remembering that people aren’t problems to solve

Painting by Andy Dixon


I was drawn to tech because I’ve always craved legibility: I like to deconstruct and analyze. When I read a book, whether it’s psychology or sociology or philosophy or fiction, I’m most often looking for answers. This is both a personal trait and a social modality. Eva Illouz articulated it better than I can in Hardcore Romance:

My claim here is that a large extent of women’s culture is a variation of self-help culture, a toolkit to guide the self (via women’s magazines, self-help manuals, romance novels, talk shows), sometimes using therapeutic or spiritual guidance, or by making fantasy follow the prescriptive mode of self-help (see Norwood 2008; Shipside 2008; Tegarden 2004; Thoele 2001) … Some readers will read even fiction of the least didactic kind “efferently,” that is, in the search for some practical guidance or some special wisdom, or for what Wayne Booth has called some useful “carry-over” into nonfictional life (Booth 1988).

What she’s saying (or at least how I interpret it), is that women are socialized to look for answers in the realm of interpersonal relationships, which are complex and endlessly frustrating. Our culture is designed to make us believe 1) solutions for every relationship problem are out there 2) if we haven’t found them, we’re not trying hard enough.

Don’t we all want to think that human beings would be less mystifying if we just knew how to handle them? That there’s a universal answer to is she losing interest in me and is it okay to double-text someone I’m interested in and did I embarrass myself while we were hanging out? We’re encouraged to believe that there is one correct way to behave, a set of actions we can take that will unlock all the responses we want.

Hence all the interpersonal self-help bestsellers: How to Win Friends, Never Split the Difference, etc etc. These are the books I grew up consuming as a scared 12-year-old who desperately wanted to know how you could have a casual conversation without freaking the fuck out. There are definitely rough guidelines for social interaction that can meaningfully improve your life, if you’re as shy and scared as I used to be: be a good listener, signal your interest in people. But I think that a lot of us, after we’ve mastered the basics of social interaction, forget the other part of having fulfilling relationships: remembering that people aren’t problems to be solved.

What I mean by this: social interactions shouldn’t be something you give yourself a score out of 10 for. Friendships don’t require a passcode. People aren’t jigaw puzzles or brainteasers. It can be so easy to fall in the trap of obsessively examining your interactions with other people, wondering if you said something off-putting, or weren’t interesting enough. If I’d just texted x instead of y…

But there’s no scorecard. If you’re convinced there is you’ll probably start over-optimizing. Every good relationship is just an infinite game that continues as long as both people want to keep playing. The rules or setting might change, but the game itself persists as long as you both keep showing up.

Mark Epstein: “The major obstacle to love, I have found, is a premature walling off of the personality that results in a falseness or inauthenticity that other people can feel.” Buddhists believe that “connection is our natural state; we just have to learn permit it.” My interpretation of that: when we excessively gamify interactions, we shut off our own capacity for connection. If you see someone as a means instead of an end, you lose the ability to be present.

If I told you there was no foolproof way to unlock someone’s heart, no set formula for friendship, would you feel cheated? Would you feel lost or would you feel free?

I felt liberated when I started to accept that it wasn’t my job to mold relationships, that I could let my friendships and romantic relationships settle into their natural shape. That my only job was to figure out whether I was happy in them or not.

Eva Illouz:

But self-help produces pleasure because it is located at the seamless interface of reality and fantasy; it provides instructions—explicit or hidden—to improve one’s life and overcome conflicts and dilemmas, thus making reading performative (that is, the enactment of what it talks about), and making that very performativity pleasurable by translating fantasy into reality. Indeed, as Lauren Berlant put it in her The Female Complaint (2008), the modern women’s culture that has been forged within and by the market is about the belief that emotion can change reality. It is this central belief that forms the core of self-help culture. The fantasy that the self-help cultural mode enacts, then, is the fantasy of a self-generated and self-shaping self. Self-help is a fantasy about the self in motion and action. The self-help cultural mode makes fictional fantasy provide the tools to control and change daily life.

I still believe in self-help. I don’t doubt that there are concrete changes most people can make to help them live better. But I also know that at some point we need to swap out the desire for control for the ability to be present. We want everything to be legible but it can’t be, won’t be. There’s often no destination and no explanation when it comes to other people.

J.D. McClatchy: “Love is the quality of attention we pay to things.” Paying attention means accepting that the flip side of euphoria is despair, that getting what you want inevitably means losing it, that all our time is stolen time. That when it comes to love we don’t get to decide what works and what doesn’t.

There’s a passage from Gravity and Grace I’ve reread a thousand times:

“It is an act of cowardice to seek from (or to wish to give) the people we love any other consolation than that which works of art give us. These help us through the mere fact that they exist. To love and to be loved only serves mutually to render this existence more concrete, more constantly present to the mind.

I know that’s not practical to be in the world, to schedule dinners and show up at hospitals and get married, and still love without expectation. We want and need reciprocity: that’s natural. But I return to this passage because it models a kind of pure attention that I’m searching for in both myself and others. I’ll be straining towards it as long as I live.