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What others leave for you to keep

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There are others. More than you can comprehend. They’re everywhere you go and you’ll meet some of them.

Some of these other people will naturally establish themselves as an apparent fixture in your life, and change how life looks to you. This is called a relationship. If the person stays around for months or years, your relationship with them might begin to feel permanent.

It’s not. Relationships are conditions, not things. They all have to end at some point. But they will leave something behind for you to keep.

There are different kinds, different styles of rapport between you and The Other: polite, uneasy, romantic, platonic, confusing. We tend to slot them into distinct types — friendships, courtships, marriages, business partnerships — but they’re all fundamentally the same thing. Two people overlap, experience each other’s thoughts and ideas, absorb each other’s values, and learn from each other’s stories. Personalities leak into other people when those people get close enough.

This happens all the time, and it is always temporary. The overlap comes to an end and the parties diverge and drift away. It could be after 72 hours of traveling together, or after a summer internship working together, or after 55 years of marriage. If nothing else ends it, death will.

This means that life is essentially a solo trip. You’ll have this endless parade of visitors, though, which is nice. Characters you couldn’t have imagined will appear, stay for a minute or maybe a few months or maybe many years, and then leave you to your trip.

Welcome visitors, as a general rule. Their purpose is to aid the solo traveler in figuring out how to enjoy the world.

Most people will enter and exit your life without your noticing much. Some of them will make a big splash though. Some visitors will be decidedly special. You’ll know.

The most valuable experience a person can have is an overlap with this kind of person. The defining characteristic of one of these people is that they make it impossible for you to remain the same person by the time they make their exit.

Each one of these people, by the time your paths diverge, will have changed you in a way that is evident to others who know you.

You probably will not recognize quite what’s happening at the time. You will feel something though. The feeling of windows opening.

However this particular overlap goes, whatever experiences it’s made of, ecstatic ones or awful ones — a few months or years down the road, you’re different. You’re better. Something that was hard is now easy, something that was daunting is now familiar, something you were once skeptical about you now love.

You will be left with some beliefs you didn’t have before. You will value certain things more than you did, and other things less than you did.

Maybe you’ve never thought about it, but you’ve had this happen to you, several times by now. It will happen again and again. You have no idea who is on their way to meet you. They have no idea either.

At any given moment, any time, any day of your existence, you can look at your whole life as a vast collection of experiences, and recognize that all of it adds up exactly to who you’ve become today. Who you became depended — to a degree you may never appreciate — on who you happened to run into while you were out in the world doing your thing. You could have been so many different people.

All relationships are temporary. They change form and texture as time passes, and they eventually go.

If it’s been a special one — with a lover, an important teacher, a parent — its absence can be a heavy one. Almost tangible. You can feel the presence of their absence. The Other is gone. An empty desk, an unused pillow, an open doorway with no one standing in it.

But you’re still there, and you’re better than you were.


Photo by flabber degasky

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C August 6, 2012 at 3:44 am

The things you write about and the timing that you post them always seem to speak out to me when I need insight about that topic the most. It’s uncanny! So as usual, it was timely that you posted this today as it really spoke out to me.
Thanks for reminding me that relationships are conditions instead of permanent things to get attached to but also that they are beautiful connections that come into your life as visitors to welcome and learn from.
It can be somewhat difficult for me to not get too attached to someone (dependency issues! ha!) and I think I fret and overlook the beauty of the interaction as it is happening by worrying about losing the relationship in the future. Ironically, I do know it’s because it is a beautiful and worthwhile connection that I do worry and get sad to think it will inevitably end. This is something I am still figuring out how to overcome…hopefully I’ll get there one day.
Thanks for this post. It’s given me a lot to think about.

