I got lost.
It happened on a solo kayak trip in the lower Bahamas, between the Caribbean and the Atlantic. I didn’t know much about maneuvering on the sea, but a little practice grew my confidence. I expected a carefree excursion.
At first, it was. The movement of the kayak whispered a melody of soft ripples on a quiet sea. A distinctly salted breeze kissed my cheeks as I glided along. The rhythm mesmerized. My mind relaxed, and wandered.
Towards afternoon, a distraction interrupted my reverie. I noticed my kayak progressing more slowly, drifting in an opposite direction from my paddling.
The adventure outfitter who rented the kayak never mentioned the powerful currents. Or maybe I forgot to ask. I wasn’t ready for what happened next.
Lurking like a silent, underwater vacuum, a tidal force swept in, growing stronger and steadier as the sun beat down. The current imposed a fierce, magnetic draw, sucking my helpless craft like a straw, against my intended direction.
When facing a current like that, the trick is to maneuver sideways, not straight ahead, using the water’s force to angle towards shore. Experienced kayakers call it ferrying. A rookie kayaker like me didn’t know any of that. I paddled harder and faster, while going nowhere, stuck on a liquid treadmill.
A struggle began.
Solar rays, opaque and relentless, reflected off the water like heat bullets aimed at my exposed skin. Sweaty exhaustion set in. My drinking water was out of reach, in the bow. Dehydration loomed. I headed, disoriented, towards the open ocean.
Luck doesn’t often compensate for stupidity. A marine research boat spotted me struggling, and pulled up to help me. It was more than help, it was a rescue. I jumped aboard their ship, and they towed my kayak a mile to the nearest shore.
Lostness doesn’t happen only at sea.
You can find yourself astray and disoriented in relationships, too. Breathing, thinking, and feeling are natural. Relating is not.
Relationships follow the same basic rule as kayaking:
Know your terrain.
The terrain of relationships might be a couple, a family, a neighborhood, a combat unit, an orchestra, a leadership team, and so on. It can be small and contained, or vast and expansive.
Take note of an important point: No matter what kind of relationship you’re in, or with whom, or for how long, you are always part of the terrain. Without you, you’re not relating. The part you play is up to you.
Focusing on you gives you a compass. Knowing the terrain in a relationship, and seeing the part you play in it, starts with you knowing yourself – your motives, thoughts, feelings, decisions, disturbances, wants, and vulnerabilities.
How do you do this? How do you understand yourself?
The first step takes you forward by looking backward, into your familial past, to firmly grasp your roots.
Everyone carries around a bulky bag. Everything that can be known about your past fills the bag: your genetic code, your ancestors and all the decisions they made, the challenges they faced, and what they accomplished. Their health issues, addictions, incarcerations, and appointments to high positions. Their values, beliefs, and emotional habits.
Your parents and their siblings live in that same bag. How they were raised, their choices, influences, achievements and regrets. Even their memories.
You sling that bag over your shoulder, and never enter a relationship without it. Most of the time, you don’t even know it’s there, on your back.
Knowing yourself means getting acquainted with what’s inside your bag. The aim is to pull out as much information about your family as you can retrieve in a lifetime. There’s no formula. You chip away at it.
Your ancestors have a story. So do your parents. What were they up against? How did they respond when a fire broke out, when they ran out of money?
How did they deal with stress? Did they cave in? Figure it out? Run away?
They had advantages. What were they? What helped them succeed? How did luck contribute to their story? Who worked, and who shirked?
How did this cast of characters influence who you are today, for better and worse? Is the past-to-present connection far-fetched? Or inescapable?
Look at the roles people played in your own growing-up family. Was there a superstar or a black sheep? Who did your mother worry about most? Would you choose to repeat your parents’ marriage? What parts would you keep, or toss?
What’s in your bag ends up in relationships. Every relationship. Do you want to learn about your past?
Once you start dipping into your bag, you begin seeing yourself through a wider lens. You begin to appreciate the struggles and achievements of the characters.
You notice ligaments between the past and the present. You see yourself as part of them, Informing, not defining, who you are.
Seeing your past unlocks awareness about how you show up today. Extracting facts, cues, and stories from the past leaves you walking taller. You learn more about you. Your prospects for friendship, intimacy, parenting, and leadership increase.
Self-knowledge is never squeaky clean. You won’t like everything you discover. But it all informs.
You can prepare for the open sea of a relationship. You can avoid getting lost.
Know your terrain. Start with yourself.