By Hammad Ali
Understanding what makes a relationship tick may be the key to finding a balance in one’s chosen community
Relationships. As a teenager full of angst, the word used to hold only one meaning for me – dating or romantic relationships. And while I say teenager, I am not sure I began to feel differently until well into my twenties. Today, just a few years short of my forties, the word relationship conjures an entire myriad of human connections, some we are born into, some we choose to enter, and some that we find ourselves having to step and grow into.
I want to first talk a bit about the relationships we are born into. Perhaps this is cultural, or entirely personal, but it really took me embarrassingly long to realize that while I did not choose my parents or siblings or extended family, they represent no small part of the relationships I will have to keep and navigate. I read a very interesting book once, where the author talked about human relationships being like bank accounts. The things we do to build and enrich the relationship are deposits into the account. Inevitably there will be times when the relationship faces some strains and challenges, things that count as withdrawals from the metaphorical bank account. What happens when there are more withdrawals than deposits? The same thing that happens to all bank accounts – it ends up overdrawn, bankrupt, and unable to sustain a rich, rewarding life.
Relationships need a more mindful, regular effort at making deposits to offset all the inadvertent withdrawals that come with just living life in close proximity
To this day, I find this metaphor very helpful in building and sustaining relationships. But there is one part of the metaphor that was probably the most powerful for me. The author said that sometimes, when the relationship means two people are always around each other, be it family or coworkers, we make subconscious withdrawals without even realizing it. This is why such relationships need a more mindful, regular effort at making deposits to offset all the inadvertent withdrawals that come with just living life in close proximity. Another important aspect of the metaphor was to take the time to figure out what counts as a deposit for the other person. For some, a nice home-cooked meal might be the perfect gesture, while others might prefer an evening out and about town. We cannot do the things we would like, and expect them to be deposits into the relationship bank account of a person whose likes and dislikes we never bothered to learn more about.
A community is something we choose to identify with and belong to, and with that choice comes some rights and responsibilities
But today, I want to talk about a different perspective on relationships, one I have been thinking about a lot in the last couple of years as we lived through a pandemic. Once again, this is probably a personal thing, but I never thought of the larger community that I am a part of as part of the relationships that I have made in life. Looking back on the last two years, I can see that I was wrong. Community is, at its essence, just a collection of relationships. It is people that are not necessarily bound by ties of kinship, but merely by their choice to accept a shared narrative of faith, ethnic identity, or even just mutual interests. For nearly all but the ethnic identity, a community is something we choose to identify with and belong to, and with that choice comes some rights and responsibilities. And what is community good for? That depends a lot on what we put into it.
One thing that I have come to terms with in the last decade or so, is that there will never be a completely homogenous community that we can agree with on everything, all the time. There will be disagreements, bruised egos, and hurt feelings, in any group we find ourselves to be a part of. That is just part of the human experience. What we must ask ourselves is not whether we can get along all the time, but whether the times we get along are worth the times we do not. Another thing we must be mindful of is that when we disagree, whether we can contain our responses to the topic of disagreement and not let it spill over to every other aspect of our interaction with the community, or people in the community. Lastly, we want to make sure that our disagreements are for the sake of something greater than our own glory. As someone once taught me and I struggle every day to keep in mind, in the fiercest disagreement, both sides should be able to identify their shared goals and aspirations. There is immense power in realizing that we all want the same thing; all we disagree on is how to best get that thing.
That does sound like a lot of work. Tolerance of differences, mindfulness of shared dreams, the hard work of being collegial in debate and graceful in defeat. What is all of that good for? Why bother? Because a life spent without being a part of something larger than yourself, is still a life. But it is like a life spent without listening to music, or enjoying a lazy winter morning with a cup of tea. It is a life diminished. In the last two years, I have lost multiple family members. I have found myself stuck at home, either because of inclement weather, or because of illness. Yet, I have not felt alone. People have reached out, people have dropped off groceries (and treats) at my door, people have remembered me in prayers. Community, like any relationship, is a lot of work. Community, like any relationship, is worth the effort.
Photo: John Cameron