Someone once told me that the purpose of manners was “to bridge the gap between two people, so that one never has to work harder than the other.” In my seventeen years, I’ve learned that the most important element of relationships is a willingness to meet the other person halfway. This is clearly documented in the annals of etiquette, where hands are shaken at the midpoint between two bodies, and where for every “thank you” there is always a “you’re welcome.” It’s almost like a point system where the goal is breaking even, neither giving nor taking more than someone else. I must admit that at times I have ambled through life with bulging surpluses and tanking deficits, but I will always continue my search for balance.
This led me to consider bridges, which are structures designed for the sole purpose of connection. I’ve read that bridges are arguably the most difficult and painstaking form of architecture, and everyone has seen graphic pedestrian video of bridges tumbling into the unforgiving waters below. But why? Why do bridges and relationships fail? On the six o’clock news, a reporter covering the bridge collapse would quickly insist the catastrophe resulted from an uneven distribution of weight. I believe that relationships work the same way.
It seems that every task, no matter how small, involves some kind of cooperation. I earn points every time I pay a compliment or do a favor, and, in a perfect universe, for every time I gave, I would also receive. Although this is ideal, it isn’t realistic. But many things aren’t realistic. Society continues to strive for world peace, even when it seems impossible. As Michelle Obama said in her address to the DNC last year, “All too often, we accept the distance between the world as it is and the world as it should be, and settle for the world as it is – even when it doesn’t reflect our values and aspirations.” That’s why I feel it’s so important to track my debts to others, because even if I’m setting myself to an impossible task, at least I can say that I tried.
Volunteers who aided in the wake of Hurricane Katrina didn’t do their work as a favor, or something that needed to be repaid. The strongest bridges are built selflessly, and I truly believe that in the karmic nature of our world, their rewards will find them. Perhaps it was in the smiles of evacuees who waited hours for food and water. Sometimes the satisfaction of helping others is payment enough for my toil. Sometimes, in order to meet someone halfway, all I need to say is, “thank you.”