An Undesired Trade Surplus
“You’re keeping score. And that’s a recipe for resentment and disaster. Don’t do this.”
This is what I thought as I stared at my phone and did it anyway. I tried to summon the latent psychic powers I knew I had. (I don’t care if I’m past the right age; I know my Hogwarts letter is coming.) I would will the person at the other end to reciprocate. To say they wouldn’t mind, to express their happiness to do something for me for once.
My neck and back were sore from hours at a desk, and my right hand experienced the niggling pain that comes from too many repetitions of small movements like swiping to unlock my phone and scrolling with my thumb. Though it didn’t compare to the soreness of disappointment. I doubted the multiple uuuuu’s in their “thank youuuu” were proportional to the depth of gratitude they felt.
How could they not see how much of myself I put out for them? Why didn’t they understand that I did everything because I so valued their presence in my life? Did they not value me nearly as much? Was I wasting my time?
No doubt many a romantic partner has cycled through the same list of questions and scuttled any hope of a mutual future. But countless friends who never made it to “best friends” must have as well. I had no excuse. I had read the advice articles that said keeping score was poison. Relationships don’t operate according to a balance of trade, but I didn’t want to keep feeling like I was generating a surplus.
— — -
My fruitless and silent staring at my phone for a sign was the latest in a rout of bruisings. More and more, I felt like acquiring the heavy crown of being the “friend you can always count on” wasn’t worth it.
To my mom, the answer was simple. I created my problem and made things bad for myself while making good for anyone else. It’s not the sweetest advice, but when do we ever need advice when all is going well?
“If you feel like you don’t receive the same care in return, then you should stop, I don’t know, being so much for them.”
“But they’re still my friends.”
“Daughter, this is why people walk over you. They know you better than you do.”
“I’m just trying to be a good person. But now I feel petty.” I could cite the incidents lately where I had done something for someone else; I had sunk that low.
“But you need to be smart, too. For your own sake. Don’t go out of your own way for someone who won’t do the same.”
I ended the phone call when I heard everything she could offer. I reflected on her words, but it seemed like such a utilitarian way of evaluating my relationships. How could I say no to people if I was able to help, to listen, to just be there, even if it wasn’t convenient for me?
Maybe the answer to my questions traced back to growing up as an only child. I understood even then that friends were not blood siblings, so if I wanted to hold onto them, I needed to give them reasons to keep me. I rarely thought of it the other way around. That would be selfish, wouldn’t it? That’s not how I was raised.
No, maybe that was the problem with my thinking. Personality traits rarely manifest in absolutes. Sometimes we are selfish, and sometimes we are generous. It may be possible, but like my mom believed, it certainly wasn’t practical to give someone 100% of yourself all the time.
So how much was I to give then?
— — -
Slowly, the fragments of my thoughts knit themselves into a net of understanding. I don’t call it a compromise because that implies giving something up to get something else, which was exactly the kind of thinking I wanted to avoid.
It really was simple, but not in the way my mom thought (as a caring mom would). I needed to be more forgiving of myself when I couldn’t be the super-friend I aspired to be. And I needed to have more faith in my friends for understanding no.
You’d think that when I figured this out once, I could just apply the same philosophy to romantic relationships. But as we’ve seen lately, history does repeat itself…
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Thank you for reading! This is the third in my series “An Economic Life,” where I write to educate and entertain while attempting to remember and apply my liberal arts education. :)
Originally published at J Wang.