The 5 Relationships
By Jim Selman
One of the most important questions in life—perhaps the most important—is “Who am I?” This 2021 article shares an empowering framework Jim Selman uses to answer this question.
There is an old joke that goes something like this:
God was talking with Jesus, Michelangelo and Einstein. S/he told them they could each ask a single question, which s/he would answer. Jesus asked, “What is the essence of love?” God answered. Michelangelo asked, “What is the essence of beauty?” God answered. Einstein asked, “What is the question?”
The point of the joke, of course, being that Einstein believed questions organize how human beings relate to our world, the future, and what is or is not possible. They are the key to all understanding. If we know the question, we will figure out an answer.
Who am I?
I believe one of the most important questions—perhaps the most important—is “Who am I?”
I imagine this particular question has been with human beings since conscious awareness first appeared in the minds of our most ancient ancestors. Over time, we as a species have come up with countless answers, both in terms of our collective narratives and our personal ones. How we answer it orients how we relate to ourselves and to everything that we perceive or experience.
At one point in my life I thought, “I am my career.” Everything—from my confidence and my behaviors to my values and priorities—revolved around that belief. Later, my notion of self changed to, “I am my family” and my confidence, behaviours, values and priorities shifted accordingly. In another period, I believed, “I am my commitments and my choices.” With each new declaration or understanding of myself came new interpretations of what I had learned or experienced in my life up to then, as well as new insights and possibilities.
Today, I have another answer, one which I believe, while not definitive, can be universally empowering. It is obviously not the only interpretation or “truth” about who we are. I judge it to be empowering because of its utility, not its validity.
I believe I am, literally, my relationships.
Specifically, I am my relationship with myself (my inner conversation). I am my relationship with other people. I am my relationship with circumstances. I am my relationship with time. And I am my relationship with whatever is beyond my understanding (a.k.a. the mystery of existence). I cannot imagine existing or having any consciousness at all in the absence of any of these five relationships. They are not necessarily all of the relationships I might consider, but they are the minimum necessary for me to answer the question of “Who am I?” to my satisfaction.
Several things about this way of understanding myself I find enlightening. First, it frees me from an egocentric point of view in which I am separate from everything else. Second, it allows me to see and have choices that I might not otherwise realize were available to me. For example, when I was afraid or upset in the past, I needed to do something to deal with whatever I was afraid of or whatever I believed was upsetting me. I didn’t see that, while it was a fact that I was upset, I also had a relationship to the upset. The relationship to the upset was not the upset. This allowed me to consider how I could change how I was relating to the upset, which in turn changed my experience.
I concluded that, while you and I don’t have much control over or choice about what is happening, we always have a choice about how we relate to what happens.
Choice & The 5 Relationships
In these times of accelerating change, this way of understanding myself provides me with an entirely new way of dealing with a variety of issues and concerns. For example, I’ve learned over the course of my life that I can either resist what’s happening and what I am experiencing or I can accept it and “let it be”.
When I resist, I generally am in a bad mood: I react and often make a situation worse and struggle or suffer in one way or another. At best, I may suppress my feelings or become resigned to whatever I am resisting. When I resist, I am powerless to resolve or get beyond whatever it is that is bothering me.
When I accept whatever is happening, I can take an action, leave it alone, or create something new entirely. I don’t need to react or deal with ‘it’. To accept anything as just “the way it is” is a choice about how I am relating to what is happening. That choice gives me freedom and power.
I believe freedom is in the relationship I have with the circumstances, and power is in the realization that I always have choice in how I relate.
As a framework for who I am, the five relationships allow me to put the past in the past, to navigate my moods, to be present to what is, and to take action. It helps me be clear about my commitments and focused on outcomes.
I don’t know how Einstein would answer the question of “Who am I?”. But I am pretty sure Einstein would agree that our experience of living is relative to how we relate to ourselves, others, our circumstances, time, and the mystery of being alive. This, I believe, is reflected in his response to an ordained rabbi seeking a way to comfort his 19-year-old daughter:
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”
* Walter Sullivan, “The Einstein Papers: A Man of Many Parts”, New York Times, March 29, 1972. Republished online at https://www.nytimes.com/1972/03/29/archives/the-einstein-papers-a-man-of-many-parts-the-einstein-papers-man-of.html.