Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Gift of Interest

Cockatoo never calls anyone. Mostly it has to do with the fact that she is one of the few remaining Americans without a Smartphone and the reception on her rinky-dink Stupidphone sucks. (It's a Sprint LG, by the way.) That means every one of her conversations has to be sprinkled with "What?" and "Sorry?" and "Say again?" which gives way to palpable irritation at both ends of the line and, finally, a relieved, but regretful capitulation to the malicious forces of cellular telecommunication: "Okay, I'll just talk to you later. Okay, bye, take care." Click. Call ended 10:50 am.

But this no-calling business also has to do with Cockatoo's self-absorption and low self-esteem, which, on the one hand, make her too self-preoccupied to take an interest in how anyone else is doing, and, on the other hand, make her feel unworthy of any interest anyone might take in her.These are issues Cockatoo has been trying to work through with the help of her imaginary therapist and alter ego in human form, Xenaphonia, who has suggested that Cockatoo give one of her few friends a call.

Thinking about this potential phone call this morning, it occurred to Cockatoo that showing interest in another person - through a call, or an email, or starting a conversation, is like giving a gift; the gift of your concern, of your awareness, of your deeming that person valuable enough to be interested in. When you call a person, show an interest in their life and well-being, you make a gift of your caring for that person. That's what it feels like to receive someone's interest - it's like being given a gift.

It's so rare, though, that people show genuine interest in each other. Usually, we just go through the motions, exchanging niceties; doing what we're supposed to do and just being polite. And then that apparent gift turns into something more like an insult. Not only because it's an obvious deception and it's always at least a little insulting to be lied to, but also because it turns the receiver of the fake interest into the burden that requires and generates the dishonesty.

We, involuntarily, become burdens to each other - the source of frustration, irritation, displeasure - by the fact that we are forced by social conventions to pretend to be delighted by each other. If we could be honest about our indifference we might grow to actually like each other much faster than if we didn't have to be constantly struggling against the dislike created by the need to pretend to like.

The worst part, though, is the little kernel of hypocrisy at the root of this whole gift-giving operation. Because a gift is supposed to be something for which nothing is expected in return. But, in fact, at least in American culture, there is usually an expectation attached to the giving - that, with time, a gift will be received. How many people would actually be content to just give, give, give, and never get anything in return? No, in return for that gift you have to give something yourself, at least an entertaining reply or a bit of convincing self-revelation.

But what if you have nothing to reveal, or cannot trust enough to be willing to reveal anything? Or - as is more frequently the case with Cockatoo - what you have to reveal is utterly uninteresting? Or maybe you have a talent for making everything that comes out of your mouth sound boring?

What happens if you get a gift and you give nothing in return, or you give something undesirable? 

What happens is what usually happens when one is always at the receiving end of the gift-giving: eventually the gifts stop coming. The giving and receiving balances out at the end, kind of like a barter system.

Which makes you wonder what all these "gifts of interest" are really worth, if, in fact, they're not gifts at all, but part of a tacitly understood exchange of mutual benefit. "I show you interest and make you feel good. You show me interest and make me feel good. Capiche?"

I guess, then, it makes sense that people don't often show genuine interest in one another. Why give your interest freely if you know the interest given in return is most likely just the fulfillment of an obligation? And how do you give your interest genuinely when it is forced by obligation?

Maybe Cockatoo is actually just as interested in other people as everyone else is. She just doesn't go through the bother of trading fake gifts.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Cockatoo Takes Some Advice

At the great practical-life advice blog Mark and Angel Hack Life, I recently found the following post: 30 Things to Stop Doing to Yourself. First on their list: "Stop spending time with the wrong people." And #5: "Stop trying to be someone you're not." Yes, we've all heard these prescriptions a million times. But maybe that's because it takes that many times of hearing them before we actually follow them.

Case in point: Cockatoo frequently spends time with the wrong people. They usually fall into one or more of three categories: the Conservatives, the Idiots, and the Lunatics. Cockatoo hangs out with them because she's afraid they'll be hurt if she blows them off. Even if she's very careful, subtle, and polite about it. For some reason she believes that though these people are not in touch with reality enough to avoid falling into these categories, they are in touch enough to sense that she's blowing them off.

