The Paradox of Relationship
Updated: Aug 29
How do you accept the people you're in relationship with for who they are while, at the same time, challenging them to be the very best versions of themselves?
If you haven't yet seen the movie One Night in Miami, I highly recommend doing so. The movie is inspired by the events of the evening following Muhammad Ali's (then Cassius Clay) defeat of Sonny Liston in 1964 to become boxing's world champion at the young age of twenty-two. Following the fight, Clay and three friends – NFL superstar Jim Brown, singer and songwriter Sam Cooke, and civil rights leader Malcolm X – spend the evening together. Rather than partying the night away, they somewhat reluctantly agree to spend most of the evening in Malcolm X's hotel room in deep conversation about the right way for each man to use his fame and power to advance the cause of civil rights in America.
A more subtle theme also runs throughout the movie—a theme of relationship. In one particularly poignant scene, Malcolm X, who has been riding Sam Cooke hard over his alleged failure to properly use his platform, puts on a record by Bob Dylan and plays the 1963 song Blowin' in the Wind. In case you don't recall the now-famous lyrics, Dylan poses a number of political and social questions like this opening one:
How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
The song provides the following answer:
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind
Malcolm X turns off the song and confronts Cooke, who at this point has made his fame and fortune by writing and singing relatively anodyne songs.
This is a white boy from Minnesota who has nothing to gain from writing a song that speaks more to the struggles of our people, more to the movement, than anything you have ever penned in your life, brother.
It's a particularly caustic challenge, one that results in Cooke abruptly leaving the room. When he eventually returns, Malcolm X attempts to apply a salve to Cooke's wound.
Brother, you could move mountains without lifting a finger. Listen, if I give you a hard time, it's only because I think so highly of you.
It was a powerful scene that exposes a deep tension underneath all relationships – friendships, marriages, work partnerships, teammates. How do you accept the people you're in relationship with for who they are while, at the same time, challenging them to be the very best versions of themselves? Acceptance without challenge undermines the very essence of relationship – namely, that each of us grows significantly more when we’re with others than when we're alone. And challenge without acceptance fails to honor the inherent gifts in each of us. It is the integration of this paradox that Malcolm X, and this group of four friends, manage so skillfully, powerfully, and beautifully that one evening in Miami.
I invite you to look at each of your relationships and fail to see this paradox at work. What do you preference – challenge or acceptance? What would it look like to integrate the two? And, perhaps most importantly, what would it look like if you turned your attention inward and were able to fully accept yourself, knowing that everything you need you already have and everything you are is all you'll ever need? And at the same time, how can you challenge yourself to see that every day represents another opportunity to take one more step toward who you are destined to become?
One of the most profound clips of Muhammad Ali is his on-camera performance immediately following his defeat of Sonny Liston, in which Ali declares triumphantly, "I'm the king of the world." To me, it captures almost perfectly the power of identity – that the most powerful driver of human behavior is the desire to be consistent with your identity.
One of my favorite quotes is from Abraham Maslow – "What one can be, one must be." Maslow captured the idea of self-acceptance and self-actualization better than perhaps any other psychologist of the 20th century.
If you haven't yet heard of or joined Clubhouse, I recommend checking it out. Here's a recent article describing what it is. In brief, it's an audio-only social media platform that has taken off. It allows members to drop in on various group discussions on a wide variety of topics. Just for fun and to experiment, I'm going to host my first group discussion this coming Sunday, March 7, at 9 am PT. I'd love for you to join. Here's the link to join the conversation.