When, and why, did we become so obsessed with the individual? Why is independence now one of our most valued traits? Above all, how did we get the idea that relying on someone else was a sign of weakness?
It is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was not so many years ago that we were living in communities, and extended families under one roof were common – although more so in some cultures than others. My grandfather lived across the road for us, and then, when we moved, he lived in our house for years. My impression is that this has become far less common.
A friend of mine who recently lived with her mother for a while clearly felt embarrassed by the admission. She felt that most people would view that as weird, or weak – and I can see why she felt that way. Imagine that a female friend in her 30s tells you she’s dating a guy who lives with his mum – what assumptions would you make about that guy?
Let me confess right now that I am as guilty of these assumptions as anyone – even though I married a man who moved straight from his parents’ home into our shared one, and he is, I have to say, far more house trained than I will ever be!
Single adults who live with their parents send up big red flags, in the dating game. Couples who live with parents/in-laws receive heartfelt commiserations – “oh, you poor things – that must be really hard!” We prize personal space above all things, and personal space seems to have become bigger and bigger, as empty nesters move into 4 bedroom houses with multiple living spaces, and young couples with at most 2 kids inhabit mansions with room for several families. Again, I am guilty of this – our place could easily fit two families with room to spare.
What is driving this need for space? True, it can be difficult to share your personal space, and much time and effort needs to go into defining reasonable and workable boundaries when families share their living spaces. Yet look at the high density housing in, say, a typical northern European city. Many families live happily in a single apartment building, sharing, if they are lucky, a small patch of garden. It is perfectly possible to have personal private space, together with shared spaces, and to find a harmonious balance.
Of course, not all apartment dwellers co-exist peacefully, just as not all neighbours get along. As long as there is a shared boundary of some sort, there is potential for conflict.
But I don’t understand where this desperate need to separate ourselves from others comes from. When you catch a train, do you always take a seat surrounded by empty seats if you can? I do just that, yet the happiest train journey I have had in recent times was when I got chatting to a friendly Big Issue vendor. Not when I was safe in my empty cocoon, failing to interact with the people around me.
A friend recently described how her 13 year old daughter’s best friend lives across the road from them, and drifts in and out of their house, treating it as her own. She raids the fridge, makes herself a sandwich, and generally makes herself happily at home. That sounds like heaven to me, yet is is increasingly rare. We treat other people’s homes almost like a demilitarized zone – you can go there, but you have to be incredibly careful, and there could be landmines.
Sharing your life, your space, and your time with others is a high risk activity. A friend of mine recently warned me against relying on him, because if you depend on someone, you risk falling when they let you down. But the secret is to depend on lots of people. No-one can ever be there for you 100% of the time, for ever and ever. Everyone has times in their lives when they turn inwards, just barely able to keep their heads above water, and with no energy for anyone else.
Like a house on stumps, if you have 10 supports and one crumbles, the other 9 will keep you upright. But one lone support can be knocked clean away, or even break under the strain. We isolate ourselves at our own peril, yet it seems to have become the dominant paradigm in our society.
We need to welcome people into our lives, not build more and more walls to lock them further and further out. I just wish I knew how to knock down those walls.