Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Laws of Attraction

So often, you hear about people entering a new relationship and in the process losing themselves. Over the years, I've had many friends who 'fell' in love. It all started with attraction: not just to appearance, but to looks, intelligence, money, energy, charm, and so on.

Attraction is powerful. Most of us are not able to clearly articulate what it is in another person that attracts us. At best, we can identify elements of attraction (someone's smile or their laugh or their wit), but we can't come up with an overall blueprint of what would make a person attractive to us. Our not being able to clearly identify what it is in others that makes them attractive makes attraction even more powerful, almost magical.

As though attraction were not already powerful enough, most of us would probably describe 'being attracted' as something that happens to us, not something that we do. Indeed, enchantment might be a better word to use when describing our experience of attraction.

Now, there are all sorts of challenges that come with being enchanted.

First, being enchanted causes us to focus on the elements of attraction to the exclusion of the elements of repulsion.
We're so attracted to his winning smile and confidence that we ignore the times when he seems controlling and rigid. We're so enamored of her warm voice and soft caress that we ignore times when she's unkind to or impatient with others. We build up an image of the other person that is indeed positive, but unbalanced. Unlike seeing flaws in the full light of day and then not judging them, we blind ourselves to them.

Second, being enchanted causes us to ignore or casually dismiss the trail of discarded passions that we abandon along the road to a deeper (and more time consuming) relationship. We put other relationships on the back burner. We put plans on hold. We spend less and less time on other interests.

I have a friend Jeff who is the most naturally gifted musician I've ever met...
When I we were both fifteen or so and just discovered be-bop, I bought some Charlie Parker records. For a fifteen year old, I had a good ear; I could listen to any pop or rock song and write down what was being played. As I listened to Charlie Parker, I was completely blown away. He played so fast and so differently, that I could just barely keep up listening to what he'd played, let alone write it down.

I played the record for Jeff who seemed to kind of space out as though memorized by the music. When the tune ended, he picked up his trumpet and started playing back Charlie's riffs verbatim. He'd never before heard bebop let alone the specific recording and yet...

In a composition class at Berklee College of Music, we would gather weekly to have our compositions reviewed by our instructor and to have them played by students. One week, I wrote a brass quartet that I was really proud of.

After looking at my scribblings for just a few seconds, my teacher looked up at me telling me, "Look, when writing for other instruments, you really need to get a better understanding of the range and capacity each of the instruments. You can't just write something because it sounds good in your head. This trumpet part has intervals that no trumpet player is ever going to be able to play."

Ahh..., little did he know. Jeff was the trumpet player in the quartet that day.
Anyway, a couple of years later, Jeff was enchanted. I don't think that he even owns a trumpet today.

Third, enchanted is a set up for bitterness and resentment. It's not that we don't see the flaws; we simply ignore them. It's not that we forget all that we've given up; we just look away from it. When the enchantment ends, all that stuff comes crashing down on us.

Nothing Personal
Our experience of enchantment is not limited to personal relationships or even to people. We can be enchanted by pretty much anything: big companies offering bright futures and money... owning a big house or an expensive car or a boat... running off to join the Peace Corps... becoming a rock star. You name it; pretty much anything can be the source of our enchantment.

There's a saying: the two happiest days in a boat owner's life are the day he purchases his boat and the day that he sells his boat. With slight modification, this is probably the case in many relationships; couples are happiest when they first get together and after they break up (assuming that the vindictive bitterness thing doesn't settle in.)

Breaking the Spell
The crazy part about the power of attraction is that, even after being burned by it, we'll immediately embrace it again. It's as though we think that the culprit was the object of attraction, not attraction itself.

I have friends who, after freeing themselves from long, unhappy, unfulfilling relationships that began with attraction, almost immediately purchase a ticket for the next ride. Some even use attraction to someone new to help inspire to them break free from someone old. And the cycle continues...

On the flip side, I have friends who are unhappy in their relationships simply because they're 'suddenly' confronted with all the things that they've ignored and denied all along. They 'suddenly' become aware of the less attractive aspects of the other person or that they've 'given up so much'. It's as though their partner tricked them or somehow did it to them.

In the end, as long as you view attraction as something that cannot be understood or something that happens to you, you're, well... you're screwed. Nothing you can do about it.

If on the other hand, you view attraction as something that you can understand and something that you do, then there's hope.

Think about it; there must something in your life to which you were once not attracted, but are now attracted: sushi... girls... guys... books... football... drama.. adventure... math... music... running?

I've been told by lots of people that I'm rather an acquired taste. Acquiring taste is essentially our shaping and changing that to which we're attracted. We do it all the time. It's just that we tend not to do it deliberately or systematically.

If you don't want to buy into owning your sense of attraction, how about simply better understanding it. Next time you go to a restaurant, make a game out of identifying what you find attractive and unattractive in others that you can see and hear. Take turns with your dinner companion(s) identifying what and why. Write it all down and look for patterns as they emerge. If they don't keep playing until they do.

Finally, if you insist on buying into the whole enchantment thing, at least be aware of the trade-offs that you make along the way. Note them. Talk about them. Don't let them slide by hoping that something will change. It won't.

Happy Wednesday!


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