Sharing Space

Recently, I read that since 1950 the average new house has increased by 1,247 square feet.  Yet since 1970, the percentage of households containing five or more people has fallen by half.  Overall, the average number of people per household decreased from 3.14 to 2.57.  What is it about this phenomenon that is so telling of the change in the psyche of our culture? As to the downsizing of the American family, one could point to population growth, change in gender roles, increased mobility and dispersion between generations, the economy, and countless other factors.  I sense a paradox. Why is there a need for increasing amounts of square footage required by, and allotted to, each family member? Would it not follow that given the decrease in bodies, decrease for time families spend together and increasing amounts of alienation in our society that we should desire to be closer to loved ones – that we should require less space? In the past 50 years or so, movies, TV, music, and books have alluded to a growing lack of connection between people. We are all familiar with the problem. I dare say many of us would be uncomfortable admitting this influence in our own lives. Ever growing use of technology as a means of relating, eliminating the necessity of any contact, is creating a new population uncomfortable with physical contact, one that often prefers Facebook to “face time.” I have traveled a few times with my husband Mark to his homeland, the former USSR. I learned that there was no Russian word or idiom for “personal space” nor has there (until recently) been any need for the concept. Togetherness – close proximity, visibility, being within earshot – has always been the normal state of affairs. Remember the old TV commercial that exhorted us to “reach out and touch someone?” That was quite a while ago and the dictate was only figurative (i.e., call your mom!) Today, it would be quite a leap to take that literally. So – how could any American family go from a McMansion to a “junior 4” apartment? Aside from economic downshifts that would force such a drastic move or the inevitable population squeeze that in the future may necessitate such a trend on a global level, are there any unseen benefits? Is there a way to re-frame downsizing as a means of re-establishing connection? Between our marriage in 1991 and 2001, Mark and I progressed from my tiny bachelorette pad to owning our first co-op apartment, a beautiful space that was palatial by New York City standards. We reveled in the expanse even as we struggled to pay for it! Being well-informed homeowners and looking to the future we flipped our large apartment and downsized to one roughly two-thirds the size. The first year was at times quite painful. Besides the necessary “content purge” to get us and our two very large dogs into our new home we were suddenly much, much closer to each other – and not always for the better. However, I can honestly report that the diminished physical square footage has enhanced my life in many ways. First, it has forced me to work out differences with my husband. Without the luxury of being able to avoid my partner in a large space, I face the reality of conflict. Like a grain of sand in an oyster, conflict is a motivating irritant, which if borne patiently can yield a pearl – a closer and more communicative relationship. Second, sharing a smaller space has opened me up to the idea of letting go of territory. Third, being in constant and close proximity to Mark forces me to consider the needs of another, who has his own perspective and opinions on what is, and what is not, important. I have become more flexible about my living environment; I am able to see it more as a process rather than a static result. Last and most important, sharing space has led me to an inner space which stills all preconceptions of how everything should be and which invites in other ways of being, other points of view, and other people. I believe that this new awareness has been the most precious gift, borne of the necessity of sharing a small physical space. I believe that the ability to open up to the ones closest to us – our families and friends – is the beginning of compassion and understanding for everything and everyone else. To say that loving my husband leads to loving all of humanity may sound ridiculous. Then again, I did not coin the well-worn phrase: “charity begins at home.” Love begins and grows when we are willing to share space with those we profess to love and need. That, even if taken no further, is an achievement worthy of a lifetime.

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