The best investment of all: the people you love the most

  • >> Ron Lieber, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-06-05 17:58:48 BdST

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If you’re emerging from the pandemic in better financial shape than before, ask yourself this: What will you spend to renew your bonds, and how will you do it? (Robert Neubecker/The New York Times)

In early 2013, three years after the unexpected death of her husband, Chanel Reynolds posted a warning to those who had neglected the bonds that ought to matter most.

She had started a website to help people avoid a predicament she had found herself in after he died. His will had an executor but didn’t have signatures, and she didn’t know many of his passwords. The resulting red tape seemed as if it would suffocate her.

Her message to others, who might not know whom to put down in their will as a guardian for a child or an overseer of their estate, was this: “If you are at a loss for whom to name, get out there and tighten up your friends and family relationships. Find some better friends. Be a better friend. This is everything. This means everything.”

As many of us stumbled toward the light these last few months, I kept returning to her entreaty. Americans who have been lucky enough to keep their jobs have saved more money this past year than they had in decades. So it seems wise — urgent, even — to plot the best way to invest in our ties to other people.

Last week, when discussing the spare money that so many want to spend so quickly, I focused on the what — bigger and better emergency funds, and experiences rather than things. This week, I asked people who spend their professional lives thinking about relationships to address the who.

For all of Reynolds’ organizational foibles, she did not fail at friendship. When her husband, José Hernando, was near death in the hospital in 2009 after he was hit while riding his bicycle, her people came running. “I was on a sinking ship, shot out the few flares that I had and was hoping that they would come find me,” she said. “And they did.”

You can’t buy that kind of support at any price. But you can invest in it. In his book “Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words,” poet and walking-tour leader David Whyte observes that the ultimate touchstone of friendship is “the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another.”

It is hard to bear witness through Zoom. “I’m already plotting and planning to see all my friends in Britain and Europe,” Whyte told me this week, from his home on Whidbey Island in Washington.

This will not be cheap, for him or anyone else trying to snap up scarce airline seats. But it is restorative in a way we may not always realize. “You can see, through a very good friend, a bigger version of yourself,” he said. “They became friends with you because they saw something more than what you, perhaps, see every day.”

Erica Woodland, a licensed clinical social worker and the founding director of the National Queer & Trans Therapists of Color Network, put out a plea for people to remember how extended circles of more loosely affiliated people rallied around one another these past 15 months. Mutual aid networks sprang up to provide food and help in neighbourhoods all over the country.

Maybe you had no need, didn’t know about the networks, or didn’t or couldn’t pitch in or form your own group for whatever reason. But for others, they were essential.

“We don’t expect folks outside of our community to actually care for us,” Woodland said. “There is a practice of care that is not new to our communities but became more interwoven thanks to the intersecting challenges of 2020.”

These organizations are exemplary not just because they facilitate the basics of care and feeding. They also help people navigate confounding systems, like overloaded state unemployment departments.

And it is this mutuality that can make any money you spend within your own friend or family circles feel less like an awkward act of charity. Instead, it becomes more like a reciprocal act — or an investment in your own future care. I learned this intimately on the receiving end, during my own period of grief this year, when members of my synagogue kept showing up to feed my family and me.

There are a number of ways to put all of this into practice. If you’re trying to get the gang back together someplace far away, as Whyte is with his pals in Europe, you could offer to pay for a shared rental house if you’re the most flush.

Elizabeth Dunn, the co-author with Michael Norton of “Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending” and the chief scientist of a company called Happy Money, suggested a more subtle twist: If you’re trying to reconnect with a long-lost friend who has less money than you, just tell that person you’re going to get on the plane for a visit. It’s the type of prosocial investment in others that Dunn’s research has shown will pay off in your own contentedness.

During the pandemic, Reynolds, who lives in Seattle, paid for a lawyer to help relatives of a deceased friend from Minneapolis who were trying to navigate the legal process after her death. “Going through probate alone is like walking through a country where they speak a language that you have never even heard before,” she said.

Having the money to pay to help friends is not a requirement, though. In the years after her husband’s death, Reynolds found herself easily remembering the birthdays and death anniversaries that people close to her were marking — or was just more inclined to text when she was thinking of them.

“One version of this is ‘I have more, so I will spend more to care for the people I love,’” said Woodland, the social worker who runs the therapist network. “I also think it’s almost easier to spend money than to spend time, to say that ‘I prioritize you and want to know you in a more intimate way.’”

Among couples with children, time has often been its own fraught asset these 15 months. Even if you won back your commuting time, you may have been stuffed in a home with two adults working and children who needed all manner of supervision. It has been a form of quality time, perhaps, but maybe not precisely what you needed to renew or reinforce your romantic bonds.

To people seeking to shore those up, Eve Rodsky offers a counterintuitive possibility: Be as thoughtful about spending time apart as you are about time together. Rodsky, the author of “Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live),” learned this from surveying 1,000 members of the community that she has built around her work.

Many people have changed during the pandemic. Maybe your partner has in ways you haven’t even recognized. So offering time — and a budget — toward whomever that person wants to become is its own act of service.

“The permission to be unavailable to each other is the investment that they have in each other,” Rodsky said in a recent interview. Now, she and her husband each have a weekend day to themselves; she has Saturday this week.

This year, Reynolds got engaged, which set off a whole new round of bond-forging investments, including making plans to buy a home with her intended.

Given her experience in 2009, she took her own advice about making sure that some of the most important things in life could persist even if the worst happened to her next husband.

“I said — in what I hoped was a beautiful and loving way — that if he dies before the mortgage is paid off, that I needed him to up his life insurance to cover his share,” she said. “And he said, ‘OK.’ It was kind of amazing.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company