The joy of nuanced relationships

(Please note, because of the time that has passed since I wrote this article, it may no longer reflect my current views or the most accurate and complete information available on this subject.)

One of my favorite parts of living in a small city in the Midwest is that many of us tend to wear multiple hats for each other. When you get to know someone new in one setting, if you stick around long enough, it's a pretty good bet that you'll encounter them again in at least one other setting. These multi-faceted interactions yield some nuances and texture in relationships that I think are hard to find in less personal settings, and perhaps larger cities.

A great example I can give is that of Charlie. Over the years I've known him, he has been my instructor at college, my academic advisor, my ultimate frisbee teammate, my boss at work, a co-contractor for website development projects, a fellow geek, my mentor for learning organic gardening, my housemate, a fellow board member at various non-profits, my co-instructor for a software engineering class, and of course, a friend. Whew. Now, many who know Charlie would say he's an exceptional example of someone who has his hands in a lot of different institutions around town, and I'd probably grant them that. But even if you take a couple of those relationship dynamics, you've got something pretty textured and wonderful. It's wonderful because it reminds us that we're all human and that we're not defined by our day jobs or by the last thing we said in our holiday cards or by the labels and stereotypes given us by society. It means that our individual journeys to improve ourselves, try new things, take risks, and experience the world in new ways can be shared (and sometimes, enhanced) by others when they get to see more than one side of us.

Of course, it doesn't get to be wonderful with no effort. In a culture that generally rewards isolationism and disconnection from our fellow humans, we actually have to work hard to find balance in one kind of relationship to someone so that there's room for other kinds to open up. It's all too easy to pigeonhole the people we interact with as "my lawyer" or "the newspaper editor" or "the person who served me dinner," and to forget that they have entire existences that might well overlap with our own in ways we don't know yet. It's one thing to recognize that the depth of another being is out there at all, and another to embrace it in a way that really affects us. It can be difficult to create an image for ourselves in our professions or even just in our daily life in the public sphere, and then have to show other sides of ourselves in other settings.

I'm certainly constantly amazed at the multi-faceted lives people lead, the ways we spend our time and our energy outside of the things that we think define us most. It seems like it's every week that I learn that someone who I thought did only X, Y and Z and then went home for the day also does A, B and C too - totally unexpectedly!

And so maybe it's not so important that we have some consistent "image" of who we are for the world to see - maybe that's even counter productive. As long as we're being who we really are in each setting and authentic about the way we experience the world, who else do we need to be? Of course, taken to the extreme, this means treating someone scanning your groceries or a neighbor bothering you with loud music with just as much respect and interest in their "whole" self as you would a close friend or family member. If we want to have successful complex relationships with each other, we need to act with integrity all the time, to the most intimidating stranger, to the must frustrating customer service representative, to the closest of friends. In that way, I think we find out what it really means to live in a community that supports and challenges us in all the right ways. By leaving room for nuanced relationships, I think we leave room for a more inspired existence.

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