Human beings are not fungible.

I had to look up the word fungible when I first heard it. Like most words you have to look up, it’s specific and nuanced. In any event, fungible means a sort of thing that is interchangeable for another similar thing. Like credit cards and cash are fungible in a lot of cases because one is just as good as the other. One gallon of organic milk is pretty much the same as another gallon of organic milk. And sometimes it feels as if people are fungible when they are in a functional relationship with us. For example, the cashier at Walgreens might be this person, but just as well might be someone else since I’m going to have a very brief, very functional interaction with that person.

And when we reduce our relationships to functions: printing our stationery, or fixing a broken toe, or mowing our lawn, we can sometimes fall into a habit of viewing the people who are performing these functions as fungible: one person is as good as another. Except that that is never true. Each interaction, however small, carries with it metamessages that reflect to us who we are and exchanges of good will or bad, appreciation or disapproval, caring or disregard. And the accumulation of these interchanges fulfills an innate social instinct in us as primates and gives us information about ourselves and each other.

So when we think of our close relationships from the viewpoint of their utility in “meeting our needs,” we have reduced the other person to a fungible commodity rather than a mutual, engaged agent. We cannot get to a state of genuine intimacy from that stance. Because genuine intimacy is about having a desire to come to know the other persons close to us, especially with a view toward understanding their subjective experiences. And to be known in the same deep, careful, continuous way by them. Not what we want or need, but, “who is this person?” If we reflect on each of our relationships, we can feel that each one is different, and we are different within each of them. This is because human beings are specific, and we can’t really relate in generic ways. We are impacted and changed by our participation in each of our relationships. We can’t help it. It’s nature.

In the same way, when I read about psychotherapy: whether it works, whether it is any good; whether this technique or that technique works better, it seems extremely off the track of what matters. If you are going to make a relationship with someone who is going to coordinate with you to make your life optimally satisfying, wouldn’t it make more sense to acknowledge that the person of the therapist is more important than what he or she does. There really is no such thing as psychotherapy. There are psychotherapists. We know from lots of research that most forms of psychotherapy work pretty well. It’s not the technique that works, though. It’s being with a person who cares, who wants to be helpful, and who is committed to the relationship with us. Once we make a relationship with that person, there is no substitute for that person. We can see a different person as a therapist, but it will not be the same.

People aren’t fungible. That is why it is so painful when we lose someone: through the ending of a relationship, through death, or through conflict. We can find other relationships. We can find other therapists. We can find other spouses. We can find other friends. Those new relationships may be more satisfying than the old ones even. But whatever they are, they can never be the same. Each human bond we make, however brief or extended, is unique and important. Unlike hundred dollar bills, we can’t really exchange one person for another.

About norasblog

I am a psychotherapist with a private practice in downtown Chicago.
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2 Responses to Human beings are not fungible.

  1. Roger Peterson says:

    I am a regular reader of the blog and I always get a sense of….”yes…I never thought of it that way…cool…interesting”. This post is no exception. It seems as though every single blog post relates to me in some meaningful way…maybe that’s because they are about humans and I am a human. Thank you, Dr. Ishibashi, for these insights!

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