Life is Relationships

At KSU the summer reading project was “This I Believe”–a collection of essays by famous and ordinary people. I made all the students in my class write a “This I Belive” essay. Here’s mine, which I shared with the whole class…

Labor Day weekend camping at East Harbor State Park with 100 of my closest friends is ample inspiration for a “this I believe” essay. The chaotic sprawl of tents and pop-up campers looks like some sort of refugee camp, but not from some genocidal war or natural disaster. Instead, little clots of upbeat people roam around the group camping site, playing volleyball, playing beerski (you use a Frisbee to try to knock water bottles off a ski pole), riding bikes, eating camping food, everybody talking, some smoking, and many drinking out of red cups. Non-alcoholic I’m sure…state law, you know. We have definitely exceeded the maximum occupancy of these sites. Not even counting how many dogs people brought.

Why do we do it? Every year it’s either too hot or too cold, too windy or there’s too many bugs, someone’s car breaks down 100 miles from home, somebody gets hurt and goes to the ER, or someone gets soaked when their tent leaks in the rain. The fishing is frankly not that good. Our trips to Walmart for equipment or provisions seem more fun than in Stow, but Walmart is basically Walmart everywhere. There’s no internet or TV, and if anyone brings a stereo we all get to listen to whatever they chose, more or less. Cooking is more convenient at home, sleeping is way more comfortable in my bed, and I can put together a better campfire in my backyard fire-ring, where the neighbors never call to report a noise violation. Not recently at least.

I think we do this every year because this group understands that life is relationships. Life is relationships, like God is love or war is hell or any number of other metaphors that perfectly capture the full characterization of a thing.

Think about it. You’re born because two people come together, and if it was only a one night stand or random hook up that doesn’t place you in a stable nuclear family, that fact itself can become a permanent scar. Babies die if they’re not loved. The Russians accidentally showed us that with their orphanages. The major goal of childhood is seeing whether or not you can manage to have reasonable relationships inside and outside the family. The older you get the more critical it is to establish non-family peer group to which you can belong, and according to Erickson the developmental task of early adulthood is whether or not you can pull of a successful intimate relationship or whether you end up isolated. For most people, that means marriage.

Having children, if you want to and can have kids, is not for the purpose of making toys or servants or something self-indulgent like that, but rather about creating another life to whom you can relate. As an aside, having children is a time-sucking, money-gobbling, exercise in perpetual frustration and hard work with intermittent “joys” that can still end up in total failure when people disown their children or are abandoned by their adult offspring. There’s clearly no point unless you understand that life is basically relationships, and that the seemingly godlike power we have to start life allows us the potential to have certain relationships sweeter than we could have comprehended in advance. I have three daughters. Trust me.

Everything we do in this life is ultimately in the service of relationships. All “stuff” is for relationships. A house is for living in—with people. Food is best shared. Money is worthless if there’s no economy, and every economy requires at least a buyer and a seller. The motto “whoever dies with the most toys wins” expresses a foolish sentiment because whoever has a lot of toys is often sitting in the sandbox alone wondering who will play with them.

Even spiritual beliefs are for relationships. If there is a God, a foundational question would be how to have a relationship with God—that’s what people believe, ultimately. “Is there a God” followed immediately by “how am I supposed to relate to God?” That is the purpose of every scripture, spell book, ritual, chant, song, and so forth. The major belief systems and religions of the world claim to reveal the supernatural, and to then show us how to relate to the supernatural. Many religions try to control or harness spirits, demons, or gods, in order to obtain power or make sure that humans are left alone. I don’t think it works like that. If there is a God, and if God is a person, then God wants to be related to, not forced to do our bidding or warded off with charms. It’s hard to find a committed atheist in America. Nearly everyone claims to be spiritual, or to at least “not know” (agnostic). I think it’s because being an atheist is kind of an admission that we are truly alone in the universe, so the afterlife for everyone is basically like hell.

Speaking of hell, relationships don’t usually work out, which is truly tragic if life is  relationships. Break ups, divorce, and death all end them. Manipulation, domination, neglect, and abuse are some of the common perversions of what relationships are supposed to be. Isolation and loneliness, or the absence of meaningful mutually-rewarding relationships, are some of the most painful conditions people can face. At a macro level, racism, sexism, persecution, enslavement, and war are all violations of relationships between people groups. Life would be better if relationships worked, and I suspect we all have a sense that they should. When I speak of someone “failing at life,” (and I often do), this is what I’m talking about—someone is unable to establish and enjoy meaningful relationships. Ultimately, nothing else that they accomplish can replace relationships.

Life is relationships, and so is the afterlife. If there is a heaven (and I believe there is), you know it’s somehow similar to Labor Day camping, but with better accommodations and maybe gold furniture. It’s hanging out with lots of people who are supposed to be there, people who are great to relate to.  If there’s a hell (again, I think there is), it’s a place where relationships are non-existent, as if the assholes from all of history are finally alone to be miserable by themselves, having alienated everyone else. In America everyone hates proselytizing. But who was ever capable of forcing a religion or belief system on someone else? I’m never offended when the JW’s show up at my door or someone hands me literature or asks me a religious question. Whether I agree with them or not, I know they’re basically trying to invite me to the party. What’s so bad about that?

Monday morning the Labor Day weekend tent city came down and all the pop-ups were folded back into their trailer shells. Everybody left, mission accomplished. Undeterred by minor camping hassles, we lived together for a short time and related. We did the “relationship thing” as best we knew how, and it was appropriate and good. Whether it’s a three day weekend or the full arc of a long lifespan, that’s what life is. That’s what I believe.

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