Today the semester began. This could mean any of the following:
(a) All my free time has suddenly vanished in a burst of nothingness.
(b) The stress I thought I knew last semester will seem like relaxing.
(c) I have to deal with people. Lots of people. All the time. Always.
Though it’s true each of the above will likely apply at some point this semester (and my restless sleep last night certainly seemed to foreshadow two of the three), it’s the third that’s got me thinking today.
Imagine this interaction: Your know you’re friends when you cross on the street and share the following conversation:
YOU: Hey, what’s up?
THEM: Yeah, how’s it going?
And then you’re too far apart to keep talking, but that’s alright, because you know you’re friends or else neither of you would have spoken.
Certainly. Of course that’s what it means.
It sounds more like poorly written dialogue than a genuine interaction fitting of anything called friendship. And yet it seems the substance of our society: Relationships are all casual acquaintances at best, but no matter, we embrace them wholeheartedly.
I’m the kind of person who has a few close, life-long friends and then everybody else. However, I’m also the kind of person who is friendly, respectful, and understands the importance of having good relationships and a strong feeling of community and thereby attempts to be conversational even when it hurts (and trust me, sometimes it hurts a lot). This creates an unfortunate environment where I know everybody but also want to be around nobody.
And when I say everybody, I mean everybody.
And when I say nobody, I mean almost no one with a finite number of minimal exceptions.
I’m also the kind of guy who prefers living inside his head to living with others, dedicates too much of his time to others anyways, and has a borderline unhealthy obsession with making some meaningful and significant accomplishment every day. This means I’m also the kind of guy puts everything–and sometimes everyone–into boxes of fitting size, shape, and texture. If I belong to SET A and and you belong to SET B and we both belong to C, the INTERSECTION of SETS A and B, then I expect our relationship to be closed–we exist only in this small intersection of our lives and if we meet elsewhere, fundamental rules of set theory are broken and my entire world feels violated. It’s generally unpleasant.
A textbook example is the dining hall. Eating is mandatory but entirely nonproductive, so to salvage some of these wasted minutes, I dedicate my mealtime to endeavors such as reading or, if words are out of reach, analyzing various elements of my life in such a manner that I feel accomplished by the time my plate is clean. Unless otherwise designated, eating is not my social time. It is a pragmatic, obstructive time that I’d be happier without. So when I’m eating by myself, I intend to be by myself. I can tolerate (and sometimes enjoy) brief interactions with established friends and burgeoning acquaintances, but that is all. Please do not sit down with me. Please do not ask me to sit with you. And please, please, please do not talk to me too long.
Those few moments between classes are another fitting example. They belong to me. They exist on my schedule solely for the purpose of answering the single question that follows every class period–“What am I doing with my life?”–that generally collapses to the more immediate question, “Where am I going next? What do I need to do, when am I going to do it, and how am I going to get it done?” When we cross paths and I speak to you, please understand I’m making an offering of invaluable time that could be put to better use than empty conversations that neither further our relationship nor reach a productive end but only interrupt my thinking and time-for-me time.
Which brings us back to the beginning, where this all started, where inspiration blossomed and burst into a stress-driven, pessimistic yet entirely too realistic revelation: Society is an artificial construct.
Sure, nuclear families have a biological basis and some, like Aristotle, would argue they are the building blocks of countries, but even then, they are only blocks, not the products built. Groups formed by human means–around shared interests, educational goals, work environments–are still only shoved together by human means with little, if any, higher structure or purpose. The COUNTRY is no different than the STATE is no different than the CLASSROOM that builds it–which itself is no different than the GOVERNMENTS or ADMINISTRATIVE BODIES that formed it in the first place.
They are false entities. They are no more real than imagined deities or false messiahs. They serve to condition and capture the masses–and so create another construct: culture. They strain and stretch our souls–and in so doing, deaden our souls.
I believe there are natural relationships–those perhaps shaped by humans, but not started by them. Genuine friendships, committed romantic partnerships, compassionate families both blood and otherwise–but they are not the standards of society. Though it is true these bonds can be forged (and sometimes more easily) through the nature of constructed groups, these bonds more often are bounded–either by time or place or even context–and when we try to exceed these bounds, the rules of what’s genuine break away and we’re only left with a false sense of existence–a falseness more easily proven than its contrapositive–what’s truly genuine.
When two sets, once overlapping, move apart, and those relationships formed at their intersection still exist only in their intersection, it is acceptable to abandon these relationships. It is fair to say these bonds were temporary, to say these roles have been fulfilled, to say exclusive parties can mutually move forward by being apart–but to insist, as our culture does, that these relationships must be sustained as if they are THE ONLY RELATIONSHIPS creates a culture that is as artificial as its foundings–and thereby absent of all things genuine.
In the time I’ve written this, I’ve seen at least eight people I know walk by. Some of them I would’ve spoken to if they were closer, some of them I prayed would not notice me, and some of them I watched passively with no true stirrings of emotion. That number triples if I add in all the people I’ve seen just in the last 24 hours. It’s tiring to maintain pretenses when the context is gone. And wouldn’t we all benefit if instead of supporting these artificial interactions we freed ourselves to build new ones–ones that are meaningful and natural and genuine?
I don’t dislike people, but I do value honesty and integrity–values our society doesn’t support with its ruthless grasping at the notion that all all encounters must be equal–those that mean something and those that don’t. But that’s just deceit: Some relationships do mean something, and some of those do fade away, and some relationships mean nothing. And when they stop being meaningful, we have the right to end them–to move on, to not say hello, to pass quietly in the street.