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Bathtubs: A theory of community relations

Let us imagine that you are MacGyver, that 1980s tv guy who can build an atomic bomb out of gum and duct tape. You are facing a world-shattering crisis. You have a pile of scrap materials out of which you must build a high speed vehicle to effect your escape from this crisis, which will certainly involve you outracing a dramatic explosion. There are wheels, gears, sticks and the all-important duct tape. There's also a big claw-footed bathtub. Now, when your need is for lightness and speed, do you attach the bathtub, just because you've got one lying around?

This analogy was used to me once by someone who pointed out that in most human organizational structures, one would attach the bathtub, simply because it was there. That is, most organizations, particularly volunteer organizations but paid ones as well, have people who do not necessarily add to the efficiency, function or grace of the thing being created. The person who described this to me ended - "Some people are bathtubs. Success is working around them, or better yet, dumping them off the thing entirely."

Now there is some real truth to this. To give you an example, I have a bathtub in my life. Her name is not Janice, but that's what we'll call her. She's an older woman with whom I work on a committee (I will not give any identifying details here). I admit, I don't like Janice - and I've tried to like her. I'm generally not terribly judgemental, and I like most people, but Janice pushes my limits. She's one of those people who has very little self-awareness, and is fundamentally self-centered. She'd demanding, pushy and rude. She is very proprietary about what she does, but she does it badly, and always causes conflict with other people - including the people who clean up the mistakes she makes, and who come to resent it. There's always an excuse for why she couldn't get X or Y thing done, and often she blames someone else. She tends to ramble and leaves long, incoherent telephone messages - often several a day. She also refused to use email, so she requires that everyone then repeat everything sent electronically to her over the phone.

I have no choice but to work with Janice - she's been a member of the group I work on far longer than I have, and while no one really likes working with her, the only way to get rid of her would be to be blantantly unkind. I try to minimize the opportunity for her to make mistakes, and I admit to trying to avoid her. I have so far been very successful at hiding my dislike of her - so much that she thinks we're close and tells me more personal details than I really want to know. I wish she didn't.

Janice sounds like a total loss, right? Maybe my friend's theory of bathtubs has some truth. It is certainly the case that a lot of time and energy is wasted navigating Janice's needs, and that we could do things more efficiently without her. But before we abandon Janice entirely, let's take another look.

Here are some things I also know about Janice. I know that she's kind - one night when I was waiting to be picked up, she insisted I come back to her house and drink lemonade with her, instead of waiting outside in the heat. I know she's intelligent - in her loud, pushy voice she sometimes does point out real problems none of the rest of us have thought of. I know that she's generous with her time - despite a full time job and some health problems, Janice puts in far more hours at the organization I'm working with than I ever have. I know that she gives unstintingly to others - when a mutual friend of ours was dying, I sat at his bedside a few times to give his wife space to meet her needs. Janice did it three days a week. She did the couple's grocery shopping, returned their library books, cooked them dinner. I know she's forgiving - she always forgives me and makes excuses when we do things by email and she can't take part. I have no doubt that if I were sick or in need, Janice would sit by my bedside, watch my children, bring me dinner. I have no doubt that if I were sick or in need I'd wish someone I liked better were being nice to me - but Janice would be *THERE.*

I know that Janice doesn't seem to grasp how to have a conversation or understand the conventions of human relationships - my guess is that in another era, Janice might have been diagnosed with Aspergers or some other disability. She doesn't have a lot of friends, she isn't married, she's very much alone - except for the community organizations that she is a part of, that mean a lot to her. Janice has a space in our society, a social world, work to do because a whole group of people mostly overlook her limits. It is hard work this overlooking sometimes. Not everyone does it well. I have a child who will probably only have a place in the world because people overlook his disabilities and limits - my autistic son may contribute far less than Janice ever will. Can I do less? Is it so very hard to pretend not to see Janice's weak spots, to look for her strengths?

