At Operation Snowball, the teens call the exercise “Sex in a Fishbowl,” but it’s not some weird, erotic game. They divide the room sending males to one side with females facing them from the other. Everyone scribbles questions they would like their counterparts of the opposite sex to answer, and places them into a fishbowl to be withdrawn randomly and anonymously.
Anxiety fills the room as the questions emerge, and becomes especially ubiquitous when they migrate from the mundane to those that swirl around relationships and how we can test them for validity and legitimacy. “How do you know when a girl likes you?” “How do you tell the guy you are dating that you like them?” These are among the questions that cause the most squirming…and elicit the most embarrassed answers. On the surface, simple questions in search of straightforward answers.
But, I wonder if the answers sought are themselves in search of far deeper questions. I wonder if the unasked questions that lurk in background are not about how acceptance bounces from one to another, but how acceptance resounds within me. Could it be that the real questions are “Do I like and value myself, and how do I know?”
Perhaps I am unusual, but, for most of my life, and certainly as I raced through puberty, I have been in search of a self worthy of my respect. Can I tease from my being a self deserving of the resources it consumes, a self that leaves behind greater value than it finds, and most frighteningly, a self that someone might love. To this very day, it is possible, often easy, for me to fall into a place of deep questioning of self-worth and value…and let’s not even get into questions of lovability.
The need to be loved and valued is, I believe, deeply rooted in the human psyche. I know many people who are responsible for meaningful change in the human condition and they still question the meaning of their lives. One dear friend I grew to love and admire for her lifetime of work said, as she approached the end of her time on Earth, “I don’t want my life to have been a throw away line.” Another of my teachers reflected that, “When you ask people about their gifts and you get platitudes…ask about their faults and you get poetry!”
Each of us has gifts and an inner beauty; each of us has value and is lovable. But those qualities can be difficult to see in good times. In our darker moments, they can become impossible to touch. Or feel.
In the Zen Buddhist tradition there are cautions against this kind of attachment to “self.” The Buddha suggested that the root of all suffering is attachment. Nirvana is that place where we free ourselves from wishes that we, and the world around us, could be different. Freedom is the complete acceptance of what is. But I wonder if the path to Nirvana requires us to traverse the valley of doubt. Could it be that it is only after we discover a valuable self that we can finally let it go and end the search?
Human relationships are complex, difficult and often break our hearts; but if they were otherwise—easy to understand and incapable of touching our hearts—of what value would they be? They are the gateways into the valley of doubt and self questioning.
So, as you ask me about the validity of our relationship—whether I like you and you like me—I ask for your understanding if I squirm. To entertain those questions is to invite you into a deeply personal, and sometimes frightening, introspective dialogue. The answers to those seemingly simple questions are waiting for me to answer the larger question of how much I care for myself—questions that emerged long before a fishbowl appeared in the middle of the room. And those deeper answers are nearly sixty years in the making.