We people are social creatures. As such, most of us have one other being in our lives—a child, a friend, a sibling, a partner or spouse, an animal companion—that we communicate with on a regular basis. For most of us, that even means that we may see someone we care about at least once a day or come into contact with them through phone or internet. We have relationships, connections, associations, shared time and shared experiences, with these beings that we interact with frequently. Strong relationships are built over time and with effort, and through caring for another, and through exchange with one another. This is true of human relationships as well as deepening relationships with deities and ancestors.
There’s a tricky balancing act in relationships here that wavers between two ends of a spectrum. While one end looks “self-serving”, and the other end looks “self-sacrificing,” they can end up resulting in the same potential dysfunction when they have their roots in mistaking exchange in a relationship as caring in a relationship. Exchange and caring are not the same thing and are not interchangeable. One is a Lego and the other is a K’nex and you can’t use a K’nex rod where you need a Lego block even though K’nex and Legos can both can be used to build things.
Caring about someone else in a relationship doesn’t involve “Hey, I did X for you and now I see you as obligated to do Y for me.” For instance, Tina and Rufus are two kids hanging out together in a park. Rufus is putting stickers on his scooter and Tina wants one. She says to Rufus, “Hey, I gave you a gum in math class. Can I have a sticker for my bike?” Sometimes Tina might not even say “Hey, I gave you gum in math class” but she’ll be thinking of it when she asks Rufus for a sticker, and there’s an expectation that Rufus will remember the gum, and then because of it he will share his stickers. This kind of exchange, like what Tina and Rufus had, can and does happen in most relationships. It can be a good and useful thing, and it can foster relationships, but it’s not to be confused as caring for the other person.
On the other end of the same spectrum, sometimes a person will confuse caring as “giving,” especially in “giving” more than they really want to give or can give. It’s not really “giving” because it’s not a gift: a gift is given with no strings or obligations attached; and it’s not actually being “self-sacrificing” because self-sacrifice is a matter of giving up something to help others. Instead it is a willful extension, or in many cases a willful overextension of one’s efforts and resources. Sometimes people don’t realize it, but this kind of intentional overextension is actually done with the desire for an exchange. This isn’t really done out of caring no matter how much that party stresses “But I did it all for you! I was just being nice!” For instance, Tyrone often takes notes for Nik because Nik likes skipping class—it’s a morning class and Nik doesn’t do mornings. Tyrone even lets Nik cheat off of him for the test, and Tyrone does a good lion’s share of the work when they’re partners on projects. Nik didn’t ask for Tyrone to do all of this, but he’s not refusing Tyrone’s efforts, either, and Tyrone keeps doing these things. Tyrone thinks he and Nik are good friends. When Tyrone suddenly has to go out of town one week, he’s seriously angry when Nik didn’t think to take notes and help him out just as he’s been helping Nik. Tyrone had been expecting Nik to reciprocate even though he didn’t ask Nik. He thought Nik had his back, and he’s angry to find out that after all he did for Nik, Nik was “just using” him. Nik just thought Tyrone was a “nice guy,” and thought of Tyrone’s efforts as gifts, free and clear of obligation. Nik doesn’t understand now why Tyrone is giving him the silent treatment.
Another example of this secondary end of the spectrum would be when Veronica says to her son Jules, “I brought life to you, and you don’t want to come to dinner this weekend? Fine. I’ll be ok, don’t worry about me, here, alone, with this turkey I cooked for you getting cold. You go and have a good time. No, really, I mean it.” In this example, Veronica stated “Hey, I did X for you” as “I brought life to you…” and, even if it isn’t explicitly stated that “Now I see you as obligated to do Y for me” she still sees Jules as obligated to visit her.
Sometimes, too, what can appear as a reciprocal exchange can end up one-sided. In Tyron’s case he chose to overextend himself and think of himself as “being giving,” but he was angry at Nik for not reciprocating: remember, a gift is freely given without expectation of reciprocation. Or, there’s Veronica’s case: Jules must figure out what Veronica’s cloaked demand is, cope with Veronica’s emotional appeal, and then decide whether or not he can or wants to comply with the demand. I say “cloaked demand” here not so much because the demand is unknown—sometimes it is, and sometimes it’s not, and sometimes although it isn’t explicitly stated it can still be glaringly obvious. I say “cloaked demand” more because the demand itself is cloaked under Veronica’s misdirection of emotional pleas and overextension, and further hidden under the appearance of kindness and request.
