My path of thoughts eventually brought me to remembering a story I read once about corn. To set it up, the reason corn is planted in groups within it's rows is so because it is pollinated by the wind. The pollen from the stalks upwind are blown all down the rows and through the groups. (It's even recommended to plant different species at least 50 feet apart to avoid cross pollination.) I don't remember where I read this story, but it goes like this:
"There was a farmer who grew corn. Every year his county held a contest to determine which farmer grew the best corn. Every year he won. Year after year this farmer grew the best corn in the county and he won the award. One day, a visitor noticed that this farmer gave some of his best seed to one of his neighbors. The visitor asked why he was sharing his best seed with his neighbor. Wasn’t he concerned that their corn would be better than his? Wasn’t he concerned that they would eventually win the contest for having the best corn in the county? The farmer explained that the winds in the county pick up the corn pollen from all of the neighboring farms and deposit it to all over, so some of his corn pollen ends up on his neighbors’ farm and some of his neighbors’ corn pollen ends up on his farm. If his neighbors’ corn was very inferior and it was deposited on his award winning corn, his own corn would become less superior. By sharing his best seed with his neighbors, the pollen that was deposited on his farm was better than it would have been had he not shared and his corn wasn’t degraded."
Now there's something known as synergy. It basically means that the whole is greater than the sum of it's parts. Synergy is amazing; Stephen Covey even made it one of his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He explained that "If you plant two plants close together, the roots co-mingle and improve the quality of the soil so that both plants will grow better than if they were separated" (263). I think this touches on the same idea that the corn story does -- that the best of what we can do and be comes through, not our efforts alone, but the synergy that exists within dynamic human relationships.
I think this is why marriage and family can be such a excellent place for sharing and experiencing positive growth. When we surround ourselves with genuinely aware, competent, and moral people we are "pollenated" by through their good example, positive activities and experiences we have together, and meaningful conversations. Together, as a whole, we are all bettered and accomplish so much more than if we were left alone. Or worse, had surround ourselves with coarse, shallow, selfish people.
Because the opposite is just as true. We will be degraded by immoral behavior and meaningless interactions, even if we aren't necessarily participating in them. I can attest the the power of negative "cross-pollenation" because there have been times in my life where I could see marked changes in myself and my habits because of the influences of those I spent the most time with. I became less. The problem wasn't even that they were "bad" people so much as they were just not "excellent" people. Covey goes on to state that a living without real synergy is "one of the great tragedies and wastes in life, because so much potential remains untapped -- completely undeveloped and unused" (264). We become less and we fail to become everything we could have been if we'd put ourselves in the right environment.
We should seek out friends that make us better, not just ones that are fun. We should seek out relationships that are not merely happy, but also characterized by intimacy, growth, and resilience. Those with whom we associate regularly will determine if we move forward or backward. If our days are full of shallow relationships (or even just shallow people) then where will the opportunity for synergy come from? If we take the time to surround ourselves with the best we can find, then we put ourselves in the position to become the best we can be.
To put this in personal terms: I have had definite difficulties in this most recent chapter of my life. But I can honestly say the greatest part of this past year has been the influence of the people in the nearest circle of my relationships: my dear family. There has been a definite and astounding amount of give-and-take influence that has helped me develop in ways I never could have imagined. It has been a crucible of growth and I am so grateful for those who have shared it with me.