Research has suggested several methods of preventing Alzheimer’s – my personal favorite being any kind of puzzle or brainteaser – but recently came up with an even simpler solution. Just have a conversation with someone else. Surprised? Well, kinda. I wasn’t expecting something so easy, but it makes perfect sense. Negotiating a conversation requires a whole slew of processing activities that exercise just about everything that can be exercised in your gray matter. Have enough conversations and eventually a relationship will form, making the entire thing even more complicated.
Relationships range over an endless spectrum of closeness, intimacy, security, honesty, shared experience, shared interest (and so on and so forth, forever and ever, amen) and are built and sustained for any number of reasons. In the broadest sense, I would categorize relationships in two ways – those of choice, and those of non-choice (or maybe baggage would be a good way to put it – those people in your life that you don’t get to have a say about – they’re there whether you want them or not). Even this division of relationships is inadequate because there is too much cross-over. Both categories can include friends, family, significant others, acquaintances, co-workers, bosses, nosy kids, well-intentioned matriarchs, or the check-out clerk at the store you always go to and somehow always end up in their line. Moreover, every relationship changes its status continually, and an acquaintance of convenience can turn into your best friend at the slightest prompting, or your hairdresser can help you solve all your life problems. Nothing is static and everything must be continually renegotiated.
I have plenty of relationships of non-choice in Peace Corps. I didn’t choose my country of service, my job, the other PCVs in my group, my village, my host family, or pretty much anything else concerning the basics of my life here. In general, relationships of non-choice require diplomacy, some degree of going along to get along, and as much patience and level-headedness as you can muster. Once the beginning phase of a non-choice relationship has passed (usually marked by the recession or complete disappearance of awkwardness that comes with forced interactions), it tends to settle into a formal level of familiarity. These people most likely will never be my best friend, but they will be in my life for better or worse, so let’s aim for better. Brief conversations, basic interactions, and small requests tend to be the extent of my non-choice relationships. Nothing more than what is absolutely required. I don’t put much into the relationship and I don’t get much out of it, but it’s there in case I need to draw on it for something else.
Negotiating choice relationships is much more difficult because they are significantly more dynamic and therefore require a higher level of effort and energy. Choice relationships require an input of compromise, sincerity, sensitivity, and respect, and provide an output of friendship, laughter, connection, and heartbreak. Some choice relationships happen easily and naturally without any added impetus. Some start off one-sided and must be doggedly pursued with monumental effort to produce the desired relationship. Because they are relationships of choice, they are much more valuable and therefore more susceptible to misunderstanding, hurt feelings, and disappointment. The people we care about most are also the ones most likely to cause pain because we put our heart and soul into the relationship. It requires great sacrifice at a great cost, but these relationships are also unavoidably necessary because the benefits, satisfaction, and happiness gained from a good relationship cannot be substituted with anything else.
In my experience, I have found that the necessity of interpersonal relationship transcends cultural differences, but the specific form of the relationship varies greatly. In Samoa, the most important relationship is the family. That is why every PCV in Samoa is “assigned” a “host family,” although what happens beyond the official statement is entirely up to personal choice. On top of my host family, I have adopted three chosen families to add to my village connections, and those families are the source of most of my friends. Friendship isn’t quite the same as it is in the States, and I often find myself frustrated with my inability to overcome the cultural differences, or at least absorb them in with the relationship. Friendships are more sporadic; the relationship I have with my best friends in my village doesn’t even compare to the relationship I have with my best friend in Peace Corps, even though I have access to the girls in my village on a daily basis. Everyone here has relationships with everyone else, but they mostly seem to be the kind of relationship where each side puts in as much as they need to in order to get out what they want so that (supposedly) everyone benefits. It’s a very economical way of going about relationships, I’ll give it that, but I find it equally frustrating as it is satisfying.
Relationships are fundamental for life in so many ways. The connections you have with others lead to quantifiable benefits like jobs, networks, and favors, but the immaterial benefits are the most important aspect. The sense of belonging, contribution, personal worth, and happiness that come from connecting with other people is invaluable. Unfortunately, we cannot just start talking to other people and hope to gain all these benefits. Relationships involve more than one person, and not everyone puts in the same effort, or gets back the same returns. It’s a constant give and take, and some people take more than they give. In reality, we don’t have – or at least shouldn’t have – the luxury of being selective about who we talk to, who we help, and how. Your responsibility as a human being is to live in relation with other human beings, and when people get picky, it falls apart. Everyone deserves your respect, patience, love, and support – that is the easiest and hardest way to make the world a better place.
Everyone you see, you say to them,
Of course you do not do this out loud;
Someone would call the cops.
Still though, think about this,
This great pull in us
Why not become the one
Who lives with a full moon in each eye
That is always saying,
With that sweet moon
What every other eye in this world
Is dying to