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LOVE AND ANTHROPOLOGY

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In 1988 with Jack Wheeler, I made first contact with a band of hunter-gatherers known as the San people in Africa’s Kalahari Desert.

San Bushman – photo by Jack Wheeler

These people had spent their whole lives completely isolated from the whirling, chaotic, mind-blowingly complex world in which most of us live – having had no contact with any people outside of few other small bands they would occasionally come in contact with.

We were a bizarre lot, the handful of us who camped out nearby – though not too nearby to be intrusive. We wore strange clothes with heavy protection on our feet that we called “shoes,” used boxes to make odd images called “photographs,” and slept inside things we called “tents.”

We were also curious. We paid attention to what we saw and heard. We wanted to know what was important to them. We honored their ways, and we learned from them.

In turn, their lives were equally strange to us (well, maybe not to Jack – this was his third “first contact”). They wore gazelle-hide loincloths and no shoes, and lived on a very sparse fare of roots, wild melons and whatever game they could snare or hunt. They had huts built out of small branches, but they usually slept outside of them, circled close to the fire.

In the evenings, they would sing and dance around the fire, chanting in a rhythmic call; at times, one of the men dancing would fall into a deep trance. He would be brought back to consciousness by the others rubbing hot coals on his body. The belief is that those who fall into a trance go to the other realm, bringing back wisdom for those who remained.

It was a grand adventure for me. It affected me deeply, helping put some of my priorities in perspective and adding to my appreciation for humanity’s richness. It also inspired me later on to write a children’s book, The San People of the Kalahari.

And it taught me something about marriage as well.

I’ve been working with couples as an intern, marriage therapist and relationship coach for more than 35 years. If there’s one common theme I’ve found to wreak havoc between perfectly wonderful people, it’s this:

We expect the other person to be just like us.

We expect them to have similar thoughts, feelings and values. We evaluate them in relation to our own experience and judge them based on our own internalized standards. We’re disappointed when they don’t measure up to our vision of how they should be, and we’re hurt when they do the same to us.

To the degree that we expect another person to share our own internal experiences, we lack empathy.

Within each of us resides a self-concept, grown and built over many years of unique experiences and influences: the threads of our soul woven through the strands of our very personal DNA, the fibers of our nervous systems whose signals hold our visceral history, and the storylines of our conscious memories.

What do you suppose the chances are that any two people would’ve grown to maturity with the same DNA, the same experiences, the same responses to those experiences and the same assumptions, beliefs, values, emotional intensity, likes, dislikes, appetites, fears, traumas, triumphs, vulnerabilities, support, neglect, fantasies, daydreams, hopes, longings…?

The San band’s culture that I encountered was no different in its specifics from other bands of San people that have been studied and written about by anthropologists. The same animal skins; the same small, watermelon-like fruit and roots for food; the same “mother-in-law’s tongue” plants from which they draw fibers for string and rope; the same poisonous beetle larvae they use to lace the same style of arrow shafts launched from the same kind of bows into the same variety of game animals.

Yet even among this small band of culturally indistinguishable human beings, there was an obvious variety of very personal, very human temperaments and experiences. Raise the cultural complexity to the level we’ve come to accept as normal in the Western world today, and you can begin to glimpse how very different our individual experiences are.

And that includes the individual experiences of our mates.

We each live within the larger culture of our modern world. We live within a smaller culture of our local communities. We come from an even smaller culture of our families of origin… and each one of us has, through our lives, created our very own, personally complex culture within our own skin.

If you were to come upon an exotic tribe, untouched by the larger world, and you expected it to think as you do, feel as you do, react as you do… If you expected it to behave the way you behave, and you dismissed its routines and rituals as silly while imposing your routines and rituals upon it… If you lectured it about the right way to do things or criticized it for not understanding the way you do them… What do you suppose the chances are that you would gain that tribe’s trust?

Yet this is what we do with each other as couples all the time.

We are often attracted to one another’s uniqueness. We’re drawn to our mates because there’s something about them that’s intriguing, fascinating, unknown… with the hope of coming to understand and join with such unique creatures on a life’s journey together.

What we forget along the way is that the threads of each other’s souls do not weave to form a simple pattern. To join two souls together is not to link a thread or two here or there. A human soul is a complex tapestry, and the challenge of two souls existing together is to weave such a tapestry in three dimensions.

Growing in love with each other is much less like reading a manual or listening to a simple story, and much more like reading a profound work of poetry. You can’t take it all in through a single pass… The meanings deepen with each fresh read.

When our small band of explorers met that small band of San people so very long ago, we honored them by respecting their culture, by paying attention to what was important to them and, most of all, by being curious about them.

Love requires that we treat each other at times like we’re brand new. One of the secrets to a happy love relationship is to be enduringly curious about one another.

The more we can set aside what we think we know about our mate and search instead for what there is to discover about our mate, the more excitement, adventure and awe we’ll experience together with our mate.

There’s a world within each of us. And in a love relationship, curiosity and respect are the keys to that world.

 

P.S. My new Master’s Course in Happiness is designed to help you learn the skills and habits that will help you build a flourishing life now. Jack Wheeler has this to say about the course: “I’ve learned so much from Dr. Joel Wade. And with his new Master’s Course, you, too, can learn the skills to feel like you are truly flourishing. Highly recommended.” Due to popular demand, I’m continuing to offer this to TTPers at a special discounted rate. Just enter promo code MH1PROMO.