Well, it's possible. But is it probable? Reality-testing-deficiency, in Cockatoo's experience, is kind of a general condition; crazy/stupid about one thing usually means crazy-stupid about a lot of things. So, starting now, Cockatoo is going to assume that her blowing off is just one more thing these people will not be in touch with the reality of.

And even if they are, so be it. Hanging out with them usually means hiding the fact that Cockatoo is a progressive liberal, smart, and sane. And that means she goes to bed with a sickly, guilty, shameful, resentful feeling that keeps her awake and makes her want to avoid the rest of humanity indefinitely. That's not good. So let the blowing off begin.

Hell Is Other People

I have no job. I have no friends. I don't talk to my siblings. My relationship with my parents consists of a weekly 20 minute phone call. I have an Ivy League education, but, at best, it's useless because I actually learned very little while I was in college, having spent the whole time in an insomnia-induced stupor. At worst, it makes it so that I inevitably disenchant whenever I open my mouth and don't sound like a genius.

This is all terrible, horrible, and no good. But the worst part, the truly unmentionable part that I'm gonna go ahead and mention anyway because it's about time someone not officially crazy admitted to it, is that, actually, it's not so bad. As a matter of fact, this is actually my ideal life, which is probably why I have it. I'm relatively intelligent and socially adept. It's not for lack of ability that I have no professional or social life. It's for lack of desire - lack of desire to in anyway interact with other people.

For me, there are very few mundane activities more torturous than having to talk to another person. I have ridden my bike through the rain to avoid a one-on-one conversation during a car-ride home with a classmate. I have gone hungry to avoid chit-chat at the check-out of my corner store. I have lived on less than $13K a year for a decade to avoid the social demands of working.

Yes, I recognize how absurd this all is. Most people would choose a little socializing over exposure to the elements, hunger, and poverty any day. But I agree with Sartre. He said, "Hell is other people." I have actually felt suicidal at the thought of having to deal with people for the rest of my life. As an atheist, death would be an escape from the only hell that exists for me.

But I can't kill myself; then there would be no one to take proper care of my dear cat, Mickey Mouse, and the only thing I cherish more than solitude is my cat. Ironically, he is a very social cat who requires a great deal of attention.

Living a completely socially isolated, and, consequently, impoverished life (not only financially, but also intellectually and emotionally) is really only terrible from the outside; from the vantage point of the ordinary person, who does desire social contact and whom I sometimes forget I'm not. Because, the truth is, I don't desire social contact and I never have. All my life - even at the age of 5 I felt this way - all I've really wanted is to be alone. In my entire 30 years, there have been only 2 people whose company I consistently preferred to solitude.

Whenever I have acted socially, as if I might actually enjoy the company of others, it has been because I felt an immense, irresistible pressure to seem normal, and that's what normal people do - they hang out together and have fun doing it. But being with others has rarely been fun for me. What it has been is either nerve-wracking or mind-numbingly boring. Usually a combination of the two. (Yes, there is such a thing as a state of panicking-boredom/bored-panic. More on that some other day.) The exceptions have usually been instances where I was in a social situation but was essentially alone because no demands were placed on me to actually interact with anyone.

So what does someone with this people-allergy do? (Aside from becoming a work-from-home computer programmer? I have no interest in computer programming.) Somebody once said "You won't make it if you can't make it with people." So how do you survive in a world where survival means doing the thing that you hate doing possibly more than anything else?

I'm guessing the first step is to stop feeling like such a freak about it. It's not like human beings are really that likeable anyway - we kill each other, insult each other, betray, abandon, and deceive each other. And "the other" is more often than not a friend, someone we claim to care about, not some hated enemy. The way I see it, I just have a lower-than-average tolerance for humans' despicability. That's nothing to be ashamed about.

So, "It's okay to hate other people." Rinse. Repeat. "It's okay to hate other people." Self-acceptance is key to solving many of life's problems. Or at least key to feeling comfortable with not solving them.