It recently dawned on me that my brain doesn’t organize the world the same way most other people’s brains do. Where as most people tend to simplify the world around them into predetermined categories, I have a tendency to look at the parts that make things up and draw similarities on a more basic level. For better or for worse this seems to be an obstacle that I need to overcome when I communicate with people.
The most common area where my brain gives me difficulty communicating with people is most surely in human relations. Most Americans, as well as Japanese, tend to view human relationships as being in one of the following stock categories: professional or personal, family, friend, neighbor, acquaintance or romantic partner. There may be some finer categories that people use, too, such as “sex friend” which is a kind of sub category of romantic partner that includes the sex but not the romance or love. For the most part, however, these categories are distinct. Rarely will someone find themselves fulfilling more than one of these roles at a time. For example, your mother might also be your friend, but you wouldn’t call her to go “out with your friends,” which puts her firmly in the category of family. At the same time the characteristics of each of these relationships do very much overlap.
Family and romantic partners are expected to love you. Sometimes friends love each other. Only romantic partners and sex professionals can satisfy your physical needs, though. In fact, hugging members of the opposite sex (among straight people) borders on a violation of the implicit exclusivity of the romantic relationship. On the other side of the spectrum, professional contacts are expected to refrain from emotional interaction. There are many other rules and characterizations of the many types of human relationships as well.
The way my brain works is on the level of those characteristics. My brain looks at a human relationship and asks whether or not there is love, or sex, or an exchange of goods or services. Sometimes the answers align well with the standard relationship categories; sometimes the align less well. For example, what does one call a relationship where there is love and sex and an exchange of market services? Can it be possible to be friends with your boss?
The most difficult for me is trying to communicate about any relationship that involves sex. Most people are quick to drop it into the sex friend category, or the romantic category. The difficulty is with the love factor. Sex friends are not normal friends in the sense that they are expected to not have strong feelings for each other or to be particularly involved in each other’s lives. So if you add love to a sex friend, do you get a romantic partner? No, because romantic partners are for the most part expected to be preparing for a long term monogamous relationship, such as marriage. People who believe in True Love find this conclusion natural because if you loved each other Truly, there would be no reason not to marry. However marriage is a very different relationship than friends or lovers and involves its own set of expectations both within and from outside of the relationship. So what does one call a loving sexual relationship that never moves closer towards marriage? The answer is that you don’t, really. So far I have found no word to communicate that concept.
If you break down human relationships into their critical components, it is quite obvious that a relationship with sex, friendship, and love can be different from a romantic partnership with its expectation of exclusivity. The difficulty I think most people have is that they aren’t looking at the pieces, they are looking at the whole item. This pattern isn’t limited to human relationship categories either.
Recently I was talking to a friend of mine who is quite passionate about politics and who is mostly self taught on the subject. At some point in our conversation I found myself very confused because my friend is also devoutly liberal in his politics, but he was violently attacking economic policies that would help the liberal agenda because he thought they were republican propaganda. I would open my mouth to comment, only to close it again in confusion as the conversation took what seemed to me like a 180º in its ideology. What I realized after having let the conversation settle for a few hours was that my friend’s approach to policy was from a different starting point than mine. He sees policy as a battle among competing political forces whereas I see policy as a collection of changes, each affecting a different piece of the population in its own way. Because I look at policy as being good or bad for the population and not as part of a political agenda I have often been stumped when people ask me what my political leanings are. I simply don’t understand how the divisions are drawn.
Some people say that I am smart. I am not sure if that’s the right word. I know that my brain’s stubborn insistence on seeing the world as a collection of trees rather than a forest has enabled me to see striking patterns among its leaves that others may overlook. At the same time it also complicates my daily life. Categories are helpful in a complicated world that insists on changing faster than any human living in it can manage to adapt. For many of us, it’s enough to know if we are friends on the left, or professional acquaintances on opposite sides of the spectrum and for that categories are infinitely easier to work with. My greatest hope is that perhaps one day I will meet someone who is really good at seeing the larger picture and who will take my hand and guide me through the forest as I spend my time inspecting all the myriad beings inside it. I know I have a lot to offer the world, but I also know that if I spend all my time seeing patterns that I will have no energy to share those insights with others. Ultimately both skills are necessary to achieve change.