Dating Lessons from a Broken Shoe
Established relationships don’t manifest in neat, defined and equally segmented paths. Contriving or clinging — the fixation things happening a specific way — is insistence on control, where fewer possibilities represent low thermodynamic entropy, or disorder. Chaotic pathways are part of life, and the myriad of ways people form close relationships is connected to universal disorder.
On a crisp November morning, a low-key hike near Kings Mountain seemed just the thing for time with a spiritual friend. Besides connection to nature, leisurely, but well-paced, adventures are special invitations to think about nothing more than one foot in front of the other. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig writes “mountains should be climbed with as little effort and without desire as possible.” In this frame, rigid goals take a back seat and “each footstep isn’t just a means to an end, but a unique event in itself.” (2009, HarperCollins) Each step is spectacular by definition, and yet repetitively ordinary. No “contriving to spoil”, and no “clinging to lose”, as Lao-tzu posits in Tao Te Ching #64 (T. Cleary, The Essential Tao, 1991 HarperCollins). Contriving or clinging tends to ruin the experiences of spontaneity and appreciation.
After a couple of hours, we snacked near the river with granola bars and fruit before turning back. During the return hike, I suddenly felt my right foot a little differently. Looking down, nothing was terribly evident until I rotated my foot to find the sole of the hiking boot missing, breaking off without incident. Walking back several feet, I picked up the sole, with its thin, white layer of shoe glue, and my friend put it in my string bag. Thankfully, I still had a right shoe, only now with a soft sole. I kept walking, feeling more of the ground beneath me, and aware that my right-side appendage was slightly shorter than my left.
With a mile to go, my mind shifted to future physical discomfort. Besides effects on knees, how would my hip feel tomorrow? At that moment, attachment to my healthy joints was clear. I wasn’t concerned about the boots themselves or their cost; I made good use of them over 15–20 years. Further, plantar fasciitis and weakening knees had slowly converted me into a shoe investor; for supportive shoes, I blindly swiped the credit card. The consequent hiking boot purchase would be much more fun than the skimp job from the turn of the century.
Dating had been heavily on my mind for several months: I knew it was time to try again. I needed to put on the seasoned, reliable shoes of faith and recovery strategy to take my chances with metaphoric rocks, branches and wet, slippery leaves: the things that open us up and break our hearts (and sometimes shoes). I felt ready to take more risks, bearing in mind to endeavor each step as “a unique event”.
Years ago, at Crowders Mountain, I passed a hiker with a tall walking stick. He was slightly hunched over, treading slowly and methodically on the terrain. We exchanged pleasantries, and during our conversation he remarked, “I’m not sure I should be out here at 75 years old!” My response was something like this:
Well…here you are! And you absolutely belong here, sir.
Another gorgeous spring day, and a bench was finally found, strangely placed behind the handrails of the path. The couple had to go a little forward, then back several steps to take a seat. She took his hand, his reciprocation tentative and reluctant. “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings”, she said.
Besides the boot breakdown, I realized my hiking poles had long-lost their pole baskets. Somewhere in the eastern U.S, they became litter to blend in with the gum balls. With my hiking buddy, I was not only treading without one sole, but with poles unoptimized for soft ground. How did I get by all these years?
Dating feels like that, like the man in the forest. Do I belong here? With perpetually cracked heart, and limited guarantee of stability against the soft ground of intimacy, I’m clearly and cluelessly making mistakes , and not always sure I should be out here. In the world of dating, there seems to be ample opportunity to blow off missing stabilizers or suddenly find myself on shaky ground to ask, “what the hell am I doing?”.
As for the elder in the forest, the answer of spirit is just the same. Well, here you are! And you absolutely belong here, ma’am.
His overreaction may have been rooted in outdated ideas of manhood, where men are primarily rough and burly. But she was only thinking of touch, the more personal, intimate manhood. “I was responding to you — your texture, your touch — I don’t know what else to say.” Because she really didn’t.
I’m plodding along, slowly with a big stick. My trekking pole is the third leg of hope and faith…persistence in the face of multiple relationship beginnings. It seems quirky that the price of staying in spirit is saying no a lot more, sometimes according to simple inductive logic. Patterns established early tend to last; therefore, if they’re not acceptable now, why would they be later? People don’t fundamentally change all that much; therefore, accept them as they are right now, with clarity about the (few) true non-negotiables. Being alone, and sometimes lonely, is more life-affirming than wasting energy in an unsatisfying relationship.
All personal relationships involve risk, and dating should be its own dedicated category of super-risk. Tossing in ideas from Buddhist and Taoist teachings seems to go against the ideals of interdependence. Ideally, we are detached (but not toodetached), independent (but just dependent enough), attentive to planning (but not controlling). We want to show interest (but not so much to overwhelm), sharing just enough personal detail to offer closeness ever-so-slowly. Whichever ideas we wish to juxtapose, we seek balance. Sounds wonderful!
But even perfect balance is suspiciously regular. We know better than to think it ever happens this way. Dating toes that line between…between what, really? Planning and spontaneity, or clinging and release — or perhaps ultimately, control and lack of it? Whichever concept pair, the venue of dating holds its own special, frustrating brand of “nothing is fixed”. Along with super-risk, we experience super-instability. The wonderfully wonderful moments are unavoidably accompanied by the woefully woeful.
Contriving or clinging — the fixation on a thing staying the same — is insistence on control, where fewer possibilities represent low thermodynamic disorder. We all know people (perhaps including ourselves) who try to control relationships: an exercise in frustration, futility, and limited fun. We also probably know people with long lists of non-negotiables for potential partners, another way of fighting the universal tendency towards disorder.
After all, we are human creatures of nature, inherently subject to thermodynamic entropy, where chaotic pathways are part of life. The relative stability of an established relationship doesn’t manifest in neat, defined and equally segmented paths. Relationships sometimes begin quickly, forcing a period of separation, followed by reunion. Others begin slowly, to blossom into something later, or not. The myriad of ways people form close relationships is connected to disorder encompassed within these thermodynamic concepts.
Sometimes, the shoe breaks clean, or the pole sinks deeply into the mud, the process falling significantly short of the ideal. Once the dust settles, questions and situations clarify and we might wonder if this is where we belong. And the answer is always the same: absolutely, yes. Every experience takes us to a better version of ourselves. Walking on the shoes is the risk — we are tentatively confident they will support the unforgiving terrain of circumstances and mind scatter. Mindfulness practices can help keep personal challenges clear, even if the situation itself feels like a mess. That “better” version of ourselves becomes more adept — more efficient — at handling the complexities without losing sight of our core selves and relationship intention.
Well, here we are! And we absolutely belong here.
Her face softened from its defensive stare. He looked down, squeezed her hand, then carefully released it as if precious and fragile. With this gentle gesture, both hearts began to close without incident.