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9-bench

Overcoming a 21st century fear of intimacy

In his letter from America, Brandon McGinley bemoans a modern day trend to sequester ourselves in a lonely, walled-off garden.

I recognised the object on the trail ahead immediately as a breast pad—one is not married to a woman who has nursed four babies in six years without becoming accustomed to certain biological realities.

It was so clean that it must have just been dropped—specifically, by my friend hiking a couple of hundred feet ahead.

Being the last member of the hiking party, I was faced with a decision: to pick up my friend’s breast pad, which may or may not be soaked with milk, and return it to her, or to leave it there out of fear of mutual embarrassment and speak nothing further of it.

 

Stressful moment

It seems to me that in most relationships, among Christians or among seculars, this might be a stressful moment. But—and you must imagine me writing this with a certain cheeky and prideful glint in my eye—for me it was really no decision at all. I quickly scooped it up and shouted, “Hey, I think this is yours!”

The truth is that we had cleared that hurdle of intimacy long ago. Among the seven families who were on the trip to the mountains, we had watched and reprimanded each other’s children countless times, held conversations with breastfeeding mums on a nearly daily basis, and shared the joys and sufferings of marriage and (many) children—injuries and Sacraments and miscarriages and new adventures and horrific diapers and those perfect moments of childhood mirth—over the course of the last few years.

 

‘ridiculous’ fear

And so by now the fear was gone. More than that: by now the fear had been revealed to have been ridiculous from the beginning. So often in our relationships we become paralysed by the fear that to reveal any vulnerability or to permit any intimacy beyond the businesslike is imprudent, even somehow unnatural.

The work or business relationship—guarded, strategic, professional—has become the norm. For this reason, the genuinely intimate and self-giving friendship feels dangerous, like we are inviting exploitation and emotional pain.

This focus on misplaced professionalism results in a kind of prudishness, where anything that might symbolise the ‘private’ sphere is considered unsafe and unclean. We put up high barriers to intimacy that only a select few—mostly just immediate family members, and sometimes not even them—can clear.

 

A ‘walled-off garden’

Not only our emotional lives but some of the basic day-to-day functions of living—like nursing and its accessories—become sequestered in a lonely walled-off garden.

To be clear: this is not a brief against boundaries. There are still topics and actions and, yes, objects that entail particular intimacies in particular ways, and thus should remain within those bounds for the sake of maintaining essential tiers of closeness.

One could imagine items that would have dropped on that trail that I would not have picked up, or would have done so without examining, such as a bottle of prescription medication. We all know on some level that not everything is for everyone.

 

Divorce rates

But that’s not the problem we have right now. Now, we labour under the despairing fear that closeness and vulnerability will always turn toxic. Chastened by decades of one-in-two divorce rates, young people are choosing not to get married at all rather than to risk the trauma of breaking up.

Fearful that any relationship not built on contracts and quid pro quos and isolating rules of professional conduct will degrade into mutual angst and abuse, we keep everyone at a distance, floating through life and making meaningful contact in nothing more than brief moments from which we quickly flee.

This is the despair of life without grace. This fear, this lack of confidence that we can possibly build genuinely good and healthy and intimate relationships, doesn’t emerge out of nothing. Rather, it comes from generations of experience and intuition that human beings are sinful, and that sin disfigures and disintegrates communities.

 

His grace

The solution though is not to pull back, but to lean in—not with the imprudent hubris that we can heal sin by our own power, but with the sacred confidence that God’s grace can make possible what is otherwise impossible. Everything good in this world, including friendship and community, depends on His grace.

It’s up to us, then, to cooperate with that grace by accepting His invitations to grow in intimacy and holy friendship with those He places in our lives—with a kind word, an offer of help, or maybe just picking up a breast pad on the trail.

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