Dating dietrich von hildebrand

The Irreverent Narwhals: A Lesson on How and How Not to Date

6:00:00 AMBenjamin Klare

Have you ever met a couple that spends all of their waking hours together? The ones you pass by in the hallway that seem to have forgotten that anyone besides themselves exist? The ones who spend so much time with one another that they have no time left for you? If you have, you may have actually encountered a narwhal.
At least, that’s what my friends and I have affectionately, or not so affectionately, named these couples. We call them narwhals because, in one sense, they are majestic and a rare thing of wonder (as we wonder about how they got to be like that). Yet, in another sense, they are completely strange and, quite frankly, entirely inexplicable.

However, as magical as these things seem to be, let’s be honest, no one actually wants to be a narwhal or to be in a clingy relationship, right? I mean, I’d imagine the tusk/horn thingy would be incredibly annoying to swim around with, and although these overly-involved relationships can appear cute (sometimes), they tend to be a bit, dare I say, excessive.

Well, regardless of whether or not you fantasize about being a narwhal, I think that these “narwhal-like” relationships actually reveal a lot to us about ourselves. Though I’m sure everyone would agree with me that it’s a bad idea to become completely and utterly absorbed in a  relationship, a lot of us have admittedly struggled to find balance between our dating relationships and our friendships. Reluctantly many of us will have to confess that this desire to spend every waking moment with our significant other can sometimes be all too real. But why is this?

I think this difficulty is rooted in the basic human desire for intimacy. More often than not, in one way or another, I think we find ourselves to be desperately yearning for authentic relationships. So, when we find someone who we can be truly intimate with, we cling to that person, often living in want of him or her, craving to be at his or her side every hour of the day, even to the expense of our other relationships.

Herein lies the issue with many relationships: that the same persistent longing to share in the life of another (that is typically the impetus for starting a relationship in the first place) later becomes the cause of many of the relationship’s problems. In other words, often the same yearning that sparks intimacy, very easily becomes the thing that smothers it.

To explain further, let’s take a look at some typical relational flaws. I’m sure that at some point or another you have met those people or couples who are too controlling, clingy, speedy/rushed, worried, distant, permissive, flip-floppy, or flirty in a relationship. Although these relational flaws typically originate from a wholesome and good desire for intimacy, obviously somewhere in the relationship, this desire took a turn for the worse.

Which leaves us asking, what caused this good desire to go from being helpful in starting relationships to being harmful in maintaining one?

In light of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s work The Art of Living, it would seem that much of these relational problems actually arise from what he would call ‘irreverence’.  

Now I know this term ‘irreverence’ seems to have come from out of the blue, but bear with me for a second. For Hildebrand, the irreverent person is someone who “never gives situations, things, and persons a chance to unfold themselves in their proper character and value” (5). Hildebrand says that the irreverent person “comes too close to things, so that he does not give them a chance to reveal their true essence” (6). And doesn’t this sound like the problem in many relationships?

Take for example, those people who are clingy or controlling. Essentially, these people get “too close” to their significant other, to the point where they don’t give them the space to simply be who they are. The clingy person does this by smothering his significant other with an inordinate amount of attention. The controlling person does this by supervising and directing so much of the relationship, that the other person has no room to naturally be who he or she is. A similar thing can be said of those excessive worriers, who fret so much over the relationship that they restrict themselves and often their partner from simply being who they are.

Likewise, those people who are distant, “flip-floppy,” or permissive can also be said to be irreverent, but in a different way. Instead of getting too close they remain too distant. Perhaps out of worry, fear, doubt, or something of the like, these people wander too far from their significant other to even have a shot at getting to know them. Take the permissible person, for example. This person bends so much to the will of their significant other that truly they are not themselves but rather someone who their significant other wants them to be. Thus, they are not present before their significant other, but rather somewhere else entirely. Consequently, they are irreverent also towards themselves, masking who they are in fear and worry, refusing to reveal themselves to their significant other.

These types of people then, truly, are incapable of having authentic relationships, at least to the fullest extent. Their insatiable desire for intimacy overwhelms them to such an extent that, in grasping for what they want, they stifle any chance or opportunity for truly encountering who it is they desire to come to know.
For Hildebrand, the best way to cure irreverence is through its opposite, reverence. He says that “when confronted with being, the reverent man remains silent in order to give it an opportunity to speak” (7). Instead of suffocating the beloved, the lover simply steps back, and gives the beloved the room and space needed to be who he or she is. “It is from reverence,” Hildebrand writes, “that there flows the willingness of a lover to grant the beloved the … space needed to express freely [his or her] own individuality” (9). Therefore, through reverence, the lover sacrifices the immediacy of relation for the authenticity and intimacy of a true relationship. And in so doing, the pair of them find themselves with what it is they always wanted: true knowledge of and relation with the other.

Quite simply then, Dietrich von Hildebrand is making apparent to us through this concept of reverence that we have to give people space to be who they are. Thus, if we are truly interested in another person, we shouldn’t crowd them, but should approach them, preserving a reverent distance, allowing both them and ourselves the room to be who we are. Only in this can the other person come to know us and we them. Anything else would be irreverent, anything more or anything less and we will quickly find ourselves swimming in an ocean with a giant tusk stuck to our heads, having somehow metamorphosed into a narwhal.

Want to keep reading about reverence?
Check out my editor, Catherine's blog on reverence here: "Restored: My Walk with Reverence"
Interested in the nature of non-dating relationships like friendship?
Check out my friend Emma's very popular blog on friendship here: "Friendship: I Don't Know What It Is, But I Need It"
Did you like the GIF?
Check out my friend Emily's art blog here: "Emily's Random Comix"

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  1. Very well written article. I think it's quite interesting that on one hand, when one tries to fulfill their natural desire for deep intamacy with another person (as you said), they often smother that person, and both the smotherer and the smotherie lose part of the individual identities as the two become more and more closely dependent upon eachother. on the other hand, by seeking this deep intamacy with God, the natural fulfillment of this inborn desire, the opposite happens. Because man is made in the image and likeness of God, The more intimately bound man is to Him, the more intimately man knows not only himself, but also God. I just thought that was an interesting theological contrast. Well done with the article though.

  2. Incredible insights. I'm sitting at my kitchen table with an open jaw, fascinated by the ideas of Hildebrand and yourself, perhaps because of the impeccable timing of this article, or maybe just the sheer beauty of idea of reverence in relationships. What a treat.


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