Jo August 8, 2012 at 1:45 am

OMG! I could not have said it better myself. :) That is exactly how I felt after reading it, and its exactly how I feel about relationships and attachment. Talk about timing.

mike August 6, 2012 at 4:24 am

Hi David,

I too am in awe at you perception and timing. Today I spoke with a psychologist regarding my attachment to a particular relationship and my seeming need to repatriate it or replace it. The point that recurs when I read your article is that my memories and my fears keep me from being present in the moment. Do you agree that whilst we pine for the past or fear the future (loneliness) we are neglecting the one person in our life who is constant…me.


Maia August 6, 2012 at 5:25 am

Nice post, it’s true. Everything will pass one day and we should enjoy it while we have it and not wallow in those relationships that are in the past. We can learn something from the many relationships we have.

John August 6, 2012 at 7:04 am

Nice post… But I think its also worth turning things around a bit. We should realize that our presence in others’ lives will impact them. We should strive to make our relationships with other enrich their lives. What are you doing in your relationships to foster a profound positive impact in others’ lives?

GoodGravyBoat August 6, 2012 at 7:24 am

Very thoughtful post…enjoyed!

Jim Coy August 6, 2012 at 9:20 am

Perhaps the best posts are those of late Sunday night. As body and mind digest the events of the day – or the week – the soul has had time to assimilate meaning into words of wisdom which reach the experience of others. Thanks, David, for reminding me that there is really no such thing as complete and utter loss – that endurance of and in the moment can yield hope to others when shared. Life does move onward… and much for the better.

Emmanuel van der Meulen August 6, 2012 at 9:25 am

The most important relationship is with yourself.

Well August 6, 2012 at 9:27 am

Ditto to C’s comment, you do hit the nail on the head with amazing timing with things going on in my life as well. It just shows how many people are dealing with the same type issues(life). Since I discovered this blog a few months ago, my outlook on people and life has changed dramatically. Thank You

Kabamba August 6, 2012 at 9:53 am

Thank you David.
As a little boy I wondered how that how that people (friends, relatives) could come and go out of my life but i still remained HERE. It was like I was trapped with ME. I couldn’t go away from ME. I was always HERE. What is all this about? I used to think to myself. I kept all this in my heart. How could I even begin to ask people about such things?

Gustavo | Frugal Science August 6, 2012 at 11:11 am

Hi David,
If I grasped your point correctly, you are implying that all relationships (positives and negatives) leave you better at the end. Hum… I will have to think a bit about that one. It leaves a good question, though.

David August 6, 2012 at 11:27 am

All of them will teach you something, if you’re paying attention, yes. I have learned a huge amount from difficult relationships. Positive and negative experiences both teach you about your values.

michael platania August 7, 2012 at 7:22 am

Yes, I always look at negative experiences as having come into our life to teach us a lesson we need to learn. If it comes into our lives again and again, it means we have not learned the lesson. Sometimes I believe we are being taught a lesson, to prepare us for something that will come our way in the future – and if we learn to deal with it now, hopefully we avoid having to deal with an even worse version of it later.

Sir Evidence August 6, 2012 at 11:29 am

Thank you, David, for your insightful thoughts. I think the self, our mind, is made of the stuff that relationships leave behind within us. However, how do we know that we are “better” than we were after a relationship ends? “The Other” always leaves something within us — it is not always for the better. Young, impressionable teenagers should know that succumbing to relationships based on peer pressure, for example, do not always leave one better than one was before. To be sure, “the better” that any relationship leaves behind can only be determined by logical reasoning, which is our ability to distinguish the real from the unreal, the true from the false, and the just from the unjust. Such ability is aided only by very few “others” that exist in the world.

David August 6, 2012 at 11:34 am

I figure if you view your life in the spirit of growth, as something you want to get better at, you can’t help but take something useful away from your most intense connections with other people, no matter how they go. For someone who never reflects on themselves and how they live, I guess they could miss it. But I assume they wouldn’t be reading this blog.

