The first time I took a photography class, I came prepared with a thick notebook of binder paper and the hope that I would be able to grasp all of the complicated steps involved in creating a clear, interesting image. This was long before digital cameras, during a time when portable phones were enormous and cumbersome and certainly not capable of recording photographs. A few moments into the first lecture, the teacher said, “Today I’m going to tell you the most important thing you need to know to take better photographs.” I sat up attentively and got ready to write down everything she was about to say.
“Stand closer,” she said smiling. “All of your pictures will be better if you stand closer to the subject.”
That might sound overly simplistic, but I knew immediately that she was right. After a lifetime of peering at snapshots of what looked like tiny people standing miles away, a seemingly miniature monument or building behind them, I got it that standing closer would mean being able to clearly capture all that is really there.
My greatest wish for all of us is that we can practice moving toward each other.
Fast-forward 40 years to this week when an article about relationships caught my eye. The secret to improving your relationship, the piece says? Standing closer, naturally. Not closer physically, although that might be the natural result of letting ourselves be more open, but simply letting ourselves truly see and be seen by other people. This idea has stayed with me because I know how easy it is to keep our distance from other people. With some false sense that we’re protecting ourselves from potential hurt, we tend to keep ourselves a bit separate and further away than we need to be from the people we love.
We all have our own reasons for this self-protection. Mine came from having a mother who focused on me as her reason for living. She needed too much from me in terms of reassurance, security, and attention and it made me feel like I needed to stand very far away from people if I wanted to be a whole person. But that’s an old story. My mom has been gone for decades and I have a strong sense of my own strength and independence. Still, I tend to keep my distance from other people if they make me nervous or if they need something I’m not sure I can provide.
And yet, I’m beginning to understand that if I do the exact opposite, it actually makes both of us feel better. That is, I feel less antsy if I stand closer, at least metaphorically. Listening without coming up with my next response is one way I’m learning to do that. Like staring at that comforting spot on the floor while trying to balance on one foot, I look at the person who is speaking and just listen. Then, I tell the truth instead of constructing a wall of reasons why whatever they are saying or asking for can’t happen. Sometimes the honest answer is, “I think you’re probably right, but I don’t know what to do about your problem.” It gives us a true starting point.
This is standing closer, because standing closer means letting yourself be so vulnerable that people can see the real you. Sometimes the real you doesn’t know the answers, or feels scared, or needs to put her head in her hands. The point is that I used to think that if I showed my vulnerabilities to other people it would give them power over me. Don’t ask me exactly what I thought they’d do with that power; I just knew it was bad. But I’ve learned that telling the truth—whatever it might be—actually lets me connect with other people in a way that makes us both feel more powerful.
Many years ago, I was lucky to meet a woman who seemed to be filled with pure love and optimism. Naturally, I was skeptical. When she told me she loved me, I practically ran in the opposite direction. When she shared her hopeful, positive dreams and goals, I stepped back even further. When my fear only seemed to make her more steadfast in her sunniness, I let myself edge closer. Fifteen years, a lovely marriage, and many emotional moves back and forth on my part, I know that standing nearer to her has made me a much better human than I ever was on that solo perch I was crafting for myself.
We are so fortunate to navigate this journey with others, whether they’re our family or the generous souls who soften those hours-long stretches we spend at work each day. My greatest wish for all of us is that we can practice moving toward each other. Letting people see us and love us as we are is not easy, but the result is richer than anything I can imagine.