I usually don’t use many images to make my point, but I figure this is a good one. In chemistry, as well as in life, our maintenance of personal equilibrium depends on many factors, and one of those factors is distance. There is in our relationship with the world a sweet spot in interactions, a certain distance that is safe and enjoyable. Likewise, when it comes to closeness to us, there is an uncanny valley where there are things close enough to creep us out but not close enough to actually comfortably interact with. Being somewhat of an expert at being creeped out, and being exceptionally sensitive to questions of distance and interaction, I would hope my own thoughts on this subject can help bridge the distance between the science of physical chemistry and the chemistry of our own personal lives.
One of our goals in life is equilibrium. We do not wish for the stasis of death, nor for chaos and randomness, which are extremely stressful, but rather we wish for a happy equilibrium where our life is in balance, improving and deepening bonds but maintaining their strength, dealing with the changes that come inevitably with life but finding those changes not to be threatening to our well-being and those of loved ones. Even a bad equilibrium, in a system that is clearly dysfunctional, can often be seen as preferable to the chaotic changes that result from disrupting that system, as is the case with alcoholism and abuse and other clearly damaging situations. Having lived a life that has involved a great deal of unsettling and chaos, I have found it immensely difficult to find the equilibrium of trust in personal relationships. It was not until I finished high school that I was in an environment that was not actively hostile to me personally, and so my social development in areas of romance and even friendship as they relate to trust and intimacy has been an area of extreme backwardness and difficulty, with no small effect on my life thus far. Finding a safe place is by no means easy for some of us, and it is extremely harrowing of a task for me personally.
Not only do we wish for a space place for ourselves, a place where we can put down roots and build relationships and our lives, but we wish for a safe place relatively speaking in terms of our interactions with other people. For myself, I can only stand to be close to people under a few circumstances. One of them is that I do not know they are around, or at least if I can act as if they are not around safely. The other, and more pleasant, is that of interaction. It is my need to interact with those who are close to me that makes me what my friends know as a “proximity person,” someone who is warm and welcoming to anyone who happens to be around me, even perfect strangers. It is that aspect of my personality that draws me to get to know others when I am sitting next to them on the airplane, or that even leads me to attempt to communicate by hands and lights with fellow drivers on the road. For a variety of reasons, I am driven to interact with that which is near me, or driven batty when that is not possible or desirable. Likewise, it is that part of my personality that leads me to not be offended when I am at long distances away from friends, because my lack of interaction with someone does not in any way imply negative feelings towards them, just a sense of distance. Being nearsighted and generally prone to focus on things close at hand (unless I deliberately seek to research something more distant), I tend to interact with those who are close in some fashion and not feel hostile at all about that which I do not interact with that is far away.
So, what is to be done when this becomes an issue. Certainly, I am aware that I am not the only person who is sensitive to questions of distance and interaction. If it is most desirable to either have pleasant and safe interaction or pleasant and safe distance, how is one to obtain this in the less than ideal real world. We are not mere particles of matter that respond helplessly to the circumstances around us. Nor are the entire masters of our domain, able without question to shape the environment around us as we would wish. Rather, we are somewhere in between, able to act but not able to induce action on the part of others (and even if we could do so, we should not wish to do so and infringe upon the freedom of others to choose their own course of action). We also have limited abilities to influence others. We may, for example, wish to have pleasant interactions with others but feel constrained or be outright forbidden to do so. We may wish to give distance to others as a way of increasing our own comfort and that of others, but not be allowed that distance by others. What we do not wish for, at any rate, is to feel trapped around others whose peaceful and friendly intentions we do not know but who we cannot be far enough away from to feel safe. Yet this seems a frequent problem in our lives–it is the essence of the problem of harassment, and as someone who has experienced those feelings, and someone who equally fervently hates to make anyone else feel that way, how to avoid it and cope with it and overcome it then becomes a serious issue, an issue, unfortunately, that physical chemistry cannot help with because it is a problem of the heart.