It was about 3:45am, the third night in a row when some combination of myself and four friends were sitting on the back porch way past when we should’ve been and diving into different variations of the events of life over the past year (or so) since many of us had been able to be in the same place all at once.
Days before, I had walked from my house to a local pub with a good friend because it was his birthday and we needed to play darts to celebrate. The night before, a group of 30 of us had gathered in a backyard for a night of lawn games and general shenanigans leading to an emotional time of telling stories around a fire about one of our dear friends. A week before, we had gathered on the back patio of a bar to listen to a folk band cover a bunch of pop songs with some of our dearest friends celebrating my wife’s birthday.
All of this is to say, of course, that this life is more than I could have imagined, predicted, or planned on.
Or, another way of putting it, as a half-drunk man once told a friend of mine at that very local pub mentioned above, this is our actual life.
By about 4:00am we had realized our mistake of staying up so dang late, but were too enthralled in what was happening here to go to sleep. Instead, we refilled our glasses and plunged forward into the depths of our lives and of moments shared, both this current moment and the slew of moments that had brought us to this point in our friendship for another hour until our bodies could not handle it any longer.
Looking around, I am noticing that I have friends who are in a lot of very different situations in life. Some are artistic types - musicians, writers, artists - struggling to find work. Other friends of mine, probably the biggest group of them, are in some sort of ministry, whether at a Parish or a not for profit organization, and are in many ways struggling to work a job they may or not may not feel super passionate about which can’t pay a ton. Other friends are working normal, nine to five type jobs where they are making good money doing something that they might care about a lot or a little, but hey it’s a job so they make it work. Some friends are married, some have kids, others are single. A few of my friends are in various stages of discerning a religious vocation, and of course there are others who are just wandering between all of these options trying to figure out what it’s all about.
I’ve heard this sort of mantra over and over again in my life that tells me that if I’m not moving forward I’m moving backwards. There’s some truth in that, in a lot of ways, and so we buy in and work our butts off trying to improve our situation constantly because we assume that progress, whatever progress looks like in our specific situation and worldview, is what it’s all about. We work hard at a second “job” or a hobby we’re passionate about, often harder than we work at the actual job we have a contract for, because that second job fits our passion and it is what allows us to feel like the progress is really happening. We spend our money and our energy on all kinds of pursuits that will allow us to be better at something, to get recognized, to be paid more, and to feel progress. Even in our spiritual lives, we buy into this idea that hard work, and definable, markable progress, are the be-all and end-all of our lives, and as long as we’re seeing progress that we can define we’ll be happy.
At 4am, sitting on the back porch and admitting to my friends that I hadn’t made all that much progress but I was so damn happy, I realized that progress in anything doesn’t matter if we’re not progressing in relationship.
In order to avoid the abstract here, which simply won’t do enough to understand what is being talked about, let’s look at the reality of life. We are born into a family of some sort. For most of us, we live our entire lives in relationship with that family as well as a network of friends, neighbors, classmates, co-workers, and other acquaintances. When good things happen, we run to our dearest friends to celebrate; when bad things happen, we look to them for comfort, support, and sometimes just to let us complain.
In relationship, we learn who we are. It is through looking at our parents, first and foremost, that we come to understand that we are loved, we are cared for, and we have an identity. It is through cousins, friends, or other close relationships that we learn our likes and dislikes, we learn how to deal with hurts and failures, and we learn how to approach others and have difficult conversations.
The truth in all of that is that we are made to be in relationship with one another. At the heart of this is a relationship with the Creator of the Cosmos who took on human form and in doing so entered into relationship with His very creation. The Creator lived in relationship, and likewise each of us must live in relationship in order to learn who we are, who He is, and what life is all about. When we have another who looks at us, and in all honesty that other helps us to encounter the truth, the beauty, and the goodness of the world around us, everything makes more sense.
While so many of my peers are running around and being successful in their jobs as well as all of the side projects that they’re doing, I’m trying my best to focus on the people I encounter regularly and to learn how to love those people in a deep and sincere way. Because, at the end of the day, while professional, personal, and all kinds of progress can be helpful in some sense to building a person who is whole and fulfilled, that fulfillment will mean nothing without others with whom it can be shared.