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The Benevolent Paradox Of Mutuality


Jonathan Delavan brings to mind the paradoxical concept of mutuality and its beneficial effects within relationships.

In an earlier article about Fathers’ Day, I ended the post with a phrase that has been mulling around in my thoughts for quite some time now. The phrase I am referring to is that “[the gesture of affirmation] is truly a gift that keeps on giving for both the receiver and the giver.” When I first typed this phrase a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t help but pause for a moment to reflect upon its implications. Ever since, I find myself coming back to this phrase just as a dog continues to gnaw upon the same bone he has had for a few days now.

What was it about this phrase that had grabbed my attention out of the blue? I think it did so because it was a direct reminder of a profound concept I discovered over the course of my readings and subsequently in my own life. The concept is that of mutuality as defined by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham in The Spirituality of Imperfection. (I know it seems I keep returning to the same book over and over again as of late, but it is truly a book filled with much wisdom that the authors have conveyed in very practical and relevant terms. Again, if you haven’t read it for yourself yet, I highly recommend you get yourself a copy when you can!) Here is how the authors have defined the term:

…human beings need each other precisely in relationships of mutuality. Mutuality involves not just “give or get,” nor even “give and get.” In relationships of mutuality we give by getting and get by giving, recognizing that we truly gain only what we seek to give and that we are able to give only that which we are seeking to gain… Mutuality: the awareness that life’s most precious realities—love, wisdom, sobriety—are attained only in the giving of them and are given only in the openness to receive them.

When I read this for the first time, I had to reread it at least two dozen times in a row simply for my mind to wrap around this simple yet radical perception of relationships. This möbius-styled formula has become a critical component in my own personal journey as I strive to relate with others on a more authentic level. It has been less than easy to employ, let alone to fully comprehend, on a daily basis. In fact, I have found it is often easier to identify moments of mutuality in hindsight rather than during the moment itself when it may be implemented in some shape or fashion.

In any case, I have found returning to an example of mutuality helps me to better understand what it can look like in practice. Let me share an example given by the same authors mentioned earlier:

For the first “mutuality”—the first reality gained by giving and given by getting—is honesty. Only in telling another the truth about ourselves do we discover the truth about ourselves. Honesty with others is as essential to honesty with self as honesty with self is essential to honesty with others. We can “tell” only what we know, but we come to “know” only in the telling. Such honesty, the honesty that undergirds wisdom, comes not from books or beliefs, dogmas or doctrines, but from people.

Therefore, mutuality is just that, actions, and not just actions undertaken independently, but done so between persons or within a community. Moreover, it is more than mere actions alone. You cannot drill yourself into mutuality as if it were a matter of memorization. It is an act between people who are mindful in some capacity of their actions and efforts with each other. Additionally, as you may have noticed in the example, mutuality is ultimately a practice that feeds upon itself: the more you practice one aspect of it, the more likely you are to practice the other aspect, and vice versa.

As you can see, being mindful of your own action and intention towards others is difficult to do just once, trying to do so every day even more so! Nevertheless, the benefits from practicing such a concept can be enormous.

A good present day example of mutuality in action is an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting (which is often used by Kurtz and Ketcham as modern day examples of the principles advocated in their book). If you’ve ever been to an A.A. meeting or other groups styled after it—even just once—you can see the concept of mutuality in action as people share with each other their struggles and successes and hold each other accountable by practicing the steps with the rest of the group. As a result, alcoholics are able to be sober because they intentionally help others to be sober as well; likewise, those same alcoholics are able to help others be sober because they strive to be sober themselves with outside help. Thus, in this scenario, one gains sobriety in the giving of sobriety to others, and one is able to give others sobriety to the same degree he/she is able to receive the same help.

Returning to my introductory remarks, perhaps that is why mutuality came to my mind as I discussed the benefits and necessity of affirmations. When you give others affirmations, you also gain the ability to be affirmative with yourself. Equally so, when you graciously receive affirmations from others, you are better able to give affirmations to others later on. Consequently, the giving or receiving of affirmations truly does become a gift that keeps on giving for both the receiver and the giver. What mind-bending stuff this notion of mutuality is!

As I alluded to earlier, the practice of mutuality has become a principal tool for my growth within the relationships I currently have and hope to make. It is a practice I have to remain mindful of as best I can because each situation or encounter is ultimately unique—even if I meet or live with someone regularly. Furthermore, keeping this practice in mind has been difficult simply because it is hard to see measurable progress like you would on a graded test. However, just like with a marathon, each step I take may seem insignificant in and of itself but over time I end up traversing miles from where I was, and it is only in looking back to where I started can I finally see the distance I ran!

Of course, I do not practice this alone—since it cannot be practice solely by oneself anyways. I have the blessing of others who are willing and able to be mutual with me in the giving and/or receiving of something. What’s more, I have significant others — with me presently or otherwise — who can help remind me what mutuality is or can look like in certain situations. Going back to my marathon metaphor: I have to actually run the marathon myself, but I do not have to do so alone!

So let me ask you, dear reader, to spend some time out of your busy day to reflect on this concept of mutuality and see how you can practice it in your own life within your relationships — that is, if you haven’t already been doing so all along in one way or another. Feel free to share your thoughts and feelings about what I have discussed in the comments below.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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