Tending your garden on the moral high ground

Published on 2024-01-07

A few years back my partner and I moved in with a person who we'll call Jenny.

My partner and I had ostensibly been living together for about a year at that point. My university had this kind of arrangement where lots of students were put into these separate rooms where each pair was connected only by a bathroom. So, technically we had other roommates, but it was a lot similar to the relationship you'd have with your neighbours. That is, sometimes good, sometimes bad, but at the end of the day you can just go back to your room and that was that.

So, Jenny was the first "real" roommate either of us had, in a sense. And things were difficult between us.

There was a lot at play, and I really don't want to one-dimensionalize anybody by suggesting they were objectively wrong or bad at being a roommate, so I'll tread lightly, even though I don't suspect Jenny will ever read this. The problem we had was that the distribution of chores didn't work out very well for us, and we'd routinely be doing most of the work.

The main chore I had to pick up was cleaning the dishes.

At first I thought I'd be able to do all the dishes, and communicated as much, so long as Jenny would be able to consistently help out with other things. But, unfortunately, she wasn't able to consistently help out with other things, she didn't really respond to my seeking her help, and the number of dishes I had to do on a regular basis exploded over the course of a month.

A few months in, I found myself spending almost all of my time at home either asleep or cleaning up the house. I'd wake up, clean, go to school, get home clean, and then sleep. This obviously isn't very healthy and unsurprisingly by the end of our first semester together I broke down. The main area of the apartment became a sort of demilitarized wasteland. The counter top was covered in grime and food waste and just generally disgusting all the time, which severely impacted my ability to make food. If I wasn't able to expect Jenny's help, then I'd need to develop a new system to feel comfortable feeding myself.

One of my admittedly very passive aggressive ideas was to establish a sort of oasis of cleanliness. I would maintain a stash of dishes in my room that I'd clean in the bathroom sink, and when they'd get dirty and I couldn't wash them right away, I'd put them in a designated bucket. This didn't solve the problem of the stove being covered by dirty dishes and other stuff all the time, but having something clean to work with made getting started a lot easier.

But something about it felt wrong.

More than anything, it felt like I was giving up.

In what I hope is good leftist fashion, I wanted to have a good relationship with the people I live with, and the people who live around me. I wanted to understand what specifically it was that made cleaning the counter so difficult for Jenny. I thought that maybe if I understood--maybe if there was honest communication between us, then I could find some way to support Jenny so that we could support each other towards making our space more livable. I could tell it bothered her, too. About once a month the grossness would completely overwhelm me and I would spend the whole day cleaning the kitchen, getting it to an almost pristine state. When I did, she would always do a ton of baking, something I knew she loved to do, and she'd seem so much happier afterwards. Of course, this would also quickly turn the kitchen back to how it was before I started.

But, whenever I'd try to open that line of communication in as nonjudgmental of a way as I could, she'd tell us that there was, in fact, no problem, and that she'd do the dishes when she got the chance. Re-enter the demilitarized zone.

This is what I've been calling "tending your garden on the moral high ground." It's the idea that you can be fine, possibly "right" and "good," or at least morally neutral, by independently doing right by yourself and carving out an island of your own perceived goodness.

My bucket of dishes was an island of cleanliness in a sea of food waste. I don't regret doing it; I tried pretty much everything I could think of to rectify our situation, and this was the closest I got to finding something that worked at least for me. But it didn't feel "right" in a more holistic sense. Jenny's needs were still not being met, and that bothered me a lot.

Ultimately, I couldn't even get Jenny to admit that her needs weren't were being met (yes this probably seems a little presumptuous and it certainly is, though there is more to the story I'm intentionally leaving out). You literally cannot help someone who doesn't want it. You shouldn't help people who don't want it; it's just that we were in this weird contradictory realm of knowing our help was unwanted, and living in the physical reality where help not being given means everyone needs to suffer through this nightmarish and completely unnecessary living arrangement.

The "right" thing to do would have been what I tried: to have those difficult, non-judgmental conversations and find a solution that worked for everyone. But, maybe I wasn't being non-judgmental enough, or maybe I didn't have enough of those conversations, or whatever it may be. This story ends not with us finding some magical solution, but with me moving out in the fall to live with a new set of roommates--ones who come to me when their needs aren't being met.

I haven't talked to Jenny in over half a year. I know she still exists, though I don't really know anything about her life now that she's left. I hope she's doing well by herself.

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