As we chatted over a cup of tea, my friend ‘drew’ a triangle with his fingers. His right hand was at around his waist level, as he started moving his hand horizontally to simulate the base of the triangle. As he chalked out the base, he paused and said, “Imagine that the two bases represent you and the other person in a relationship.” Now, he proceeded to draw the rest of the triangle – the top of the triangle was at around his chest height. He concluded by stating, “Now think of your relationship as the top of this triangle. Both you and the other person are at the same level at the base, while the relationship is on a much higher pedestal than you are.” That simple, eh? You and I know that the world would be a far more utopian place if this were easy. It is certainly not simple to chalk out this perfect equilateral triangle for all our key relationships. But is it impossible?
In a rather thoughtfully worded e-mail, a pal of mine wrote, “At a basic level, I think all relationships have to be equal for them to be successful. And somewhere, they must fulfill some part of you and give you joy.” The eloquence of these lines, to me, are matched by their profundity. I say this because the fulfillment and joy that we experience are what make us afford the place at the top of the triangle to the bond itself. As selfless as we can sometimes make ourselves out to be, how a relationship makes us feel is something we do place a tremendous premium on. I suppose what this triangle theory - trademark will be granted to my friend! - urges us to do is to be secure about being on an equal plane with the other person while valuing the relationship itself to put it on a level much higher.
When relationships turn sour, it invariably is a result of the balance between the axes of the triangle getting disturbed. Once the distances become skewed, it requires a joint effort to bring the triangle back to its homeostasis. When fissures appear in a relationship, from whatever little sagacity my age has given me, it is a monumental task if the burden were imposed on only one to seal the cracks. Eventually resentment sets in, sometimes egos, and distances expand. Surely, communication is of pivotal importance. It takes a mix of great courage and sincere humility to express concerns about a relationship and seek a viable, sustainable solution. I have been the lucky recipient of such correspondence – where I am told about my flaws in a way that gives me utmost confidence that the other person is not seeking to diminish my importance. That the other person is, in fact, striving to keep the top of the triangle intact.
As a man with imperfections, I know that the one way to make up for our human frailties is to never hesitate to apologize. This may seem like the simplest, bleedingly obvious statement to make. But we all have had moments when we convince ourselves that it is infra dig to apologize. Or even worse, ask, “Why should I be the one to apologize?” Accounting for the fact that blame, at times, needs to be apportioned equally, a sincere apology sometimes gets put on the back burner only to paradoxically, yet precisely, be missed as a tool to douse a fire.
As I reflected on this image of a triangle, I also thought of parents and children and whether this applied at all. Selflessness is one of the much-haloed traits associated with parents. But as Adam Grant notes in his thought provoking book, Give and Take, giving at the cost of the self, leads to enduring resentment. As children age and mature into youth (mature youth is probably the father of all oxymorons!), astute parents realize that instead of talking down in a patronizing manner, a friendly arm-around-the-shoulder approach brings much more peace to the experience of parenthood. I realize that this is a gross simplification given that parents have a tremendous role in guiding the next generation despite rapidly growing social media, overexposure to all sorts of information, good and bad. But as an elderly well-wisher once told me, kids learn more from watching how parents behave than from ‘listening’ to their parents. This makes me believe that the success of parents lies really in convincing their kids that they may talk from experience but are not placing themselves on a higher plane just on account of age difference. That one of the bases of the triangle is the parent, the other the child, and their bond is right there on top! And one can only hope that filial love and respect emerges as a deserving byproduct of this healthy bond.
As I ruminate on this, I feel truly blessed with the depth of the select few meaningful relationships that I have. There are times when I do place people on an elevated status owing to their character, generosity or their affection towards me. And that’s okay, because they stand tall without making me feel small. But the spirit of a bond – be it personal or professional – needs to be nourished in equal measure by both parties for it to be strengthened with time. Back to my original question – is the achievement of a perfect equilateral triangle impossible? Maybe so. But for now, I’ll focus on the ‘try’ in the triangle!