Our neighbors recently came over to borrow an ingredient they needed for their dinner. No big deal, something we had on hand and something we willing handed over, being neighborly. Today, one of the neighbors came by to “return” what they had borrowed – that is, they had gone to the store and bought a replacement for us. And that made me kind of sad. It was a polite thing to do, to be sure, but something about it felt very isolating – as though what we gave them was thought of as a debt to be repaid instead of a kindness. It was something to “get off the books” instead of an ongoing…for lack of a better word, conversation. An ongoing trading of favors. It felt as though they were saying “yes, we needed you once, but we paid you back, and now the relationship is over.” They may very well not have meant that by their gesture, but that’s how it felt and it struck me as odd, standing there with the “return payment” in my hands.
I don’t like to split checks when I go out for breakfast with a friend. It depends on how much the check is and now that I’m not working regularly, I don’t always have the option of paying for another person. But when it’s possible, I prefer not to split. Because in not splitting, there is the implication that reciprocation is possible. That we could meet again and then it would be your turn, or my turn if it was your turn before. That we will keep this going and keep seeing each other. And really, I need to see you again more than I need a few (ok, more than a few because this is LA) bucks to cover breakfast.
What I would have liked from my neighbors, instead of them returning what they had borrowed, was for them to have done nothing. To have left that door open so the next time I need an egg or a cup of sugar, I could feel free to come to them to get it. Without further obligation, except the promise to return the favor in the future, when I could. I think we could all use that a bit more in our lives, especially now. Especially with this mess we’re in. Knowing that there’s someone else out there who wants to help us out when they can. Knowing that the people next door would share their sugar if we needed it.
So if you come to my house, looking to borrow an egg or a cup of sugar, please don’t feel like you have to bring it back. I promise I’ll need something in the future. And we can be friends.