The woman is a wife of 14 years. She feels guilty, even as she tells me she has yet to do anything wrong. She feels guilty because she is drawn to the attention and desire of a man who is not her husband.
The man notices her. Doesn’t merely greet her each day at work, but beholds her. As if he has been waiting for her to arrive. As if anticipating the moment they will connect … and then begin the work day. But not a moment before.
The woman feels guilty because she desires the man’s desire. Feeds off of it. She finds the courage to notice that she hungers for the forbidden. Yet the hunger makes her feel badly about herself.
She talks about her marriage. She says her husband is a good man. A good father. Then comes the part of the story as predictable and ordinary as dirt: she feels increasingly invisible to her life partner.
I think of the story of “The Fox and The Lion.”
On my bookshelf is an aged copy of Aesop’s Fables I’ve had since childhood. The pages have turned brown, and the binding creaks and complains when bidden to open. The book once belonged to my mother, and before that, to her mother. The pithy wisdom in these folk tales was collected some 600 years before the birth of Jesus. When I read these tales, I feel a deep connection to all that is universally human. For all that is new and different in civilization these past 2,000+ years, human beings are still the same.
When first the Fox saw the Lion he was terribly frightened, and ran away and hid himself in the wood. Next time however he came near the King of Beasts he stopped at a safe distance and watched him pass by. The third time they came near one another the Fox went straight up to the Lion and passed the time of day with him, asking him how his family were, and when he should have the pleasure of seeing him again; then turning his tail, he parted from the Lion without much ceremony.
Familiarity breeds contempt.
Echoes of this all too human experience can be found in western religion. The Hebrew Bible says, “Let your foot rarely be in your neighbor’s house, or he will become weary of you and hate you (Proverbs 25:17).” The Christian Gospel says, “A prophet is never welcome in his own country (Luke 4:24).”
Can desiring to be desired be of itself a bad thing? Of course not! Healthy selfhood includes a deep longing for connection, recognition and significance. We want to be beheld. We want to have weight and consequence in the life of our beloved. We want to missed, sought and longed for. We want to be recognized. We want to know that some orbiting, recurring hunger lives in our mate’s heart for us. Emotional hunger. Sexual hunger. Hunger for time and proximity. Touch.
We’re made for connection. How, then, could desiring to be connected be wrong?
Familiarity is NOT contemptuous. It’s sublime. It’s beautiful. Trust me – I work with grieving widows and widowers. These brave people weep over the mundane memories of their bespoken rattling dishes in the kitchen. Of the sound a garage door makes as it opens. Of the thud of footsteps upstairs. Of the sound of breathing and the feel of warmth in a shared bed. They treasure, now, even the remembered annoyance of idiosyncrasies and maddening habits.
The moral of The Fox and The Lion is not that familiarity is contemptuous, but that familiarity comes with the sore temptation to contempt. Specifically, that familiarity is seductive. It can lull us to forget. To stop paying attention.
The woman’s desire to be desired only means she is a normal, healthy human being. I ask her if she’d be willing to exchange her guilt for thanksgiving. She could be grateful that she has the courage to see what is happening. She could be grateful that she has recognized what is happening before she has burned down a good marriage in a foolish affair. She could see this ordinary, normal and predictable connection to her colleague as a call to action.
Action? Yes! She could go home with her healthy, human self and say to her husband, “You’ve stopped paying attention. And I need attention.”
Love, desire and thriving connection aren’t mystical gifts given and withheld by a genie in a bottle. These gifts are cultivated, every day, by life partners whose wish is for the gifts to thrive.
We can’t be surprised that our marital crops wither absent nurture, water and attention.
(You may drop Steven Kalas a note at email@example.com. StevenKalas is a therapist, author and Episcopal priest. He is the author of the book “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing.”)