Monday, December 29, 2008

The Magic Words Part 4: The Big Picture

It's taken me a long time to write about community. A lot of the blame rests on the usual whirlwind of grad school and life, but this is still a tough topic for me to articulate clearly. Here goes:

    I struggled with relationship stuff for a long time. Through college and for a few years after I beat myself up over what seemed like a persistent inability to form romantic relationships (the fact that I was attracted mostly to very sexual people didn't help.) I was scared- a fear that I'm sure a lot of asexual people can relate to. I was saving a part of myself for a kind of close romantic relationship that I just hadn't figured out yet. It started to feel almost virginal, and if there's one thing I can't stand it's saving myself. 
    Over the course of about a year, an experiment began to formulate in my mind. I didn't have a romantic relationship, but I was constantly surrounded by incredible friends and tight communities. What if I worked with what I had? How many of those pent-up expectations that I was waiting to put on a romantic relationship could be fulfilled by the people I already had in my life? When I caught myself pining over a romantic relationship I switched my thoughts to the people already in my life. I painstakingly went through every person that I spent time with on a regular basis, inventing a language to map the relationships and their potential for growth. I thought about the things that make romantic relationships special and began to invent small, subtle ways to incorporate them into my closest friendships. Slowly, the line in my mind between romance and friendship began to disappear. As my understanding of them became more ingrained and more intuitive the relationships in my life transformed from melodic background noise to something rich, beautiful, and at least as powerful as romance. 
    Earlier, I laid out a language for describing relationships in terms of Time (What you do), Touch (How you feel) and Trust (What you expect.) I'm going to use these three categories to try to describe my relationship with my community as a whole. What I describe may not seem all that different from how you relate to your own community, but hopefully the language will provide an interesting new perspective. 

Community: Every relationship in my life. This includes friends, coworkers, people I pass on the street, people halfway around the world that I am connected to economically, animals, plants, inanimate objects that I'm particularly attached to, spiritual relationships and my relationship with myself.

Time-Earlier this year I started business school. I showed up at orientation eager to meet the people that would be a big part of my life for the next two years. As I went around shaking hands and making introductory smalltalk, I paid close attention to the parts of the conversation where people got excited. All of us were in a scary, new environment where we hoped to accomplish great things, and all of us were going to need strong relationships to do it. I tried my best to squint and imagine what those strong relationships might look like so I could get busy creating them.
    Building relationships can be slow going, but it always pays off. All of the people that I met had things that relationships could potentially help them do- finishing homework, partying in Tahoe, emotional venting, etc. At the end of the day people don't prioritize relationships because the people in them are funny or attractive, they prioritize relationships where useful things happen, so I set about trying to build relationships that were mutually useful.
    I helped people with homework, I gave them a space to process the exciting things going on in our program. I also wasn't shy about building relationships that were useful to me. I spent time mapping out the things that I wanted to accomplish in the program, from getting through classes to exploring the business case for social justice, and I put extra emphasis on the relationships that took me in that direction. Before long I had more exciting opportunities to connect with people than I knew what to do with. I zeroed in on mutual utility, spending my limited time only on those activities and conversations that were most useful both to me AND to the other people involved. The result is rapidly transforming into a functional and supportive community, where I have relationships to support me in all of the things that I want to do. Because those relationships are mutually useful I know that they'll stick around, and if they don't I've got plenty of opportunities to build or deepen other relationships to take their place.
      Now that my community is falling into place, it's mostly just a matter of growth and balance. By deciding which parts of my community to focus on, I can determine whether my environment is supportive, fun, intellectually challenging or chill. I can arrive in class, ask myself how I'm feeling and then pretty easily focus on relationships to match. I can also begin to think long-term. All of the people that I'm connecting with have impressive skills and abilities, so for yucks I'll nudge my relationships so that those skills and abilities come together in interesting and potentially powerful combinations. I wonder what happens if I mix an innovative sustainable product designer, a detail oriented project manager, a dynamic spokes/salesperson and someone with a background in media? Small groups of people with good underlying relationships and the right combination of skills can get some very interesting things done, so I try to grow my community in ways that let these combinations happen organically.
    Business school makes a convenient example, but I can use essentially the same process to do things traditionally associated with romance. At the end of the day, romantic relationships also last because they are utilitarian- they let both people do the things in their lives that they want to do. Most of those things are fairly mundane (doing the dishes, going on hikes) and can be accomplished just as easily by a supportive community. Only a tiny portion of what happens in a romantic relationship actually requires a deep intimate connection. Confiding secrets, processing major life decisions, feeling a sense of stability and security with another person. For that stuff I've got what I call "primaries", relationships at the core of my community that happily reside in that gray area between friendship in romance. I'll discuss them later. 

