To be with one another

I used to do a metaphor very much. I’d say, that life is like a train ride, people step into and and out of your life at different times. Some stay, hanging around longer than others. Some step off, prematurely, perhaps. We do not always have control. I hung on to this passively and fished it out during conversations, increasingly out of convenience. I was not indifferent — these relationships matter to me. But it dawned upon me only recently, that I have been too casual — far too casual — with how quickly and easily I put aside relationships at the first signs of discolouration, even if only temporarily. Maybe to call it squander, comes close.

It certainly hasn’t helped that I have been a pain to keep up with in the past 4-5 years because of the movements in my life. I left my job, went on a sabbatical, and spent many months on the road, away from home where most of my friends and family are. Many struggled and ate my dust. Even with sand in the mouth, some have patiently and faithfully hung around. Even then, I don’t think I have found it in myself to articulate my gratitude for these relationships. Maybe I know deep down and on hindsight, that in this conversational withholding, I’ve taken away from myself the possibility of experiencing richer friendships, more meaningful couplings.

Over time, I have come to realise how I often underestimate what a conversation can do for the parties involved; when we allow a potentially powerful conversation to slip away, we leave behind a gaping hole. A void with neither flow nor resonance.

I have noticed how we have it in us, this tendency to want control over a conversation and how it will go; we want to run the predictable scripts, follow through with the rehearsal. Surely, once we can control the trajectory of a conversation, we have control over our relationships. We prefer, as much as possible, no smudges. We ask for precise, clean corners. We pick a comfortable spot, then take 3 steps back, for good measure. There, we settle with our arms outstretched. This is the distance I prefer to keep, I am comfortable here. Surely, then, there will be no offence taken, no boundaries crossed, no chance of debt.

Over and over again, I’ve seen me — seen us — choose this brand of comfort. It is familiar. It is polite. It is also inert.

Each time, I walk out unmoved and empty.

The past few years have taught me so much about relationships — how these are maintained by the nature of the conversations we are willing to have, the health of relationships we are called to maintain, the sanctity and integrity we are committed to uphold. These lessons have been very precious, and it is important to me that I put it out there.

This journey has been both eye-opening and heart-opening. While I was taught that systems are inherently violent, I was at the same time, given more than a few precious glimpses and experiences of how, despite that, there is room for tenderness and care to ripen and take shape between people. Sometimes, tentative in the beginning, it peeks. But at the heart of it, always tender, always loving.

I used to feel that this is about cultivating a richer imagination — that once we are able to see it, we can model it, we can run the script. Maybe it is that, but only partly. It is also, unmistakably, about a willingness and courage to attend to each moment as it unfolds. Even when we haven’t a clue what we can offer, or where we can draw from. The mounting crisis of isolation and loneliness is palpable with the dwindling of common shared spaces, both online and offline, where communal practices of rituals of celebration and grief are performed, experienced, and witnessed. As Casper de Tuile of Sacred Design Lab puts it, we do need to conceive of new structures of relational commitment”, instances where the conditions are encouraging, for individuals to hang around and stick together, long enough for us to see the merits and reap the rewards of hanging around and sticking together.

I’m learning these days that we can take care of our relationships, one conversation at a time.

How do we have better conversations? What shifts when we are seen and listened to, the way we choose to be? How might we prioritise safety? What risks are we willing to take in conversations if relationships are to remain meaningful for everyone? What do care, respect and responsibility look like?

What good do conversations do during these times?

These times have been called tumultuous” amongst many other bleak sounding things. I will refrain from repeating other downstream effects of the pandemic because they have been regurgitated to a pulp elsewhere, but I will instead point to one thing — it makes a difference knowing that you are not suffering alone. It matters that you know you have company, because company is what makes this long game emotionally sustainable for each one of us. This is a resilience that we can collectively summon into being by way of being with one another.

And it is in conversation that we be with one another. Conversations matter, because relationships matter. Hell, relationships are all we have. Perhaps one day we will come around and realize that this people work, is where the stakes are, is the real work.

So thank you to the folks learning and trying to make communities and collectives work. Sitting and squatting, patiently and impatiently, willing certain conversations to happen so that good work can happen.

If there is something we can do better, and if I spend my next many years learning to do that one thing, perhaps protecting and restoring the sanctity of relationships, practicing how to do conversations well — including the ones with ourselves, that would be my choice of suffering.

When we take care of our conversations, we take care of our relationships. I don’t know how I feel about scale anymore. But my hunch tells me, that when we take care of the proximal — which is all we have, really, I think we might find ourselves in a better position to take care of all the things we try to take care of.

That each request for wholeness, restoration, restitution can be acknowledged, honoured and responded to — I hope the conversations we choose to have can see to that. We can all learn this, together.

I think we cannot afford to let these important conversations slip, at the expense of some other work.

I think we can afford the time.

July 23, 2022