The Honesty of Single Encounters

January 21st, 2012

Robert Trivers suggests in his book The Folly of Fools that deceit is a ‘deep feature’ of life, a condition that is quite possibly exacerbated by our brutal genes. Pretense may be necessary to enable us to sustain lengthy love bonds but it’s likely we are built to disclose our deepest deceptions to total strangers. It may be too big of a stretch to accept where I’m going with these thoughts, but it’s likely we are capable of revealing our most profound hidden feelings to strangers or acquaintances when we are certain we will never have to enter their lives at that level again.

I realized after a few months serving as a chaplain on the Skid Row streets of L.A. that in-depth emotional plunges occurred when I ceased trying to establish long-term relationships. After that three-year stint, I began risking opening up to seat partners on flights and park benches and learned we creatures are capable of divulging our deepest fears, anger, and love feelings to total strangers. I’ve had people reveal within a span of two hours that they loved unconditionally their family members and some who hated a spouse, a parent, child, friend, co-worker, or boss and had never let that sentiment out.

Most every stranger with whom I ran deep admitted they would never reveal these things to a loved one or friend. I believe that is partly due to the fact if we did and were to be rejected we would be devastated beyond repair, an irrational fear perhaps but one that keeps our deceit going. We may be genetically designed to relate that deeply with strangers. The interaction may be more natural and candid than what we experience in cherished, guarded, long-term friendships, partnerships or marriage bonds.

I gave up on requiring two counseling sessions for couples planning to be married and instead advised—no, make that ‘warned’—that there would be only one session. I promised them we would never meet again beyond the wedding and that everything would remain confidential. I assured them I would be totally frank about my own life, marriage, sex, in-laws, money, and children if they were willing to be completely honest about their relationship and those of their parents and friends.

I had a couple of brides admit they hated their fathers and decided in the sessions that they would not be allowed to walk them down the aisle. More than a few couples confessed to hating their future in-laws and several were working hard on getting to like or love their step-children. The single sessions were just as threatening for me as they were for the couples. The meetings were intense with occasional explosive outbursts but we always ended on an affirming note. I’ve also counseled elderly spouses in one-shot sessions, with the promise we would not meet on the matter again, who admitted they came to despise their mates in their demanding and cantankerous declining years. Such revelations can cause deceitful lovers to feel healthy for a time. It may be just enough to keep them sane.

Single-encounter bonding with strangers certainly differs from conventional therapeutic practices.   Psychologists are pretty much required to rely on their reasoning faculties over an extended time period and refrain from revealing to clients their own deep-seated feelings comprised of candidness, tenderness and affection. The reciprocal factor is essential for sparking instant unconditional intimacy. One-shot intimate conversations can generate immediate risky openness, tenderness, and affection. Perhaps in the future, there will be no call for counselors-for-hire to help us cope with our guarded, natural sentiments. Their services can be given to more chronic cranial conditions.

When we experience a sudden loss, whether a divorce or a death, we’re abruptly deprived of deep intimacy or at least some form of compassion. It’s a crucial short window of time when we might crave instant openness, tenderness, and affection more than ever and it’s doubtful a therapist can provide that kind of emotional support in swift fashion. We might need to deal with the deceit we were holding back from loved ones minutes after a loss. I’ve discovered that mourners often stay distant from friends, congregational members, and even family members for days, weeks, or months after a separation or a death, afraid to confess feelings they had harbored for years. Those in grief may do well to head right away for Starbucks or a mall bench to unload on an unsuspecting stranger who might also have suffered a recent loss. 

Resolving our grief and deceptiveness in short order will not be the most crucial aspects of such novel undertakings. Recent pediatric scientific studies have revealed what is referred to as “toxic stress,” a form of chronic abuse induced by parents whether by neglect or threats that seriously disrupts the brain chemistry of offspring from birth to early childhood. In later years they might become extremely aggressive and volatile. We may inadvertently bump into a distraught stranger bent on taking his life or that of another. A sudden and profound intimate connection might cause one who has never experienced unconditional compassion with family members or friends to feel twice about committing a violent deed.

What if single encounters with strangers were to become a social model for cultures, and millions of intimacy pursuers roamed the planet? What if adversarial nations were to permit or welcome single-encounter activists with no political or religious agendas to venture onto their turf? It could be that safe-but-daring single bonds on planes and park benches are the first-stage efforts that will prepare us for risking our welfare on hostile ground, nurturing peace not just in our own souls but among people everywhere.

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