Being broke can sometimes be good for the soul. I’ve never been in a confident-enough financial situation to live alone, which has forced me into several tenuous (and crowded) living situations. In my few years since college, I’ve lived with all types of personalities, ranging from a fellow who was most comfortable singing in old church Slavonic to a mellow stoner who made twice my salary.
Living with family or carefully selected friends can be great, and help develop empathy and love. But my skill at loving has really been jumpstarted by the random people I’ve ended up sharing space with, one way or another.
Here are three ways living with strangers builds your ability to love:
1. Living with strangers gives you a chance to trust.
We have trouble trusting outside of certain defined parameters. We trust our doctors, lawyers, and priests — maybe. But we don’t extend far beyond that. Living with others means trusting them with your space and your stuff, in ways that — even with good boundaries — can seem reckless.
You trust people to do their dishes, to not steal your stuff, to pay their bills on time. Due diligence usually consists of having a beer with the potential new housemate, or calling his old roommates, and that’s what you’ll rely on when leaving your laptop around.
Without this bedrock of trust, any living situation becomes quickly unbearable. By having to learn and exercise trust, you can build the habit of trusting — which is necessary for love.
2. It forces you to forgive.
Much of the time trust isn’t merited. People are mostly terrible, even those that you are supposed to love.
Housemates will throw loud parties while you are trying to sleep, drink the wine that you were saving, lie about bills that are due.
This leaves you with a few choices, ones we’ve all explored. You can rightfully turn against whoever wronged you, either fuming quietly or venting. You can raise the issue politely, and have it be resolved.
Or you can take a deep breath and think about whether an offence needs to be dealt with, or if the main victim is your pride. Sometimes confrontation is needed but less often than we tend to think. Living with others can be the best school of humility.
3. It forces you to recognize your own weakness.
Sometimes it’s you who skimped on dishes, who needs to welch on someone else’s meal, or who wants to vent about a terrible first date. When you live with family or friends with whom you already have an established relationship, you can miss how much you actually ask of other people.
Your weakness is never more obvious than when you show it to strangers — and you can’t avoid showing it to strangers when you live with them.
This is how you really love other people, too. There is nothing like putting yourself in a place where you need other people and their forgiveness to develop on your own love and affection.
Love, like all habits, takes practice. I’ve gotten a lot of practice by living with people that I have nothing in common with outside of a need for a cheap place to sleep. They’ve shown me how to trust, how to forgive, and how to be weak.
All this takes place in the everyday interactions, and not in the heights or depths of emotions. This love more often looks like mopping the floor than driving someone to the hospital. But by building a life that responds to the everyday well, we can build our character with a capacity for deeper and longer-lasting love.