Make no mistake, Veronica is not requesting Jules to visit, she’s demanding him to visit, and she’s couched it carefully in terms Jules cannot refuse without looking like a Bad Person, but all the while she misdirects the matter so that it looks like she isn’t being demanding. Veronica doesn’t want to admit she makes demands because she believes that making demands means she’s a Bad Person, so she makes the demands but tries to compose those demands so that they are less obvious to herself, to Jules, and to anyone else watching. Even though Veronica has posed herself as the poor lonely mother who is a victim of her son’s potential callousness if he refuses her demand, she’s actually exhibiting controlling behavior that leaves Jules more at risk of being a victim than herself. Veronica could be doing this consciously to influence Jules into doing what she wants, but there’s also the possibility that Veronica is at least partially oblivious to what she’s doing. Often it’s both: some part of her is aware of what she’s doing, and some part of her isn’t, but she may never even admit it to herself.
Of the two ends of this spectrum “self-serving” and “self-sacrificing,” they can both result in the same thing: mistaking exchange as caring when they are not the same thing. One end of that spectrum is a little more obvious and honest in its demands for an exchange, like Tina and Rufus, but still runs the risk of confusing exchange and caring. However, like at the other end of the spectrum, like Tyrone towards Nik and Veronica towards Jules, there is also a desire for exchange of some sort. Veronica in particular dresses up exchange so as to make it look more like caring, and thus she confuses the issue for herself and for Jules. She does this to make Jules feel more keenly the stress of the demanded obligation so that he will comply and she’ll get what she wants. There’s less emotional leverage between Tyrone and Nik, but Tyrone still overextends himself and expects Nik to reciprocate without being upfront with himself and with Nik about his expectations.
Furthermore, sometimes that redirection is so good that like in the example of Tyrone and Nik, Tyrone may not even be able to see it himself. If Nik doesn’t fill the demand that Tyrone thinks he’s obligated to fulfill, Tyrone may end up becoming resentful and thinking he does “all the work” in that friendship. Tyrone’s misdirection may work so well that even he buys his own illusion. Tyrone’s resentment has its roots in believing his own misdirection instead of realizing the problem lay in his confusing his one-sided exchanges with Nik as caring, and in compounding the problem with emotional misdirection. The same is true of Veronica towards Jules; in this case, Veronica tells herself that her caring is unrequited, when really it is her not-quite-so-honest and inappropriate exchange which is unrequited. The caring may or may not be there, but that’s a different issue entirely from exchange.
It’s easier to see this kind of confusion in others at first than it is to see it in ourselves, but at least if we admit it and know that it can be there within us, we know to keep an eye out for it. When we do, we’re more likely to catch this sort of thing if and when it happens within our own behavior and then we can consciously decide if that’s really how we want to behave in our relationships or not.
In caring, being kind, you actually have to put the needs of the other being above your own, if only for a short time, without the expectation of exchange and without being resentful if the other party cannot or will not reciprocate. An act of complete caring without the expectation of exchange is rare. An act of exchange without caring is much more common than an act of caring without expectation of exchange. However, most people will admit to caring at least a token amount for someone with whom they have some kind of regular exchange. Sometimes even just regular, habitual acts of exchange over time can eventually lead to a caring relationship: a friendship can arise from one neighbor offering to shovel snow for another neighbor in exchange for dinners over the course of a winter. The act of caring and the act of exchange are both valuable and necessary acts in relationships. Caring is indeed more valuable, but that does not make exchange worthless or no good. Quite the contrary, exchange is a vital part of relationships, it’s just a different part of relationships than caring. Caring cannot substitute for exchange; nor can exchange substitute for caring. Most of the time acts in relationship exhibit a combination of both caring and exchange, even though the two are not the same thing.
Needing exchange and wanting exchange are not bad in themselves and will not alone make someone the dreaded Bad Person. (Demanding and forcing exchange at the expense and harm of another person, however, is more towards the territory—if not completely in the territory—of being a Bad Person, depending on the acts and the circumstances.) But dressing up what is more of a desire for exchange in the mask of “caring” will place a barrier of dishonesty between the parties in a relationship, and prevent a person from interacting in that relationship in a more honest, genuine, and authentic way, and it will prevent the very thing a person usually seeks to do in the first place: deepen that relationship. This is an important thing right here. The deities and the ancestors see through all of this artful misdirection that we put ourselves through, and when we’re not honest with them and not honest inside our own heads with ourselves, we end up not deepening those relationships as we claim that we want to. We could be cheating Them and ourselves out of what could be “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”