I love having roommates. I really do, I love having good women to share my space with and develop inside jokes with and borrow clothes from and occasionally steal food from.* There’s something deeply human about having roommates as a single person, so long as those roommates and you make the effort to form a real community and don’t just inhabit the same space.
Even when you’re all very dear friends, though, having roommates can be very
challenging sometimes. Having any other human being inhabit the same 1,500 square feet and share the same dishes and washing machine and living room sofa and television can be a huge challenge. They say marriage purifies for that very reason. I’m not sure what it is about being human, but it makes us rather insistent on our own rights in any territory we perceive as belonging to us in any way. Yes, we may all pay equal rent, but if I walk into my kitchen expecting to cook myself a steak or bake a batch of cookies and find the oven already in use, I’m going to be a little bit indignant. Is it a justified response? Absolutely not. But it’s human and natural, and that’s all there is to it.
Living with other people requires a thousand small daily deaths to self.
I realize that sounds like the sort of thing you might pull out of a meditation booklet or scribble down eagerly during a talk while on retreat. But I’ve spent five post-college years living with different roommates, and it’s absolutely true. When you have roommates, you bump into it every day, this need to set yourself aside for the sake of the other. Sometimes you do it; sometimes you do it with a loud sigh or a snide remark; and sometimes you refuse to do it altogether, and even if no words are said, it creates an ugly tension that settles into the creaking floorboards and the long silences as you each go about your business.
It really is the daily things that present the biggest challenges.
Sometimes I’m running behind on my morning shower, and I can hear one of the roommates padding in her bare feet outside the bathroom, patiently waiting for me to finish up. It’s so tempting to pretend not to be aware that she needs the bathroom, or to let myself think, “I’m not that much later than usual. She can wait.” Even when I hurry to gather my things and get out of her way, how often do I do it grudgingly?
Cleaning out the fridge tends to fall to me, which is totally fine; but you’d be amazed how maddening condiments can be. (And when a roommate comes home with groceries and cheerfully unpacks yet another salad dressing or bottle of mustard, I worry my head might pop.) And then there are the unidentifiable leftovers you inevitably find growing mold in the back corners…
So many evenings I come home grouchy after a long day at work. The only thing I want is to slip into comfortable clothes, eat a quiet dinner, and be alone with my thoughts. It always seems to be those evenings when I most want to be alone that my roommates have guests over for dinner and I’m greeted as soon as I walk in the door by smiling faces and cheerful hellos and questions about how my day was. It’s so tempting to brush off the questions and offer curt responses and run away immediately to my safe, solitary room.
Funny how, when you don’t feel like showing love, being shown love can be so painful.
And of course, there’s the classic example, the one we all know too well: encountering Someone Else’s dishes in the sink. If you’re spoiled like me and have very thoughtful roommates, all you have to do is walk into the kitchen and they’re immediately, calling after you, “Sorry! The dishes in the sink are mine, I’m coming for them!” But when they’re not at home, or if you’re not as lucky as I am and your roommates don’t care, all you see is a pile of dishes that you didn’t leave. I will assume that better people than I can approach this situation with a docile smile and shrug. God gives superhuman strengths to certain blessed souls, and we have the example of the saints. But I will admit it has on more than one occasion required all my strength to keep from snide remarks, rude text messages, or boldly scribbled passive aggressive notes.
What are a few unwashed plates and forks in the vast scheme of things? Not very much, but it’s amazing how much they can feel like insurmountable obstacles in the quest to step outside yourself and live for others. I don’t want to wash plates and forks I didn’t use; wash your own damn dishes.
Yet for some reason these are the places where God wants to make us perfect. It can be a bit insulting. Couldn’t I be boiled alive, I want to ask, or burned at the stake or ordered to renounce my faith at gunpoint? Couldn’t I be sent out into the world to make bold and beautiful proclamations about God and his kingdom, and maybe have books and movies made about me and my exemplary holiness? Couldn’t I spend my life in a solitary cave, writing deep and inspirational books and praying for hours on end? Couldn’t I receive visions or a hideously painful disease? In other words, couldn’t I be given any of the noble paths to holiness I’m pretty sure I read about in the lives of the saints when I was growing up?
Anything but someone else’s yogurt-coated spoon or a full kitchen trash bag that’s just beginning to smell.
It can be so hard to be my “brother’s keeper” when it’s just…so…ordinary. Sure, I like to think; sure I’ll be there for my friends or roommates or anyone else when they call me in the middle of the night stuck at the airport or lost in the middle of nowhere with a flat tire or locked out or just lonely and sad. But if all they need from me right now is for me to take out the trash or wrap up my shower two minutes sooner than I’d really like or stop and chat for three minutes, does it even make a difference? Especially if they don’t even know that I’m giving anything up for them?
I guess it’s in those moments when we die a little death that we have to grab onto Mother Teresa’s words and hope they’re true, even if they don’t feel all that impressive in the moment: “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”
Thank goodness for great roommates, and a thousand small things that give so many opportunities every day to practice.