Janice is always willing to do the hard, daily work of this organization - the errands, the mailings, the cleaning up, always there for every event, always willing to help, always wanting to be a part. Even though I know I'm not the only person who finds her difficult, I am grateful that my organization makes a place for Janice and the other bathtubs - I'm grateful because she does do some work well. I'm grateful because she's a reminder to me of what communities are for - they are not escape vehicles, they are not to be designed for maximum efficiency. Instead, they are designed take in all the pieces. They are not tools to enable running away - they are tools for being here.

I'm a bathtub too, you see. The organizational group that Janice is a part of is designed to put on an event. I find it very difficult to get there for meetings, so I'm constantly missing meetings, or finding it hard to schedule them at all. Everyone else often has to arrange their lives around my children, my farm and my work schedule. They could get everything done a lot faster without me. No one has ever indicated that this was true, even though I know it to be so. Politely, gently, all those people pretend that my scheduling limitations, my talking too much some times, my mistakes aren't there too. They pretend I'm not a bathtub, even when I am. Can I do less?

It would be easy to take my friend's approach to the terrible challenges that face all of us - to say that what is most needed is the greatest efficiency and the greatest effectiveness. Indeed, I've heard people say that - I've heard people suggest that in an era of limits on resources and wealth, we will be less compassionate, less welcoming, that we will have to jettison some baggage - and that people are baggage.

I understand the frustration of working around difficult people. I know that some bathtubs are far more obnoxious, demanding, destructive and unkind than Janice - Janice has virtues that are evident, even if she's a pain sometimes. But what about the really awful people? There are people who are actively cruel and vicious who can't be part of communities. That said, however, I would always be cautious of one person or one group making that judgement - it is easy to dismiss others as irredeemable, particularly when it seems terribly urgent that other needs be met. And yet, I have stood with a beloved friend who told me how awful, two faced, cruel and petty someone else was - a friend too, who I liked and admired, and in whom I had seen none of these faults. Judgement is easy - too easy.

I do not mean to imply that inclusion is easy - the work I do with Janice is not life or death, and even then I find it frustrating to make busy work for her, or to have someone prepared to take over what she does badly when she inevitably re-emerges with excuses. I find it maddening to listen to others complain about her - and legitimately. How much harder would this be when deeper things are at stake?

At the same time, the world is full of bathtubs - all of us are bathtubs at times, who cannot contribute adequately, who are so caught up in our own petty limitations that we can't see how we are failing others. We talk too much, we talk too little, we judge too harshly, we argue too much, we get caught up in our worldviews and can't see outside, we are impatient, small, angry, false at times. Is there really anyone out there who has never committed at least a few of these sins in a group?

Gaining the whole world, saving the whole world is not worth the cost of one's soul. If your community has no place for the difficult, maddening, awful, irritating, frustrating people within it, the weak ones, the troubled ones, the mentally ill, the physically ill, the demanding, the ones who always bring up the same dumb point, the ones who make you want to scream when they talk - if it has no place for the real, actual people in it, we are failing. Community is community - it is all the people who show up, all the people who are present, all the people who are simply there - the ones you like, the ones you don't like and all the ones in between. If you find yourself casting them off because you are too busy saving the world, you have to be reminded what, exactly, it is you are saving.

As I keep saying, this doesn't make it easy - to keep Janice in the group, to keep pretending we all like her requires that essentially I make a non-essential structure for her, have backups for everything she does, and waste a whole lot of time listening to her complain and others complain about her. I may have to do unpleasant things like tell Janice she can't keep doing something, or step in when things get heated. Frankly, I can think of plenty of things I'd rather do. But what's the other choice - I could let Janice know she's unappealing, unpleasant and destructive, that we don't want or like her. That frankly would hurt Janice a lot worse than it hurts me to work around her. Where do people with no social skills and support system go when the system casts them off? Unfortunately, I think we know - and it isn't anywhere good.

I do not have to like Janice. I do not have to like the other bathtubs in my life - Al, the guy with the quick temper and the paranoia, given to insult; Gabrielle, who whines, Leo who says he will and never does. Liking is not the issue - inclusion is. It is a logic problem - not to build the most efficient, perfect escape vehicle, but instead, to build something useful using all the pieces I have been given, an edifice sturdy enough to withstand the blast, complete enough to leave no one behind.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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