Megan August 6, 2012 at 11:56 am

I don’t remember how or when exactly I stumbled on your blog. I’m fairly certain that I was using the StumbleUpon app thing and so quite literally did stumble upon it. I think I’ve been reading about for a year now, maybe longer.

I’m not much one for leaving comments, but this week’s article was especially relevant and realistic while being very comforting. I found out this weekend that two of my really good friends are moving away in about a month. Neither have been in my life for an especially long period of time, one for just a couple months, but I can feel and I know the impact they have made on me and my life even in just the short amount of time I’ve known them.

While I’m no stranger to moving or dealing with people I love being at a distance from me, the initial parting never gets any easier to manage, and so I spent quite a bit of time over the rest of the weekend sulking like a spoiled brat, haha. Your article this morning re-centered me though. Yeah, I am still sad–who doesn’t want their best friends in the vicinity pretty much at all times?–but I will refocus now on the things they have given me, are giving me, and will continue to give me, both for the next month in our physical presences and in the time beyond when their physicality slips away and our relationship transform as well.

Thank you for what you do. This is not the first time an article has led me to reconsider how I am approaching my life at the street level, and I’m certain it will not be the last.

Tyler G. August 10, 2012 at 11:25 pm

While I’m not David, I know precisely what you mean and thought I’d share my own experience. A friend of mine is moving off to college, and the likely hood of seeing him soon will be slim. You might call us brothers, because that’s how close we seem, and it’s a little rough knowing that I won’t be able to communicate with him unless it’s via electronics. But you know what I’ve found comforting, is knowing that no matter who I interact with, I have some wonderful lesson to learn. And what I’ve learned, is that it never hurts to meet even more people to broaden the horizons even further. Which is exactly what I’ll do, and what I believe would be cool for you to do too (and this is coming from an introvert) and that is to embrace people. One or two of them will surely be cool enough to be those special others. :) Cheers.

Marsha August 6, 2012 at 12:13 pm

Thank you. I needed this today :)

steph in berkeley August 6, 2012 at 5:14 pm

delightful ;) simply.

Bonnie August 6, 2012 at 5:47 pm

Just lovely! – and another synchronicity:

Meditating this morning on how our awareness can encompass the vast reaches and sub-quantum nubs of our universe — but that we are, at essence, mysteries to one another. None of us can begin to touch the subtle intimacies of existence unfolding in another being. It seemed to me that on Life’s solo journey we must mostly suffice with broad strokes of understanding punctuated by fleeting insights into our fellow travelers. But reading this, I’m wondering anew: In the overlay of lives and the hardly-noted exchanges, perhaps we know one another best by the imprints we leave on each other, by the gifts that are given to keep.

Thank you.

Lisa August 7, 2012 at 8:27 am

It is helpful to remember that relationships are temporary…everything is….life, death (hey,yes, maybe death is temporary too :). Relationships have been challenging for me, painful to the point where I’ve spent most of my life alone. I still want to be close to people though, in spite of this and my life revolves around finding ways to make this happen, finding ways to be more open and trusting. Thanks for your words.

Seb August 7, 2012 at 4:45 pm

That was truly beautiful to read and think about, thank you.

Ali August 7, 2012 at 4:48 pm

I love this post. Thank you David.

Marylin August 9, 2012 at 3:22 pm

As life progresses, one does learn to let go of people who are close; you have to. Either they leave for various reasons, or they die. You can’t keep these things from happening although when we are young we think we have the capability to alter the occurance of events in our lives. Ultimately we learn that some things were just not meant to be and that we are just human and we die or change our minds about who we wish to be with and the voids that accompany a departure become a part of our lives. I found it very difficult to let go of these “passers-by “. Once you learn to let go, you will start to see yourself in a new perspective. Yes David, these experiences form and transform us until we die.

nikky August 9, 2012 at 9:00 pm

This was such a refreshing read..thank you for this reminder

Tyler G. August 10, 2012 at 11:18 pm


Is it fair of me to assume that you’re some radically brilliant philosopher, who goes around the streets of Boston, or maybe Chicago, enlightening the populace? That’s how I feel reading your work, anyway. I’ve never felt so strongly about philosophical reflections, not like I have with your posts. You seem to be able to put words to something that I can only feel, and for that, I’m jelly. These ideals that you present have such an impact on me that I was wondering if I could borrow your concepts as story themes, and of course I will alter and use your words differently. Cheers.

