Exploring meaning

My doctor challenged me last week: “how about you go and enquire with your friends how they recognize their own value in their relationships?”


The first opportunity came under the sun. I listened.


“I guess I don’t really think about my relationships this way. I don’t think I pay attention to the value others find in me.

Oh my, this makes me sound egoistic!

Maybe I am egoistic?

Anyway, I am not really used to have these conversations. I should really think about it more.”


The second opportunity also came under the sun, albeit a square one. The conversation was slightly more bidirectional.

We shared our experience of transactionality in interactions.

Where I was expressing frustration at the boundaries set by transactionality, my friend invited me to also find comfort in them: after all, there is something pleasant about reaping the fruits of one’s investment in a relationship, even if the interest is due out of social mandate.

We discussed the “afterglow” of a transactional exchange. If a person offers me money to help pay for my pet’s medical procedure, in exchange for all the assistance I provided to her and her family, should I consider that a marker of my worth in that person’s eyes?

We both felt these exchanges are markers of social bond, but we also agreed they are not what makes someone feel valuable.

In my friend’s view, her experience of a connection stems from spontaneous, somewhat gratuitous “extras” that come next to these interactions:

  • someone enquiring about her well-being, when not prompted by social protocol.
  • expressing, with words, that her company is desired.
  • stepping out of current routine to set up a periodic interaction, when this periodicity was not present beforehand.

As we wrapped up that conversation, I acknowledged these germs of wisdom in her experience.

Yet, my uncertainty remained: what distinguishes these “extras” from the behavior of someone rewarding her attention in advance of soliciting her help later? After all, the particular actions described here are not too unlike those mandated by social protocol as transactional reward for services rendered.


At a dinner table, I challenged a nephew, someone comparatively younger: “how do you know when someone is a friend?”

His answer came quickly, and sounds simple: “someone who would offer help without asking anything in exchange.”

My first reaction was to think that even if he was right, the principle is impractical: it is untestable unless one needs or requests help about anything. I toyed with the train of thought, and quickly found the idea of faking a need for help in order to test theories about my social models rather distasteful.

Subsequently, I also realized that his view was biased with his cultural background: in the extremely transactional Chinese environment he grew up in, even small unconditional gestures stick ostensibly out of the ordinary. His phrasing may thus have been more symbolic than practical, a translation of his social model rather than an actual answer to my question.

Later, I was also reminded that an apparent offer of gratuitous help could also be bait, to be led to trust someone against better judgement.

As much as I appreciate the candor of youth, I think I will let unconditional offers of help sit on the sideline as trustable markers of worth.


At the same dinner table, a friend surprised me by asking out of the blue, unprompted: “in general, what does it take to experience a meaningful life?”

This is a person who never talked to me about philosophy before, and in fact had been ostensibly rather disinterested in metaphysical discussions—while she knew full on, for years, that I was entertaining thoughts on various purely intellectual topics.

We usually chat only about very practical things, like food, gardening, furniture and parenting. After asking, she clarified that she has these existential doubts and wants to live better.

I was so honored that she was sharing this process with me; it felt very intimate, and it made me feel very worthy.

As we did our best to set some thoughts into motion, she appeared really interested in the conversation, and she tried her best to share her nascent ideas about it, what she recently learned by reading on adjacent topics, etc.

All I was thinking was “this is a friend who is trying to make major steps forward with her life, and this is the way she is telling me that she wants me to accompany her.”

I had not yet asked her about how one perceives worth in a relationship, and she had found a way to serve me my most valuable lesson so far, spontaneously.


Then, I also did ask her; that had been the mission after all.

She shared an intriguing story: she had a fallout once, with someone she thought was a friend because they were spending a lot of time together, when she realized said friend never really probed into her life and didn’t have persistent knowledge of her events, struggles and routines. That mattered to her, and that apparent lack of interest in her “personal” matters made her feel less worthy, and coming to this realization after assuming the opposite felt like a betrayal / disappointment.

Her line of reasoning was fun to toy with conceptually.

In my book, lacking interest in someone’s personal business is not a mark of disrespect. What bothers me though, is someone faking that interest for the sake of social protocol. The act of faking that interest does not bring me anything, it does not make me feel good nor worthy; if anything, it makes me feel confused about what is going on.

Meanwhile, it is because I so fundamentally dislike this faked interest that I also somewhat systematically discount the possibility that interest could be shown, or assume that signs of interest can only be a faked act—even when they are not.

Without an expectation of interest shown, I am much less at risk than my friend of becoming betrayed or disappointed.

At what price though?


Somewhat later, I was brought to reflect on the movie Weekend (2011), which I re-watched recently.

In that movie, one of the protagonists, Glen, is doing an art project where he tapes the narration of folk telling what they experienced just after they meet him the very first time. He then explains that these initial moments, where folk don’t know each other, are full of opportunities: folk can choose to be who they want, including a new version of themselves.

Later, Glen reveals that he’s moving from Nottingham to Portland, Oregon, because he feels suffocated by his childhood friends, who make him feel he has to conform to the version of himself they’ve always known.

What I now understand from this character is that he celebrates the freedom to change over time, and cherishes relationships where he’s granted that freedom, or where he can be whom he wants to be without raising eyebrows.

These are the ways he experiences connection. I could recognize some of my own experiences through this lens.


The doctor’s conversational prompt, while a good starting point, felt somewhat incomplete. It was merely a mean to get input to answer a question I had, but it was not my question, and I do not know what my question precisely is.

Here is an attempt at phrasing it, after considering this week’s batch of input (this is a work-in-progress):

“What’s a thing that’s obviously a marker of connection, and provably detached from socially expected behavior and transactionality?”

And maybe the answer is somewhere to be found by simply reversing the order of the words: behavior that is explicitly indicating connection, and also is conspicuously diverging from socially expected behavior given circumstances, and also is difficult or impossible to reciprocate faithfully in a transactional way.

Here are some words that sprung up to mind while phrasing these ideas: “spontaneous incongruity,” “uncontextualized tenderness,” “impractical continuity,” “unexploitable transparency.”


More investigation needed.