June 8

Watering the Fish

June 8, 2011

Personal Growth

Joel came to me and said that his business was failing, his marriage was shaky, and the relationship with his children was strained. He was twisted in knots.

"You're not seeing the central problem," I said.

"Which is?" he asked.

"You're afraid."

"Well, sure, with all these problems, of course I'm afraid."

"I'm not saying that because of these problems you're afraid. I'm saying that because you're afraid, you're having these problems."

"I don't understand."

"In all the environments you just named—work, marriage, kids—there are two common threads. Do you see them?"

"Not really."

"The first common thread is you. The second is people. In every situation you described there are interactions between you and other people."

"Okay. So?"

"What do people want more than anything else?" I knew that Joel had read a couple of Real Love books.

"Love?"

"Yes. So all those people you just described would need to feel loved by you, yes?"

"I guess so."

"It's not a guess. No matter who the people are—your wife, your kids, your employees—they need to feel like you care primarily about their happiness. When you're afraid, though, who are you thinking about? Your primary concern is about what other people might do to whom?"

"Me?"

"Of course. You're afraid for yourself—what people might do to you or what they might not do for you. And while you're thinking about yourself, what's the likelihood that other people will feel your concern for their happiness?

"Probably not great."

"Zero, actually. It's even worse than that. When you're afraid, they don't just hear an absence of your love. They hear you saying that you don't care about them."

"But I do care."

"I know you want to. I know you mean to. I know you actually believe that you do. But you don't. If you're afraid, you simply can't be caring about them. Impossible."

"But I don't start out afraid. I only get afraid when things start to go badly."

"Joel, it's important that you understand that my only goal here is to help you be happier. In many ways I can see what you're doing better than you can, because I'm not up to my eyeballs in what's happening. I can offer you a perspective that is relatively undistorted—clearer. You were not raised in a loving home. You've never really been loved unconditionally. As a result, you're in pain all the time, and you hate pain—like we all do. When we're in pain, we are naturally afraid—usually terrified—of anything that could add to our pain."

"Like what?"

"You're afraid of failing. You're afraid that you won't get your way and will then feel helpless. You're afraid of being out of control. You're afraid that people will think you're wrong or stupid, because then they won't like you. That's just the beginning of a long list of things you're afraid of."

Joel looked at the floor for several moments before he said, "All true."

"So, sure, you become more afraid when things go badly with people, but your problems with people also begin with your being afraid. We think we hide our fears, but we really don't. People can smell the confusion and distraction we feel when we're afraid. They can sense—with remarkable sensitivity and accuracy—that we're not in a place to focus on their needs, and then they become afraid, because we can't give them what they need most. Instead of interacting with us in loving and productive ways, they protect themselves, and that always goes badly. When we get afraid, we become kind of insane."

"It sounds like you're making kind of a big deal out of just one factor in all these complicated situations."

"Imagine that I call you and say that one of the fish in my aquarium is behaving oddly. It's flapping its tail fin in a rapid, crazy way, and it's body is horizontal—relative to the floor—rather than the usual vertical position. You ask me if the other fish are behaving normally, if I've changed fish food, and if the water is clear, but you can't figure out the problem. Are there any other questions you'd like to ask?"

"Has anything unusual happened to the fish lately?"

"I say that I don't know if it's important, but the fish did jump out of the tank and onto the floor."

"When?"

"Just a minute ago."

"You mean the fish is on the floor right now?"

"Yes."

"Why didn't you say so to begin with? That's the problem. You have to put the fish back into the tank."

"But that's just one factor. How could that one thing explain all these odd behaviors?"

"Because it's a very important thing. It's the thing."

"Exactly. And Real Love is just as important to human beings as water is to fish. Before anything else, you have to give fish water. Before anything else, you have to give people love, and if you don't, a great number of other problems will result. If you don't recognize that people are 'out of water,' so to speak, you'll never solve the other problems that come up."

We cannot omit Real Love from the solution of any human problems. If we do, we may temporarily control the symptoms, but they will return, and other symptoms will occur.

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