Your Vigilant Reader, Tyler.

CC August 11, 2012 at 1:33 am

I just stumbled upon your blog today, and this post really captured my interest. It’s like that song from Wicked:
“I’ve heard it said
that people come into our lives
for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
and we are lead to those
who help us most to grow
if we let them
and we help them in return
Well I dont know if I believe that’s true
But I know I’m who I am today
because I knew you.”

Though as others have said in the comments, I’m not sure every relationship leaves you better. I think that all relationships have the potential to do so, if you take it the right way (in a spirit of growth, as you’ve said), but sometimes it’s impossible to interpret it in a positive light unless there is another person to help you. For example, there are many cases when people who come from abusive relationships end up worse than they were before, especially if they could not find help.

As for me, though, I do personally find what you said true. But I think that I am one of the lucky ones. :)

RJ Hill August 14, 2012 at 8:41 am

Thank you for such a beautiful, evocative post! I’m always slightly changed after reading your work, always altered for the better-like you’ve loosened my cognitive hinges a bit more; thanks so very much!

Ellen August 14, 2012 at 1:24 pm

Love this post.. lots of people who were or are in my life came to my mind while I was reading this… And I can see their footprints in the path of my life…

Jamie August 16, 2012 at 9:52 am

For me personally the people that have shaped my life more than any others have been those people whom I had difficult times with. I think that is because when you eventually break apart, you reflect on why you spent time with them and what effect the experience had on you.

Of course this depends on how well you learn from mistakes.

Donald August 17, 2012 at 2:14 pm

Thank you for this. I’m glad I got to read this article. It really helped open up some windows for me.

Rob August 26, 2012 at 1:06 pm

“If nothing else ends it, death will.”- I’m pretty sure that’s the coldest, and yet the truest thing I’ve ever read. I like how you’ve turned that around, though. Sometimes we just have to face up to the fact that life is a solo journey. That makes it feel very lonely at times, but it tells us that we shouldn’t be too dependent on others for our emotional well-being.

I’ve also had people in my life that changed me, for better or for worse, and some of them are no longer a part of my life. It’s best to be glad that you had the time together, I guess- that you got to meet someone so special and share a part of your life with them.

This post has really made me think…

Aizdevumi internetā August 28, 2012 at 6:50 am

I started to read and thought that you got divorced or somebody has died, but I might be wrong. Good article anyway. It made my day. Thank you, David.

Doug October 9, 2012 at 12:17 am

That is just beautiful. Thank you for creating this and posting it for us all to reflect on.

Pernille Elleboe October 16, 2012 at 7:32 am

I absolutely adore your blog.
I a so happy to have discovered such an inspiring and thoughtful role model! Can never get enough of those.

Out of curiosity, have you taken vipassanna courses? Everything in your philosophy of life indicates it, so if you haven’t, you should check it out.
Forgive if you’ve been asked this a million times, I’m a new reader so I haven’t read every blogpost + comments yet :)

Jas Torres October 16, 2012 at 7:08 pm

Wow! So beautiful this post. And so true actually. It spoke to me and reminded me that relationships are temporary in a time I needed so much to remember that. It hurts a little, though. I guess I’m that denial phase… But then again, I guess that’s temporary too.

Jo October 24, 2012 at 12:21 am

I have to say, I still come back to this and read it. However each time i read this, i think about all the different people who are no longer in my life, those that are still in my life, and those that are yet to come. So there are days that I read this, and get quite teary, when i think of those that are no longer in my life, but I miss. Those that are currently in my life, that may leave at any point. Those that I have now, that I would love to be forever in my life, but wont. There is also the excitement of those that are yet to come.

