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I have always felt that life was meant to be a journey of discovery, of experiencing and exploring the different facets of existence. A long time ago, I discarded the labels ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ Life just is. It has its rhythms, its ups and downs, its ins and outs, and provides many learning opportunities when we embrace the fact that things are perfect in their imperfection. I have extended this philosophical approach to relationships.
One of my favourite sayings is: ‘We meet people for a reason, a season, or a lifetime’. I have bumped into people who, in the space of a few minutes, have left an indelible impression on me. Like the old British gentleman on crutches I sat next to at the airport in Singapore almost three decades ago. He not only taught me the recipe for pink gin but also impressed upon me that an ageing body was no reason to sit back and give in to perceived limitations. During the half hour we chatted he told me that he was on his way home from his annual get-together with his old army mates in India. The hip replacement he had had a few weeks prior to his trip didn’t diminish his enthusiasm and drive one bit. I never learned his name and I never saw him again, but his message stuck.
Then there are those people who have been sharing my life for more years than I can count. Like the cheerful lanky woman I had casual hallway chats with at the TV station in Cologne where we worked for different shows. Hers was about travel, mine about sex. After I moved to Berlin when my show went to another station, we maintained sporadic contact. When we accidentally discovered that we were both heading to Sydney at about the same time, we decided to catch up once we had settled in. We still have very different lives and only see each other every now and then, but after countless irregular deep conversations, I could not imagine my life without her. Our friendship is one of the threads that hold together the tapestry of my life.
In between the encounters for a reason and the relationships that last a lifetime are the connections with people who simply didn’t stick, no matter how much I wanted them to. They left my life after a season when the reason for our meeting had been fulfilled. Like my friendship with Gunther (not his name), who I met along with his then long-distance girlfriend at a concert in Brisbane. I was living out of a suitcase at the time and often came to Brisbane for work, so for a couple of years we regularly caught up for long conversations in restaurants over delicious food, and became good friends. Eventually, I met Claire (not her name), Gunther’s next girlfriend, and ended up spending a weekend with them, discovering a part of Brisbane I really liked. When the time came to unpack the contents of my suitcase into a permanent closet, I bought a little cottage in the area. It was soon after I had moved in that a meaningless squabble with Claire became an insurmountable obstacle. No matter what I tried, there was no way to get over it. Claire had decided that she didn’t want me in their lives, and Gunther had no choice but to terminate our friendship. While I am sad that it had to end this way, I am also very grateful. Without him I would have never found the home I love, in a neighbourhood I adore.
These relationships and many, many others, no matter however long they lasted, have shaped me. I have and continue to learn from every single one. And for me, learning from people means following in their footsteps, at least for a little while, walking alongside them and occasionally running in the other direction.
I have also learned that I don’t have to like everyone, and that not everyone has to like me. What really matters is that I respect each person and use whatever they present to me as a learning opportunity. I never know how long someone I meet will stay in my life. Sometimes relationships that started out casually become very important, sometimes they turn out to be just short scenes in my life movie. Promising and sometimes long-term connections can turn sour and would easily justify the label ‘disappointing’. The question I always ask myself is: Is it worth holding on to disappointment or resentment? I have decided it isn’t. I choose to feel gratitude for however brief, long, fleeting or meaningful the connection I share with someone is. Appreciating that relationships are imperfect by definition and have their own lifespan beyond any forecast I can make helps me stay present to each encounter and manage any expectations I may have. It’s not always the easiest path, but it always helps me do my best, even if with the benefit of hindsight, I realise I could have done better. And that too is a lesson I take with me on my journey of discovery.
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