I was listening to a public radio program yesterday which was an interview with a young woman who met a famous author in an airport. She asked herself, “Why is he talking to me? What does he want? Why is he interested in me? I am nobody special.” It was not that she thought she was insignificant, just that she knew she had no particular significance for him. She did not in the end get an answer to that question. Much later, she read that he had died, and when she looked up his work, she found that he had written a short story about that encounter.
Sometimes when we are involved with another person, we are carrying the same question: What does he or she want from me? What can I do for him or her? What can he or she do for me? We fantasize the answers to those questions and feel some sense of relief at believing we understand the motivation for the interaction. Is this person networking? Looking for business? Trying to get a date? Trying to influence me to believe something or buy something? Does the other person need to be right? Need to be better? When we can nail down the motivation, we need not worry that we should defend ourselves. We know what we are dealing with.
The problem with this implicit understanding is twofold: Motivation is multi-determined, and our fantasies are usually inaccurate. So we operate in relationships as if we understand the interaction, when generally there is much more involved than we can grasp. And, even more destructive, we forget that, just as Aristotle wrote about friendships, sometimes another person wants to be with us because it is a pleasure and sometimes because they are curious about how we understand the world. Sometimes another person feels a resonance of ideals with us and wants to have a connection to expand on his or her understanding of those ideals and share ideas.
We make relationships difficult when we force them into categories of benefit and dismiss the value of a deep human connection in and of itself. When we see a relationship as a needs exchange, it may feel less uncertain, but it loses a kind of depth. Trusting that another person could want to know us simply because it would be interesting to him or her leaves us vulnerable. We can no longer count on being valued because of what we have or what we can do. We can only hope that our value might rest in who we are.