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.

No comments:

Post a Comment