This has been a difficult email to write’. I can only see the first line of the email, but I know what it’s going to say. I slam the desk and swear loudly. Co-workers stare. I’m in a rush, I can’t deal with this now. I leave, cycle furiously into town and try to block it from my mind for the rest of the day.
In the majority world, we live in a strange social scene, where community is a fluid thing.
Unlike many other cultures, we make individual decisions about what’s best for us as individuals, rarely giving collective needs much weight. Nearly all relationships are based on currently wanting the same thing, rather than any commitment to something or someone beyond one’s self.
So when co-op housemates of seven years suddenly announce they’re leaving, the emotions which are triggered seem unacceptable.
No promises were made nor expectations verbalised or discussed. We haven’t ‘broken up’. So what can I do with these enormous feelings of betrayal and hurt?
We aim for individual empowerment and shared responsibility, so what can I do with my resentment and upset, that the person who knows where everything is and who fixes all the stuff is leaving?
Being openly angry is out, because I can’t impose my desires on them. Instead I go into denial, pretend it’s not happening, run away from places they might be, because I’m too upset to be nice.
Obviously it’s not the first time. Over the years, nearly 100 people have left my housing co-op. I long ago started relating to people on the basis that they’ll probably leave within a year or two. It rarely comes as much of a surprise and I can nearly always swallow down any emotion and be excited and interested in the next stage of their life – emotional defences are usually in place.
Very occasionally, I get tricked into lowering them because someone’s been around so long it seems like they’re a stayer. We seem to share a commitment and talk about things in the same way. I rely on them.
This is the contradiction when community works well: living closely with people, comforting and helping each other in times of trouble, combining finances, bending and accommodating to each other’s needs and desires, learning each other’s habits and foibles and weird ways of communicating, becoming reliant on each other – this is the stuff of family.
This is where we can learn to relax, trust, lower the defences, open up. It takes a long time, about two years by my reckoning, to get used to living with someone, to start knowing how they work, no longer needing to explain.
People who aren’t our old friends, people we might not otherwise socialise with, are still our confidantes and supports. And this is another part of the contradiction for me: they are important to me while they’re part of my life or part of my activism. Once they’re not in it, we probably won’t see each other much. So why would I want to allow the development of the emotional ties, the family-type ties, that come with wholehearted commitment?
Leeds-based philosopher, Zygmunt Bauman, identifies this emotional precarity of non-commitment as a modern thing, alongside all the other fears and shifting ground that make up modern life. We are dependent for all our needs on relationships and structures which can be suspended at any time – food, housing, warmth, stable relationships, childcare, healthcare, any of them could be lost.
There are no secure foundations on which to build long-term plans, apart from actual family and money. If you’re lucky enough to have them.
I don’t want the world to be like that. I don’t want Thatcher to be right. I want real social security, where networks of local relationships combine with a commonwealth of physical resources, which allow us to be ambitious and risk-taking. I want to live passionately and wholeheartedly. I want collective mission and collective action, joint endeavour and mutual support.
But, in the meantime, I will carry on eating my anger, maintaining friendships on different footings, adapting to new situations and new people, starting the cycle over again. Because the only way to make the world I want is to keep trying.