Thank you again for posting this. :)

Angela peters December 10, 2012 at 9:51 am

Thank you for this beautiful honest post. It literally give me goose bumps! And it also makes me feel like I need not fear losing people in my life (which I sometimes – often – do fear!).

John January 5, 2013 at 12:51 am

Hey David! Long time, no see.

Just stumbled back on your blog to say hi and read a great post. Just out of curiosity, what are your thoughts on monogamy. No judgment here, just wondering your perspective.

I agree with your post, btw :)

Hope you’re doing well (I’ve stopped blogging, but I was definitely only doing it because I needed fixing (internally). I’m much more learned and comfortable with myself now and who I am as a person). Thanks for being apart of my journey, man :)

Noli March 10, 2013 at 1:54 pm

Wow! I’m in awe. Thank you

Linda March 31, 2013 at 2:00 pm

I love this post, but especially this quote: “You have no idea who is on their way to meet you. They have no idea either.” Such a comforting, exciting thought.

Which also brings me to my own (recent) experience. Long story short: I’m a 23-year-old girl who has never been in a relationship, probably due to the fact that I used to be a very shy, awkward and insecure teenager. Nothing major, just dramatic teenage thoughts: “I will probably never meet someone and end up alone!” Boo-hoo. (Also very unrealistic, but still a thought that pops up every now and then when I’m in a bad mood.)

So I’m pretty new to the dating-scene. Recently I met this guy, with whom I dated only a few times. It may have been a short period of time, but because of my lack of experience it felt like this ‘big splash’ you mentioned in your post. One moment we were still dating and he was still Mr. Nice Guy with whom I had this incredible (or so I thought) connection, the next thing I know he rejects me brutally because I didn’t want to sleep with him.

It is only a month ago, but I already learned so much from this (partly ecstatic, partly awful) experience. Now I know that -even though I’m sometimes embarrassed about being single/a virgin at ‘my age’- I will never lower my standards. I like myself the way I am, inexperienced and everything. And he taught me a few things: to be the best version of myself every day, to enjoy life RIGHT NOW, to not judge people immediately. Of course, I didn’t get the time to get to know him very well, but he seemed to be one of the most positively thinking people I have ever met.

I’m glad I had the courage to try and date him, because a few years ago I would’ve never done that. I’m happy that I met him, that I experienced this and I’m looking forward to all the other people I’ll meet in the future. And this post made me realize that even more!

Ps: I’m very new here, I just discovered your blog through a friend a few weeks ago. But I think you are an incredibly inspiring writer! Keep up the excellent work. :-)

Jackie July 12, 2013 at 10:26 am

Thank you for this post. I had read it before, but it has significantly more relevance to me now. And re-reading it has reminded me to rejoice in those whom you are fortunate enough to encounter on your journey, no matter how briefly your paths overlap.

Rhonda August 22, 2013 at 9:26 pm

My goodness, it must be providence that I discovered this post tonight. I so desperately needed to read this. It’s going to soothe the heartache that I feel over the end of a relationship.

It’s so hard for me to let go of people (be it friends, family, lovers)….but this really helps put things into perspective. Thanks!

Fredric December 29, 2013 at 3:40 pm

No matter how far, no matter how long, if fate brings you both together then, go with the flow.
You may only date men of a certain height and build. She has also written many other articles
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Noli January 8, 2014 at 4:32 am

You just made me realise something big here: Home is inside me. Not in anything or anyone outside of me. Inside me.

David Cain January 10, 2014 at 10:11 am

Yes! That’s what’s so useful about it. Home is here. On headless.org there are a lot of video interviews about people’s experience with this practice, including a couple who were taken hostage when they were missionaries. They used this technique to keep themselves centered during their captivity.

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