around. They seem confident that their mothers will be there if needed. Less resilient youngsters, however, are anxious and aggressive or detached and distant on their mother’s return.
“The kids who can calm themselves usually have warmer, more responsive mothers, while the moms of the angry kids are unpredictable in their behavior, and the moms of the detached kids are cold and dismissive. In these simple studies of disconnection and reconnection, Albi saw love in action and began to code its patterns.
“Bowlby’s theory gained still greater currency a few years later when he produced a famed trilogy on human attachment, separation, and loss. His colleague Harry Harlow, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, also drew attention to the power of what he called contact comfort. By reporting of his own dramatic research with young monkeys separated from their mothers at birth, he discovered that the isolated infants were so hungry for connection that when given the choice between a mother made out of wire who dispensed food and a soft cloth mother without food, they would choose the swashy rag mother almost every time.
“Generally, Harlow’s experiments showed the toxicity of early isolation. Physically healthy infant primates who were separated from their mothers during the first year of life grew into socially crippled adults. The monkeys failed to develop their ability to solve problems or understand the social cues of others. They became depressed, self-destructive, and unable to mate.
“Attachment theory,” that’s the name for all of this, “at first ridiculed and despised, eventually revolutionized child-rearing methods in North America. Today it is widely accepted that children have an absolute requirement for safe, ongoing physical and emotional closeness and that we ignore this only at great cost.”
Bowlby died in 1990, applying it beyond young children. Attachment theory, originally from Bowlby, was all about that vitally important connection in those years, basically zero to three, and the disproportionate impact of that for the rest of their lives. But since his death, a whole new phase has come forward, exploring to what extent those ideas of attachment exist in our relationships as adults. That is not just the degree to which we were attached as young children, but right now, the importance of being deeply connected with the people closest to us. This is a completely different way of thinking about it, a completely new chapter on attachment.
Dr. Sue continues here with an important point. She says, “Most important, however, the attachment view of love was, and perhaps still is, radically out of line with our cultures, established social and psychological ideas of adulthood. That maturity means being independent and self-sufficient.”
That’s the idea, the seed gets planted in our hearts by an almost infinite number of social media sources, including pop culture. This is what it means to be an adult. This is what it means to be mature, being independent, and self-sufficient. Now, I’m not saying that isn’t an important, necessary development.
Let’s go back to Dr. Sue’s language here. She says, “The notion of the invulnerable warrior who faces life and danger alone is long ingrained in our culture. Consider James Bond, the iconic, impervious man still going strong after four decades. Psychologists use words like differentiated, codependent, symbiotic, or even fused to describe people who seem unable to be self-sufficient or definitely assert themselves with others. In contrast, we talked about” listen to this term, “effective dependency, and how being able, from cradle to the grave, to turn to others for emotional support is a sign and source of strength.”
There is more to this to be explored in future episodes, but that history lesson about Bowlby, care of Dr. Sue Johnson in her book Hold Me Tight, brings us all the way back to the beginning with that striking story from Erik Newton and his conclusion that progressively deepening love is the goal and end in and of itself. “If there is a point,” he said, “it’s that.” It’s easier, isn’t it?
So, therefore, what? One therefore, what is that we should prioritize? Nurturing the vital few relationships that matter most to us, recognizing that these human connections are essential, absolutely vital even to our survival, to say nothing of our general well-being. Happiness, fulfillment.
We don’t find the greatest happiness out there. We don’t find the meaning and adventure of our life just by pursuing a solo goal. And, of course, it’s easier to face our phone than face our life or face those relationships. It takes more courage to go from the surface relationships that sometimes we have created by default in our closest relationships or in those people that live closest to us, our family members, our closest friends. It’s easy to be at the surface, or is it? Because with the surface interactions also goes all the meaning. With that kind of surface set of relationships with lots of people at a distance, we lose our way, we become emotionally starved, and no amount of doom looping will fill that hole.
So, therefore, what? Well, consider one of the following. Choose one and try it out this week.
You could do a life timeline sharing, that is, you create a timeline of your life’s key events and share it with a close person to you who also does the same, and you discuss these timelines so that you can offer deep insights into each other’s life journeys and experiences.
Okay, second idea you can participate in story circles. That’s a practice rooted in some indigenous cultures where each person tells a story from their life based on a theme. So choose a single theme so that people have a chance to organize their thoughts. This is certainly a practice that can foster deep listening and shared understanding.
You could have a silent book club. You could join or start one anyway where members read together in silence and then have a discussion session. So you’re combining solitary reflection with communal sharing. It gets you below the surface. It gets you below the obvious.
You could have a role reversal day. You spend a day where you and a friend or your spouse reverse roles, trying to live and act as the other person. This exercise in empathy can deepen understanding and appreciation for each other’s experiences.
Or start even more simply than all of those. When you next talk to a member of your family or a close member of your team at work, or a friend beyond that that you want to get below the surface with, don’t just say how are you? Say, how are you really? Follow it up with a second question, and get to the third question, whatever it is, based upon what they said, so that you can move from this endlessly fast-paced surface interaction that feeds nobody, in fact, leaving all of us emotionally starved and seriously lonely. Don’t do all of those things, just one thing to a micro version of any of the above, but by all means, do something because, at the very end, this depth, this level of attachment, is going to be everything that matters.
Thank you, really. Thank you for listening to episode three in this series about fewer but deeper.
If you haven’t already done this, sign up for the new, less but better series. It’s an email series that gets sent to you every few days. It’s not overwhelming, and I think it’s almost to say that it’s really beautiful, very simply designed. It’s completely free. Just go to gregmckeown.com. It’s on the home page. You sign up, just literally put the email in there. It’s 10 seconds, and it just gets sent to you for free. That’s something that I’m proud of, and our team is proud of, and I think it will help you to deepen these ideas and how you apply them to yourself and also to the people who matter most to you. I’ll see you next time.