Relationships - Halftime Talk

Halftime is a vocational retreat that Boston College offeres 10x each academic year.  It is geared towards Sophomores, Juniors and Seniors, and it seeks to help students answer three key questions: "What brings you Joy?",  "What are you good at?" and "Who does the world need you to be?"  As a part of the retreat each of the 8 student leaders gives a talk on a specific topic.  This past March I had the privledge of leading a Halftime retreat.  My talk topic was "Relationships."  Here is what I said:

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We use labels to define our relationships.  This is my brother Dan.  Our relationship is right there, we are brothers.  Or this is my friend Tony.  Again our relationship is right there, we are friends.  And it goes one.  Classmate, teacher, mentor, acquaintance.  We can all define our relationships with these labels, but what does this really mean?  What is a relationship?

Here is how I look at this.  Bear with me for a moment while I set this up.  We all exist in time.  We are all made up of infinite moments of time.  Here we are in the present.   This is the past, this is the future.  But the present here is infinitesimally small and incredibly fleeting, so fleeting that we barely ever get to actually exist in the present.  As soon as we acknowledge that we are in the present, its gone and now in the past.  Our past is comprised of an infinite number of slices of what used to be the present and this is what makes up our existence. 

We are by nature relational beings.  That’s just who we are and how we interact with the world.  The way we form relationships is by sharing slices of our past with another.  As I see it, there are three aspects of this sharing: quantity, willingness to share, and quality.  And each has an effect on the strength of a relationship.

I have been alive for 8318 days. A little more than 22 years and 9 months. And throughout it all my mother has been there.  She has a quantity of my past that is immense.  But a large portion of it was forced by necessity.  As with most parent-child relationships, I was a needy child.  I needed clothes, I needed food, I needed attention.  My parents divorced when I was 4 and my mom took on the incredible burden of raising me along with my two younger siblings.  Growing up without my dad around all the time wasn’t easy for any of us, and it really shaped who I grew into.  I felt as though it was my responsibility to be a father figure for my younger siblings, and it was a burden I took on and resented.  I wanted a complete family, and there were many times where I would talk to my mom about these feelings, but other times where I would bottle them up.  Either way she still knew who I was. I knew that she would continue to love me no matter how big a pain in the ass I was. 

Regardless of what happened growing up, my mother was there to watch me grow.  She had all of those pieces of me.  She knew the whole of me, knew where I came from, what I struggled with, could guess where I was going.  Around 6th grade, the start of middle school, I stopped explaining to my mother everything that was going on in my life.  The people I spent time with became generically my friends.  I withheld a lot of what I was feeling because it wasn’t cool to talk to your parents.  Our relationships shifted at this point.  I was selective with what I told my mother, and I was no longer freely willing to share the slices of myself.    This stage of our relationship lasted a few years.  Until I realized how much my mother knew about me already and how much of a resource she could be to me in figuring out my own life.  It was the quantity of slices she already had of my life that made me realize it was to my benefit to willingly share slices of my existence with her.

While this doesn’t mean I told her all the details of a date with my girlfriend or where exactly I was going all the time, I did talk to her about bigger things.  My best friends started to smoke pot in the 10th grade and that was something I had to deal with.  I didn’t want to smoke.  For one thing I was a raging asthmatic at the time and I was also three sport athlete.  It was something I wasn’t comfortable talking about with my friends, but for some reason or another I talked about it with my mom.  I don’t know why, but there was this understanding between us where I could talk to her.  And from here our relationship continued to develop.

Today I talk to my mom about anything and everything.  The quantity of moments behind us coupled with a willingness to be open with each other has brought us to a point where we can have some deep, meaningful conversations.  It has evolved into a two way relationship. In giving away slices of myself, she has reciprocated by giving her slices of past to me.  This has recently become most apparent in how she looks to me as a resource to talk to about family problems going on back in North Carolina.  She trusts me a lot and values what I have to say.  Our relationship is beyond the stereotypical parent/child dynamic and now we are more like friends.

But parental relationships, however important they are, aren’t that “exciting.”  And not all relationships can start with the immense quantity of time slices that a mother-son relationship starts with.  Another person whose relationship carries a lot of importance in my life is Carolyn.  And it’s funny how we got to this point.  We didn’t start with a quantity of these time slices, we started freshman year.  The very first day, we met in the 10:30 section of Child Growth and Development.  I don’t really remember too much about her from that year, and from what she remembers of me, she didn’t like me.  I was loud and opinionated and probably a pain in the ass to have class with.  But things have changed since then.  We continued to run into each other as we had mutual friends and this past summer was ended up volunteering together downtown teaching SAT prep classes.  We didn’t have a large quantity of shared slices, but we still had a relationship.   

One Sunday night this past September I had a lot on my mind.  Somehow or another I ended up at a table in the upstairs of lower talking to Carolyn.  On that particular night my understanding of God, Faith, religion, and everything that could entail were on the table.  A year prior I had been on an Arrupe trip to Cuernavaca, and just 4 weeks earlier I had returned from leading that same trip.  I had been processing all sorts of information and experiences and I needed a person to talk to.  Luckily or unluckily for Carolyn I had a willingness to share this conversation with her.  Somehow we had reached a comfort level in our relationship where I felt at ease talking with her.

The willingness to share these past pieces of me with Carolyn didn’t come from some crazy large quantity of shared slices, but came from some innate understanding that she was a person I could talk to, and a willingness on my part to be open with her.  We spent a long time that night talking about those BIG questions. It was a conversation that was from the heart and a conversation that opened a door for everything that would follow.  She was integral in my decision to take part in the RCIA program to join the Catholic Church.  And she has been with me in every step of the process helping me to understand that while I don’t have most of the answers with regards to faith, it is okay for me to continue questioning my journey.  Over the last 6 months she has become one of my closest friends and has agreed to take on the responsibility of sponsoring me to the Church when I am baptized in April.

This relationship didn’t start with a lot of shared experiences, we hadn’t been friends forever when a willingness to share developed.  It was that quality conversation in September which sprang from this willingness to share that sparked the friendship that has developed.  And in that process a quantity of shared experiences has expanded rapidly and our relationship now encompasses all three aspects I mentioned earlier.  And by doing so it has grown to include the two way nature found in significant relationships.  This relationship is as important to me as it is to her (or at least I think so!) and she feels as comfortable coming to me with problems as I feel with going to her.

So what’s the point?   All relationships may start slanted in one direction like my relationship with my mom, but any relationship that encompasses the quantity of shared slices, coupled with willingness to share, and quality of sharing that I have talked about will inevitably become meaningful relationships working as a give-and-take.  If I had to sum this up, I’d say “Relationships transcend words and labels.”  My mother isn’t just my mother, Carolyn isn’t simply a friend. Relationships encompass so much more of a person’s significance than one word can possibly provide you.   Sure, they’re convenient, but they’re by no means the whole story.  Think about your own relationships.  How many boundaries do they cross?  Can you really provide a one word label for the characters in your life?   Relationships transcend words and labels.