Even the new physics tells us that matter is merely the manifestation of spirit, but spirit, consciousness, relationship itself is the real thing. We used to think all the energy was in the particles of the atom; now it seems that energy is, in fact, in the space between the particles.
- Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs.
For most of us the space between the particles – between you, me, others – our relationships, will be defining regarding how the year 2017 unfolds. The same is true for Donald Trump, Time Magazine’s Person of the Year and President-elect of the so-called “Divided States of America.” His success will greatly depend on how he navigates the relationships of ardent supporters and determined opposition. But it is also true for each of us. While New Year’s resolutions often focus on weight-loss or exercise – our hopes, dreams and goals for 2017 will be greatly impacted by the support, indifference or resistance from our relationships.
I have written extensively about our collective relational decline including my book, This Land of Strangers – The Relationship Crisis That Imperils Home, Work, Politics and Faith based on six years of researching the cumulative social, emotional and economic impact across our lives. Since completing the book I created a Flight From Relationship index comprised of 16 key metrics ranging from the rise in single-parent households, loss of “go to” friends, turnover of skilled employees including CEOs, and defections from political parties and religious affiliation (Ron Fournier, NationalJournal wrote about it here). The net: over several decades a 214 percent increase in our flight from relationships.
If productive relationships are among our most valuable and value-creating resources – my research says they are – then a central question for the good of our health, wealth and well-being is: What is the current state of my relationships and what are my intentions for 2017? Let me propose three questions to help us examine our relationships.
1. Are your relationships big enough to get the job done?
The short answer is that often there is a mismatch between what we aspire to accomplish and the strength of our relationships to get them done. We might call it our “relationship deficit.” Last year I spoke at an international conference at Cambridge University in the midst of lively discussions prior to Great Britain’s “Brexit” vote. Another speaker prophetically posed leadership guru Steve Radcliffe’s question – “Are your relationships big enough to get the job done?” In retrospect, the surprising vote to exit the EU similar to President-elect Trump’s victory, seemed to unearth a “relationship deficit” in a group of voters feeling relationally neglected.
It raises the issue of how relationships become depleted when they are taken-for-granted or ignored. In working extensively with inner city homeless families, I have found that most often the trip-wire for becoming homeless is not when someone loses their last dollar but when they “use up” their last relationship and a relative or friend kicks them out.
Personally and organizationally, we have hopes, dreams and goals for this next year that are at-risk because of “used-up” relationships – too small, damaged or passive for the aspiration we intend. I have coined the term “disengagement economy” to describe the costly drag on an entire economy hobbled by weak, broken or “used-up” relationships.
Relationships that are “big enough” depend on your strategic goals. Do you have enough relationships? Are they the right relationships? Are they diverse enough? Are they strong enough? It may mean attentively strengthening your marriage, initiating relationship-building in other departments at work, developing more friend-relationships outside work or volunteering with those in need.
Where have we become relational “users” or even abusers, growing a relational deficit in pivotal parts of our lives? In 2017, where must we increase or re-allocate relationship investment?
2. Where have difficult or offensive relationships dis-empowered you into a victim role?
The only thing worse than difficult or even oppressive relationships is self-inflicted, victim-behavior that damages us more than others could. We have all suffered relational offense. “Offense” comes from the Greek word skandalon for trap – like an animal trap – referring specifically to the mechanism that holds the bait. When we allow ourselves to become victimized and powerless due to others’ offense – trapped in anger, fear, self-pity – we are literally holding on to the bait that imprisons us.
As victims, a part of us becomes paralyzed or even dead – as if the blood stops carrying oxygen there. When we redirect our energy by letting-go – we escape the trap and become alive again.
In 2017, it is time to let go of the bait and move on – which may mean leaving the relationship, asserting oneself or letting go of old feelings. The key is deciding to become proactive, alive and empowered to move forward.
3. Where is the ease and “convenience” of avoiding relationships costing you?
Too many of us have become seduced by the relationship control we now have. We choose selective exclusion – living, working, and socializing in our own siloed, homogeneous tribes. In a global world of international travel and a world-wide-web – we keep narrow-casting. In these cocoons, we keep getting surprised – 9/11 attacks, Brexit, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump – there are large numbers of “others” out there who see things differently. The more we talk about diversity and inclusion the less we actually engage it. Too often we use our personal and organizational leadership power to exclude and silence inconvenient differences.
And, admit it: Part of what we love about our technology is the ways we can lazily communicate from afar – avoiding engagement. Communication is often designed to hide our feelings, obfuscate our intentions, and protect us from messy engagement – 160 character texts, 140 character tweets and Moji graphics constrain us. Email protects us from frowns, scowls, tears, stressful tics and unwelcome emotions; but, also exuberance, joy, and surprise. Where am I just waving and smiling electronically – relationally lobotomized?
So where do all the bottled-up emotions go? Some show up in toxic – but safely distanced -social-media-enabled political and theological food-fights.
It is time to take inventory of our relationships and decide: Where am I under-invested, dis-empowered (self-inflicted) and avoiding the very relationships central to my best opportunities in 2017?