Touch- I was looking back over old notebooks from college, and in one of the margins I'd sappily scrawled "I wish I could fall in love for about four hours a week." That's about what focusing on my community feels like. The big, showbiz emotions of romance are distributed across all of my relationships as they heave and change. I don't get my heartbreak in big, torrential breakups, I get it in little droplets as the parts of my community that I was most excited about quietly wash away. I don't spend days at a time head over feels about a special someone, but on a pretty regular basis I'll feel that rush of excitement about the possibilities presented by a new person or (better yet) a new opportunity for people to come together. 
    Emotions matter. They matter because they're my best guide to creating the kind of utility that I talked about earlier. If a relationship feels exciting then there is probably something useful going on, even if I don't yet understand what. Paying close attention to how my relationships feel and how those emotions are communicated lets me stably contributing to my life and the lives the other people involved. They're the key to keeping things in the balance, and the key to uncovering the places where relationships can grow.
   This is important, because it stops that deluge of emotions from across my community from becoming overwhelming. Right now I'm smugly happy about my relationships with my classmates, anxious about a good friend, giddy about a project I'm taking on and sad about a close relationship that's drifting. Because each emotion has a clear role in a distinct relationship it's easy for me to compartmentalize. When I feel something I generally know pretty clearly when and where that emotion is relevant, and I can keep ahold of it and act on it accordingly. Of course, a lot of the things that I feel are too big to fit in these sorts of boxes. I'll be bummed out or awkwardly overjoyed, and I'll pull on the parts of my community that help me express that mood until it stops being so overwhelming. 
    A lot of you are probably reading this and gagging at the idea of keeping emotions more or less neatly compartmentalized, but the shit works. Things aren't big, dramatic and messy, but that's kind of the point. I don't avoid feeling things, I just feel them in a way that helps my relationships along rather than threatening to tear them apart. This drives my relationships to go deeper and my communities get more and more interesting, and lets me feel things that would otherwise be impossible. 

Trust- If there was a core to that fear about relationships that I felt in college, it was a lack of trust. There are some things that just can't happen in relationships without monumental levels of trust. Major commitments like buying property and raising kids require a significant amount of trust in a single person, and it's hard to imagine how I could accomplish that level of connection while flittering around my community. There's something deeply compelling and simple about having someone who I can fundamentally depend on, a relationship that will be around through thick and thin. How can I build that kind of trust?
    In romantic relationships that trust comes with time. It often takes years of standing together through good times and bad for that kind of quiet certainty to really take root. If I want to build that kind of trust it's a simple matter of identifying the people I care about most, making real commitments to them, and holding those commitments sacred. These kinds of extremely close relationships are vital, right now I have three of them. We openly discuss how we feel about our relationship and where we see that relationship headed. We constantly prove ourselves to one another and, about two years in, are beginning to develop the kind of trust that's normally associated with romance.
    Why three? It has to do with some basic but extremely important math. If I had a romantic partner I might expect to spend about four nights a week focused on quality time with her and another three nights a week attending meetings, taking classes and visiting friends. Instead of spending quality time with one person for four nights a week, I spend one or two nights a week with each of my three primary relationships (and usually save another night for a more traditional best friend.)   I still wind up spending four nights a week having quality time with someone that I love deeply- it's just not the same someone each night. All three of these relationships have all been going on for over a year now, and they feel like intimate relationships do when they settle in. The honeymoon periods with their explosive emotions are over, and we have begun to settle into our deeply comforting routines. By itself, none of these three relationships is as powerful as a yearlong romance, but in combination they're about the same. If I need someone, I know that at least one of these three will be there.    

Since I've started this experiment, some incredible things have started happening. I've been able to see my community and the other communities that I observe with a newfound clarity. I've been able to envision more and more powerful ways for my community to enrich my life while I enrich the lives of the people in it, and that's where things get interesting. Good romantic relationships force people to grow. They simultaneously challenge the people involved and give them the support that they need to surmount those challenges. My relationship with my community is no different. For an individual personal growth could mean quitting smoking or letting go of inhibitions. When communities grow they tackle problems like racism and political apathy. If I see community as the source of intimacy in my life I will inevitably work to improve that community. All of that time, emotion and trust flowing around my community contributes to a fertile environment for change.