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photo by corey zalewski

Living with Other People




Two of my housemates are arguing about the ethical implications of racial identity as communal identity within church denominations.

Another adds the final touches to his massaman curry and stirs the pot on the stove.

A fourth sits next to me at the kitchen table working on a computer program. The sounds of my roommate practicing the saxophone for a jazz gig waft through the thin walls. Just another Tuesday night on Ivanhoe Road—the eclectic amalgamation of living with other people.  

Unless we choose to be hermits, most of us will eventually have a roommate, a housemate, or several. Over the past two years, I seem to live with more and more people. Before I moved into a communal house, I valued my privacy. I had what is called a “move away” personality. In the last house I lived in, I could go days in my basement room with the door closed. So, the more people I live with, the more I'm faced with choices to withdraw or engage, to avoid others or “mine the riches of people’s idiosyncrasies.”

And I'm currently living in a house with 8 guys.

photo by corey zalewski

Every Saturday morning, the men I live with gather to make breakfast to share together at one table. Being a house of college guys, our resources are limited, so it's always a cooperative task of combining what we do have. One provides pancake mix, another eggs, a third blueberry preserve, and so on.

In a rather miraculous non-miraculous version of fish and loaves, a meal appears out of nowhere. This is a fun way to connect, but it only works if we show up. Schedules are busy and they’re only going to become busier as technology increases productivity. Everyone can’t make it every time, but the steady dedication of a few housemates to attend these breakfasts makes it a special place for community and relationship to grow.

I’m finding that the commitment to engage in the micro-community of sharing a living space makes the community worth having.

But living with people means rubbing shoulders, and that rubbing can mean friction that starts a fire. Constant close proximity can reveal the beauties of a person, but more often it reveals failings. (I don’t know how those sailors spend months together in a submarine.)

photo by corey zalewski

In order to address those failings, toes need to be stepped on. I have a tendency to get focused on the task at-hand and ignore the needs of those around me. One housemate never washes his dishes. Another plays classic hits in new categories of “too-loud.” A third relies on inside jokes that exclude visitors. These problems go unaddressed until someone points them out, and it's awkward. Most people don’t like confrontation. But it allows us to grow, and change, and everyone else in the house is happier for it.

I will say this—living with other people is definitely a sanctifying process.

It requires sacrifice. It asks you to let go of aspects of your day-to-day life you thought you couldn’t do without—things that are often more damaging than healthy. Maybe sleeping 20 hours a day isn’t actually how much sleep you need. Perhaps watching movies alone all day isn’t the most restoring activity. It may well be that maintaining an easygoing lifestyle that avoids confrontation like the plague isn’t actually loving; maybe it’s simply just self-protection.

Living with other people has a way of bringing a magnifying glass over our faults. It’s uncomfortable…but worth it in the end.

photo by corey zalewski

I like the way living with other people is shaping my identity. You know how bouncing your ideas off someone else helps to shape and clarify your thoughts? Well, personality and identity work in a similar way. We notice the ways others react to us and then modify our style of relating in light of what we noticed; and they do the same thing with us. It’s like a dialogue of personality—shaping, clarifying.

(This is partly why middle school was so awful: we were trying to define ourselves by others in a continual loop of hormones and uncertainty.) But having mentors and people we admire in our lives allows us through the “dialog of personality” to become more like them. Through the daily interaction, our understanding of ourselves can become far more nuanced; we can take what is good in others, and we can begin to let go what is not so good in ourselves.

I have always placed a high value on solitude; moments to myself help me to breathe and process. As I’m sure you’re aware, living in the small community of men is not conducive for being alone. In years past I responded to this by retreating too often from the relationships around me, at the expense of those relationships. Now, I'm beginning to learn through this small community that the “peace and quiet” I thought I wanted is not worth the same as, nor restorative as, these relationships.

The smells of Indian cooking fill my nostrils and all I can think about is how bad my stir-fry is. The ethics conversation is rising to a heated argument. And based on what is flowing from my roommate in the other room, I clearly do not understand jazz. There's a lot to overcome when living with other people, but I know that through the crucible my housemates and I are becoming better people than we ever would alone.

photo by corey zalewski