There are some people we’d “pay admission to know,” writes Melissa Kirsch from The New York Times. Inspired by an account in the Times of American film and theatre director, Mike Nichols, his wife described Mr. Nichols as “a skilled conversationalist and raconteur,” that “sometimes, [she] felt she should be paying admission” for simply being in his presence.
What Mike Nichols’ wife, Diane Sawyer, is describing refers to the qualities of those that enrich our lives through every interaction, who embody altruism, charm and wisdom; or perhaps, simply those who have a relentless capacity to listen, where the relationship often feels like an act of selfless giving, and you find yourself on the receiving end. You leave the interaction feeling energized, comforted, even moved. You feel privileged to simply take part, the value-added leading to a certain indebtment.
It’s a feeling we’ve all experienced before, one that leads me to reflect where it stems from. We all have friends we reach out to for advice, their guidance wise beyond their years; or the storytellers we love hanging out with, their contagious energy becoming the cornerstone of every hangout. When all we need is a sounding board, we have those who will stay on the phone for hours, the calming sound of their breath and their selfless focus providing reassurance in tough moments. Or, if we’re truly lucky, we have those rare relationships that embody all the above characteristics, and more; perhaps, that’s when you know it’s time to take out a loan.
When I was fifteen, following the advice of my new immigrant parents, I decided to look for ways to get involved in my community. I remember my wise mother saying how “Canada is full of opportunities,” and that “volunteerism is part of the Canadian fabric.” Almost twenty years later, she still follows that advice religiously, dedicating twice as many hours towards her community efforts than on her full-time work.
I wasn’t exactly sure where to start, so I went to school one day and decided to say ‘yes’ to as many initiatives as I could (I didn’t exactly believe energy was finite back then). I signed up for the leadership team (my high school’s version of Student Council), from where I was selected to join a paid government-led project in youth tobacco control. One thing led to another and six months later, the digital poster of a newly-launched mental health project came across my Inbox. It read: “We need your help to increase awareness of youth issues. (…) We are seeking leaders to build a network of youth across the province. If interested, contact Cath Dyer.” A month later, I was on a plane to Ottawa for a training conference.
Without understatement, I simply recall having no idea what I was doing. Isn’t that how all wonderful chapters begin anyways? I was doubtful that I would even be considered for any of these things. I’m pretty sure I was asked in the interview what it meant to be a leader, and I described an individual that got things done. I knew if everything else failed, I could get things done. Years later, I remember asking Cath, who became one of my beloved mentors, what she saw in me. She always tells me that I seemed mature beyond my years.
Cath is an individual that I’ve always felt “I should be paying admission to know.” A dedicated meditator, she embodies a calming persona that has the capacity to centre even the most anxious soul. Her oath to being present is followed like a scripture, making you feel like the most important person in the room. She is wise, insightful and intelligent. What I truly cherish, however, is her uncompromising empathy; she is generous with her words, time and vested interest in the wellbeing of others. Above all, she is someone who believed in a fifteen-year-old and bestowed on me more opportunities than I could count. She even offered me a job almost a decade later, extending the same nurturing qualities as a boss.
Our feelings of needing to pay admission stem from both adamant admiration for others and marginal insecurity about ourselves. In a societal system that revolves around an exchange of goods, there is an ouvert responsibility for paying our debts. Not being able to, almost goes against the order of things and leads to feelings of inadequacy. We value certain individuals because of what they can offer us, and while finding ourselves on the receiving end, feeling beholden, we are often unsure if our presence is ever enough. Am I giving at the same rate that I receive? Does the other person feel like I’m adding to their life the same way they are adding to mine?
Relationships are like volunteer work. Only those built on a foundation of selflessness end up making the biggest difference.
I often struggle with these feelings. Perhaps it all stems from a hesitation, am I enough, however, what Cath has taught me is that relationships are like volunteer work. Only those built on a foundation of selflessness end up making the biggest difference. When we find ourselves in situations where we feel we ought to be paying admission, we need to trust that our undivided presence is enough. Authentic human relations aren’t about receiving anything in return; they simply are as an end in themselves. They are an extension of ourselves; in the giving, we receive just as much, if not more than we’ve ever bargained for.