Hell may be other people, but so is heaven
Are you afraid of intimacy and, if so, is there something wrong with you? Yes, you are probably afraid of intimacy and no, there is nothing wrong with you, according to Ziyad Marar in his new book, Intimacy.
Not only is it normal to fear intimacy but in the age of therapy and of what he calls “anti-social media”, intimacy is increasingly hard to find, he argues. Marar, who brings an engaging blend of philosophy and psychology to his work, has written two previous books, The Happiness Paradox and Deception.
“I’m interested in the tensions and contradictions that come with trying to live well in modern Western society,” he says. “Intimacy seems to be the best lens of all to shed light on how we live with each other, especially the ambivalent need we have for each other. Sartre said ‘hell is other people’, but so is heaven.”
Intimacy is a risky business involving, as it does, two people knowing both the good and the bad about each other and sharing their frailties as well as their strengths.
“Intimacy has something of a shared and forgiving sense of frailty,” he says. But sharing your frailties brings with it the danger of rejection. “We know on some level that you can only be intimate with someone who has the power to hurt you,” he says. “And a shot at intimacy that falls wide leads to those peculiarly human pains of humiliation and shame.”
That forgiving sense of frailty
And yet we continue to hope for intimacy. “We make no sense without our audiences, and the social animal needs others in order to live well. For human beings that feeling of being known, that shared and forgiving sense of frailty, is redemptive in a way that nothing else can be.” Intimacy “can offer safety, trust and the feeling of being uniquely understood: the opposite of isolation”.
He agrees that the couple sitting side by side in the pub who appear to have nothing to say to each other after years of marriage just might have more intimacy through their knowledge and acceptance of mutual frailty than the young lovers at the next table who see each other as perfect.
The cover illustration, Room in New York, 1932, by Edward Hopper, shows a man sitting at a table reading a newspaper while a woman, seated opposite, turns away to finger the keys of a piano. Before reading Marar’s book, I would have assumed that this was a relationship gone cold. After reading it I can make no assumptions about their degree of intimacy because I do not know what they know and accept about each other.