The dictionary defines dust as fine particles of earth or other matter. That definition applies to “outside” dust. The dust that you find on your furniture at home is, grotesquely enough, mostly made up of dead skin cells. If you gaze at a sunbeam on a fine day, you’ll see hundreds of these particles floating about, highlighted momentarily out of their usual invisibility. Over time, cells that were once part of a living, breathing organism are transformed into tiny dry husks, floating away on the nearest current of air.
Which makes me wonder: what percentage of our relationships, once so thrilling and vibrant—with our spouses, our friends, our Creator—have either developed dead cells, or are in danger of doing so?
Think about it: you make a new friend. At first, everything she does is absolutely enthralling. Each of you pays close attention to everything the other says. You delight in complimenting one another or exchanging small gifts to show that you care. Spending time together is at the top of your list of enjoyable things to do.
After a while, routine sets in. What was once enchanting and new becomes commonplace. While you still see your friend’s good qualities, her flaws begin to grate on you as well. Still, it’s not her flaws or yours that cause the slow deterioration of the relationship. It’s the fine particles of ho-hum that both of you have unwittingly allowed to settle over it.
One evening, when she calls, you yawn and decide not to pick up. One morning, when you want to share a thought, she’s too busy to listen. You’ve begun to take each other for granted. Under the weight of that attitude, aided and abetted by the corrosive effects of routine, tiny living cells can begin to flake off and float away… until the sheen of a beautiful friendship is all but hidden beneath a thick layer of dust.
If this is true for a pair of friends, how much more so does it apply to the marriage relationship?
There’s the same exciting beginning, the same rapt attention to everything the other has to say, the gifts, the compliments, and the sheer joy of being on the same planet at the same time. Everything you looked for in a friendship, but with the added luster of sharing a dream of building something of enduring value together.
Alas, life can’t be all beginnings. Sooner or later, the schedules and stresses of day-to-day life intrude and impact. Distractions set it, and fatigue, and inattention. Subtly, almost out of sight, the slow hemorrhage of living cells may commence.
It can start with the first time your husband calls and you don’t make the time to speak to him. The first time he comes home and doesn’t inquire about your day. The first time you don’t bother considering his tastes when cooking a meal. The first time he almost forgets your anniversary or is perfunctory about commemorating your birthday. The first time he cracks a joke at your expense. The first time you let yourself lash out in anger or frustration instead of respectfully maintaining your cool.
Whatever it is that starts the ball rolling, any or all of these factors, minor enough in themselves, can herald the long, slow decay of living matter into something that bears little resemblance to life.
It’s so easy for the shining surfaces of our relationships to become dusty. If we let them.
Our avodas Hashem is at no less risk, as anyone who has ever had an absent-minded Shemoneh Esrei can testify. What began as a spiritually uplifting experience of reaching out to communicate with the King of Kings can be slowly sapped of its strength and vigor.
It can happen through distraction. It can happen through inattention. It can happen through not realizing how lethal the seemingly momentarily disconnection with our lifeline can be. Why lethal? Because momentary lapses have a way of becoming permanent ones. If we let them.
There are whole cities, entire civilizations, buried under mountains of dust. Centuries and then millennia of slow drift have layered gazillions of fine particles over what were once centers of thriving life.
If two people are not careful, they run the risk of letting fine particles of habit or indifference accumulate into a choking dust that has the potential to suffocate the relationship. Looking back, there would be no decisive moment to point to as the destructive force that killed their happiness. No boulders hurled, no precipices leaped. No single crisis that obliterated their joy in one another.
Just moments upon moments of looking elsewhere. Of listening with only half an ear. Of assuming that the relationship is okay if the other half doesn’t make too many waves. Let’s take a careful look and ask ourselves: is my relationship a little dusty?
You’ve had the good fortune to find someone whom you know, even without glancing over your shoulder, always has your back. But the easy presumption of “always” can so easily slide into our old nemesis: taking each other, and the blessings that we bring one another, for granted.
Inertia sets in, the enemy of forward movement. Routine begets boredom begets ingratitude. Inertia doesn’t only mark the place; it drags us backward. If we don’t fight its force with all our might, we run the risk that the living cells of our dynamic partnership will wither into husks while we’re busy looking the other way.
Reversing the Erosion
It might seem that relationships have a gloomy prognosis of decay and deterioration. They do not! True, it takes some powerful work to make sure of that. It demands a great deal of energy to reverse the natural erosion of anything. Holding on and building up takes a lot more effort than letting something dry up and blow away.
It takes caring, and mindfulness, and perseverance. To not only preserve a relationship, but to keep it alive and growing.
Caring is necessary because that’s what breathed life into the relationship in the first place. We have to want to be close to the other half of the equation. We need to yearn for a connection with Hakadosh Boruch Hu. After that, a huge dose of mindfulness is required, to keep us from being pulled away by myriad distractions outside the relationship. We need to be present, rooted in the moment, so that we can prevent our minds from wandering and keep ourselves focused. So that we can exhibit the attention to detail that says, “I don’t take you for granted. I’m so happy to be here. You matter to me!”
Whole cities and civilizations have been buried under gazillions of particles of dust. Let’s not allow our own small, precious worlds to be smothered by the accumulated dust of habit or carelessness. Let’s use this time of the year, when our attention has been sharply focused and our ladder of priorities fixed, to keep the cells thriving. Let’s take out our feather dusters and whisk away the dead cells that may be cluttering our relationships—including the one with our Father on high.
The goal: to get rid of the dust and polish our surfaces to a high sheen. So that we can meet again next year and know that all of our relationships are alive and well!