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“Currencies”

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Most people with a rudimentary knowledge of history know that ancient civilizations used different materials for currency than modern civilizations use. In fact, if one were to travel back in time to the pre-Columbian era and land on the shores of Mexico, one would find that the Aztecs were using cocoa beans. Your paper dollars would be meaningless to them and their beans would be nearly as meaningless to you. In essence, an offer from one side would be of no value to the other and, what is more, rejection of the other party’s currency would be seen as an offense and personal affront. It would not only confuse, but possibly anger the other party.

Currency is a way of representing value. Paper  money or coins themselves are not inherently valuable, but they represent value based on the economic potential of the country that issues them or something more concrete such as precious metals. In many ways, we also employ the concept of “currency” psychologically without even realizing it. We choose things, experiences, interests, or hobbies as representations of value to us. We value them and if others value them, they accept our personal “currency”. Respecting the things we value is equivalent to respecting us. Rejecting them is the same as rejecting us.

One of my husband’s friends had an experience recently which brought this concept into full light, but it is something which I have had a lot of personal experience with as the years have gone by. His friend’s experience ended with the loss of a long-term and valued friendship, and I think it was at least in part because she and her friend no longer carried out friendship “transactions” with the same “currency”.

Personally, I’ve been struggling with friendships which FaceBook has brought back onto the table after years of dormancy. I used to be a very ardent follower of a famous 70’s glam rock band and I had a lot of friends that I made through this interest. As the years went by, I married, moved abroad, and let go of most of my material interests including my interest in this band. In fact, not only did I lose interest in them, but I lost respect for my former favorite member of the group because of the crass commercialism and open greed he expressed at every turn. Years later, my friends seem to continue to remain fans and value this group while I’m many years past my interest in them.

What I’m finding now is that it has become very difficult to relate to these friends because the currency we once freely exchanged in our friendship has lost all of its value to me and the new “currency” which I use has little value to them. In fact, one of those friends recently insulted one of my current interests by saying that she felt it was a “waste of time” to engage in that activity. In essence, she overtly snubbed this “currency” by commenting on a FaceBook status message. Frankly, it wasn’t she who it was being offered to but my newer friends who share this activity with me.

I was slightly annoyed at this person for what she did, not because I agreed with her, but rather because she’s applying a value judgment to me and I make an effort to refrain from applying those to her and others. The truth is that I feel that it is imperative for someone who is as overtly non-materialistic as myself to make such an effort or risk become smug and self-satisfied. There is a difference between not becoming overly materialistic because it doesn’t  suit me and would inhibit my growth as a person and believing that that would be best for everyone else. It’s not my place to judge the choices others make, and I wish they would at least try not to judge me. My friend could go ahead and render judgment in her own mind, and the only thing she had to do to show consideration for me was to say nothing, but she didn’t even extend that courtesy.

Speculating on the reasons why she may have decided to go ahead and say something overtly rude is interesting because I think that perhaps it is as much about showing growing discomfort that our currencies are not of value to one another anymore as it is about possibly elevating the value of her choices over mine. It could be that she wants to believe her choices are right, or it could be that this was just one more indication that we can’t have valuable friendships transactions anymore and she acted in a manner to indicate that. I cannot know for sure, but nonetheless, I think recognizing that people put their interests out there as extensions of themselves for others to accept as having value is important.

When a friend of mine offers a status message about how attending a concert, meeting an 80’s has-been celebrity on a cruise, or attending a convetnion of 70’s T.V. stars makes her excited and I say nothing to affirm that the experiences are of value, interest, etc., she may feel as if I’m rejecting her with my indifference. Not caring about what she cares about is the same as not caring about her. These are not merely interests, but projections of herself that she closely identifies with.

To a far greater extent, I think that people with children also employ a common currency which people without children reject. They believe that their particular “currency” (their children and spouse) is more “valid” or “real” because it deals with people, but they are also merely extensions of oneself that one attaches value to. Your children and spouse are not you. Rejecting them is not rejecting you, but if they are your “currency” with which you conduct friendship transactions, you will be extremely upset if others do not accept it.

I think that Americans in particular are prone to deal in currencies of this sort both because the culture is heavily consumerist and because it is lacking in a cohesive national identity. We know what it is in certain terms to be “American”, but those terms are not ones which offer true definition. Being American actually means being independent and an individual. Beyond that, you can be anything you want to be. Without a concrete identity, we reach out to things around us to act as extensions. Trust me, as someone who has spent a few decades in an Asian culture, when I say that this does not apply to every culture in the world. While each person has his or her own identity, many people in other countries define themselves without using such extensions in the same manner as Americans.

What I realized from pondering this line of thought is that many people define themselves in accord with “negative space“. Negative space is a term used in art to talk about the space around an object rather than the object itself. The less we know about what is inside of ourselves, the more we define ourself by what is around us. It could be a lack of self-understanding that causes this, but I have a stronger sense that we do this out of a sense of our own smallness inside. In a world where everyone in the media comes across as larger than life or too small to be of interest, there is no subtlety or texture to our way of conceptualizing ourselves. We are so big that we are awesome, or we are so small that we are worthless.

If we feel we are small, we look around us to attach ourselves to something which is greater and more awesome than we are. In many cases, that is our interests. My friend may be doing a boring retail job after having failed at her last two attempts to start a real career and her marriage, but the celebrities she meets and has her pictures taken with raise her interest level in her estimation. She goes from mundane to fabulous by defining herself by that which is around her. However, that illusion is shattered if I reject her particular currency as valueless. If I don’t care about the celebrities, then she remains the lone object in the picture  devoid of the benefits of the negative space around her.

The value of this recognition for me is in trying to do my best to never overtly reject anyone’s currency and to try and develop empathy for the things of value to them which are valueless to me. I don’t have to think that having ones picture taken with has-been celebrities is a wonderful thing, but I should at least try to internalize the value of the experience for my friend and express my happiness at her happiness. I don’t have to accept her currency, but I can recognize that it’s of great value to her.

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Written by yesithinktoomuch

January 5, 2011 at 3:48 am

Posted in friendships, psychology