I’m living a pretty easy life right now, but I still find ways to complain about it. I told a friend I wished I had more friends.
“Why?” he said. “What’s lacking in your life now that having more friends would provide?”
Stupid question, right? A lack of friends would be cured by having more friends! And, you shouldn’t value people in a quantifiable way. People — friends — are invaluable. Okay, that’s nice in an idealistic sort of way, but in a practical way what would I notice about “having more” friends?
Novelty. People are unpredictable. People are not all equally unpredictable all the time. There is a kind of bell-curve to the unpredictability of people in general: when you hardly know people at all their behavior tends to be pretty predictable because it is socially dictated. A clerk who deals with people all day long doesn’t often say anything too surprising. On the other hand, people you know very well tend not to be too surprising either. It’s always possible someone you thought you knew will do something that you never expected, but on the whole people whom you have lived with more than a decade aren’t that surprising. Also, when you are spending a lot of time with people your behavior mutually adapts in order to avoid conflict; routines and patterns establish safe co-existence and distort to some extent individuality.
In between these two extremes, when you know someone well enough that your interaction takes place somewhat outside of societal rules, but has not yet established a habit all its own, then you are afforded a rich opportunity to see the world through different eyes. The topics of interest, the points of concern, the methods of affecting change are so different from person to person, and in these differences there is the potential to learn something new: to improve or broaden your own narrow vision, or to offer in turn some helpful insight. I have ready sympathy but a short attention span, so I always care about the problems of others if they seem new to me. But I lose interest when the problems become familiar. My own troubles, of course, are endlessly fascinating: nothing is so endlessly new as the experience of pain.
I am a bit disconcerted by this analysis. True needs are not novel. Nothing I need or anyone else needs is that different from what people have always needed. No altruistic comfort or assistance answering a real need will be forever new. My conscious choice to spend more time with people I have known forever clashes with my semi-conscious urge to always be entertaining novelty.
Saying that I want friends sounds benign enough, to my ear, but I am not sure it is so accurate after all. I wonder if I wouldn’t be just as happy with the same loyal souls for comfort and succor as I dealt with some entirely impersonal novelty. I want to feel needed, and absent that feeling I care little how needed or useful I am. Do I have a beneficial and appreciated role to play now? Yes, but it’s no longer interesting. Would I be any more useful or needed in a different role? I have no reason to think so. But would a new role equally useful feel more rewarding? Yes indeed!
The desire to feel needed and the answer to real need are to a great extent opposed. It is usually not healthy for needs to be obvious and urgent. When needs are always obvious and urgent most people soon feel ineffectual. In a medical setting the need is often urgent, but if it is always urgent the caregivers typically “burn out.” Few needs are greater than a baby’s need for its mother, but if that need is always urgent the mother will become distraught. Healthy needs tend toward slower currents, a flow perhaps hardly visible from the surface. But the lack of any rushing is not to be mistaken for the lack of any progress. The faster water is the more destructive.
I can think my way all the way through this, and at the end of it all I still want to chuck some rocks in just to see a splash.