Sharon April 23rd, 2009
My friend, Kathy Harrison, said something that really struck me while we were talking the other day, and I asked her to write about it, so I could share it properly with all of you. As the financial situation gets more dire, as we face more and more people suffering from state budget cuts, the loss of their pensions, the crashing of major industries, what we do have left matters more. Kathy quotes a story told by Warren Buffet, and then muses on her own experience,
A woman by the name of Belle Eisenberg, who recently passed away, lost her entire family in Auschwitz. She was the only one to make it out. She told Mr. Buffet that every time she met someone she asked herself whether this was the type of person who would hide her from the Nazis. He said that if you had a dozen people in your life who would hide you and you them then you lived a pretty successful life. Mr. Buffet said that he knew billionaires whose own children would not hide them….
Some weeks we are on the recieving end of the favors. We have eaten countless meals prepared by others when I was ill. We have planted adopted seedlings and worn hand-me-down clothing. Our children have been minded by friends as have our animals and our plants. We have been picked up from airports and driven lent cars. Our life is a series of good deeds done by people who probably found it inconvenient but did it anyway.
This economic mess is a terrible thing for many families but when I look for the silver lining to a grim cloud it comes from the world getting smaller. Small makes it easier to hold hands with each other.
This, of course, is a very high standard of relationships – and yet, it is also, I think, a useful way of thinking about the depths of our relationships. Ask yourself who you would risk your life for, who you would take in in very difficult times, who you would speak up for, who you would make sacrifices for. Odds are good that some of those people are the ones who would do it for you. The stakes of community really are not that low, and community should never be last on our planning list.
I’ve recently been thinking about relationships as well – last fall, my youngest sister and brother in law came to visit. Now I adore my wonderful brother in law, but while my sister and I are quite close, and talk regularly, I sometimes feel like Billy and I go long stretches without connecting, and miss him - he works long hours, and so she and I chat on the phone or she comes out to visit without him, and often, when we do see him, it is at large family gatherings, rather than intimately. This was a rare occasion when my husband and I got to spend some real time with Billy, which was wonderful.
Our dining room roof leaks quite badly, and because we are in an extended conflict with the company that supposedly fixed the roof, but didn’t, we’ve been advised we can’t actually fix it ourselves without losing leverage in our ongoing process of resolution. On the autumn weekend they visited, we had torrential, icy rain that night, and, not unexpectedly, our dining room roof was leaking horribly. We’d just gotten the kids to bed, and were sitting around drinking beer and talking, when Billy turned to me, and asked whether we’d like him to go up on the roof and replace the tarp that was now failing to keep out the leaks.
And I was struck by this – how many people in your life will go up on the roof on a cold night in the pouring rain simply because they want to help? It isn’t quite as dramatic as asking “would these people hide me from the Nazis” but it isn’t too far off, either – in both cases, the question is this – is the relationship deep enough to endure difficulty, cost, strain – and is the faith in the relationship sufficient to endure periods where reciprocity may not be possible?
Now people have these relationships for different reasons. Even though Billy and I don’t spend a ton of time together, I’m family, and both of us have a strong commitment to family. Our friendship is real, but not deep enough to explain this – but the ties of marriage and blood are. But I have other relatives who would never think to do the same. Family can be the origin, but it isn’t always.
I have friends who I know would go up on the roof, would hide me from the Nazis, based on relationships we’ve had for years, people I would trust with my life, and who are as important to me as my family. I sometimes struggle with the choice to live so far away from my parents and sisters – but the thing that keeps me here is that we’ve managed to build communities and relationships that are just as strong as the familial ones in many ways. I feel very lucky and blessed to have such friends.
And there are a few people who would do these things not because they love me, or because I love them, but because it is the right thing to do. There are those people who hid others from the Nazis not based on intense personal relationships, but because they felt it was right – people who show up to help out the neighbors even if they don’t personally like them, or know them very well, who are there with a helping hand. Sometimes those people become your friends, your intimate circle. And sometimes they never do – sometimes all you will ever be to one another are members of the same community, but that’s enough.
I hope, of course, that none of us ever need to be hidden. But it is a fair likelihood that all of us will need help from someone at some point. It is a fair likelihood that all of us will haev the opportunity to extend help to one another. And every time we do this, we create something. It isn’t always the same thing – not every relationship extends as deeply as the ones Harrison talks about. Some things will go as far as the roof, but not as far as hiding you, or vice versa. Some people will be able to offer different things.
But it is worth thinking of these moments of exigency when we truly rely on one another when we inventory what we have in our lives. I often talk about acquiring or making things that we might need – but this, I think, is the one thing we all most need to make – those ties, deeper than ordinary ones, on which we can trust and wholly rely.