Sex, Love, and now Intimacy. This last is not a mirror ball. This is one of those black fortune-telling balls that you ask questions and the answer slowly surfaces in a little window. Or maybe it’s one of those black boxes where you throw a lever, a trapdoor opens, a little hand reaches out and shuts off the lever -- then goes back inside and the door locks. I’m being way too clever, but intimacy -- unlike love but rather like sex -- can be time-limited, just a few very close moments that can end or be sustained. Not necessarily anything to do with sex, possibly between equals but not always, often unexpected though it can be invited. It is a moment when boundaries are dissolved and there is emotional fusion, something like a Spock/Kirk Vulcan mind-meld, that supports true understanding. They say it is an evolutionary advantage that is uniquely human. It’s partly what makes soldiers fight in combat for the guy next to them.
Not everyone wants to be a secret-sharer, or maybe they do in that moment but repent later, so the same person who abandoned caution in the moment may have to use enormous care to prevent damage later. Think about the elaborately wood-paneled protection of the confessional, which can also -- we now learn too late -- be used to shield secret abuse, which is why it has been removed and curtailed in modern times. Now the priest sits with his parishioner in the middle of the gym floor, two chairs for a quiet talk in plain sight. Think about psychotherapy. Think about professional sexwork. Think about writers. Disclosure, honesty, small details that mean a lot, being really in sync -- sometimes you have no idea what happened. Sometimes it’s simply there every time you look for it. A hand in the dark. Dependably.
We read and watch movies for an illusion of intimacy we can put down and walk away from. It’s not real intimacy if the disclosure is one way, one person dropping the veil -- the other person not. Yet it’s the risky intimacy that carries the most emotional punch, which is probably one reason we are all so hooked on stories of underworld characters or spies in wartime.
Everyone has had the experience of intimacy shielded by anonymity; for instance, someone who confides to a seat mate on a big city bus or waiting in an airport, unlikely to ever be seen again. It can be a burden to be the receiver, unable to resolve questions raised, wondering what words might have shown understanding or even helped this stranger. Research claims that this impulse to help is inborn and blooms in toddlers, even when they only understand the general emotion and have no remedy but awkward patting with a fat little hand.
What a great luxury to find a friend or partner or even relative (that’s a little problematic, if only because in these days of blended families and open adoption it’s hard to know who IS a relative or what obligations they might feel) who can provide intelligent sharing, truly be in the moment without any agenda or ax to grind. It’s hard to lose all awareness of the larger context and just let the moment be a bubble in which it is safe to cross boundaries. I don’t advise it, really. But a life without intimacy is a barren trap. It can make a zombie of you.
The only real safeguard is to make a life in which it is relatively safe to be intimate, but the world doesn’t work that way for a lot of people. Too many have had to start over, too much can’t be done in plain sight. Those people need to keep it clear in their own heads what must be protected. But if they get drunk? If they are very, very tired?
You’d think that in a small town, there would be no need for secrets since everyone already knows everything anyway. But many an author (Sherwood Anderson, “Winesburg, Ohio,” for instance) has written a book about the hidden stories of people in small towns where the neighbors are convinced they know it all. These days do they go online to achieve intimacy with far away people on Facebook? What if the wrong person stumbles over it?
We’ve reached the days of TMI, but Too Much Information is not the same as Too Much Intimacy. Intimacy is far more dangerous. Intimacy would seem -- SEEM -- to be one state in which one can be entirely trusting -- part of the dynamic is that one should feel that way, but part of becoming mature is becoming guarded. Alas. One must resort to love and experience to achieve wisdom about intimacy, but there is never complete safety. Take the damage. Learn from it. Heal. Guard your playing cards.
There is plenty of advice on the Internet (of varying quality) but issues can include fear of pain, fear of not being good enough, fear of being smothered and limited, wishing to dominate and “own” in order to fend off all these fears, re-enacting old scripts that went wrong. These are old, old issues. I’d bet that neanderthals worried about them. One is forced to remember that intimacy is not just about the one person you can control -- yourself -- but also the other person, their complex of motives, self-deceptions, pressures, and safeguards.
To become intimate with someone is to risk love and love means hostages, the possibility of loss. However impervious you are, loved ones who can be hurt are a worse threat than damage to oneself. If you easily sacrificed whom you thought was a loved one, then it wasn’t love. People fantasize about ESP and mind-reading and there are sci-fi stories about it, but if we ever achieve it, we may be sorry. What if this person you felt so close to is not who you thought at all? Maybe that’s what all these twilight characters are about. Can a werewolf or a vampire report you to the authorities for being hard-hearted and reckless? Can anyone? Can a person have true intimacy with an animal? And yet, maybe there was a moment in a zoo when you looked into a caged tiger’s eyes and saw a world totally alien. Shuddering. Yearning.