Popping the Question

There is great value in examining the obvious.

For example, when we are young we begin to learn about the relationship between actions and reactions. These are things causing other things. This could mean literal actions and their consequences, physical or otherwise, or something different like a question and answer. In its most basic form, this relationship involves an input and an output. 

After that, lots of time passes, and we learn that things are much more complicated than they first appeared. Real life isn't exactly computational. It's possible, and likely, that despite our inputs and choices, life returns an unexpected output. We learn that the choices of others affect our own choices. After months of saving, maybe the store sells out of that one product that you had been waiting for, negating your choice. Maybe a special someone receives a better offer for a prom date. Either way, we learn that there are other forces at work, and that the relationship between input and output is more tenuous than we had once hoped. Our personal agency has limits, and that realization is an early step towards a well-adjusted adult life.

But what if we begin to lose sight of the input/output relationship?

Speaking of relationships, they're perhaps the most relatable way to illustrate the problem. Far too often, we unknowingly give up small parts of our ability to make well thought-out decisions, especially when love and relationships are involved. Consider the following:

A person is lonely, and has always wanted to settle down with a partner. The only thing holding them back is that they haven't found the One, or at the very least someone who seems special enough to commit to. How do they fulfill their wants and needs? Conventional wisdom says that they should put themselves out there, meet people, and begin to gauge interest. After all, you can only end up with someone who wants to end up with you, which tends to narrow things down nicely. So now you have a few choices, people who are actually interested in you, and share your goals and expectations (if you're lucky). The next step would be to select the person you have the strongest desire for, or share the most in common with, or whatever criterion you place the most value in. Of course, this process can be approached from an infinite amount of ways, with varying degrees of success, for all sorts of different people. The point is that you have a desire, you take action, and you get results.

Here's the tricky part- did our hopeful romantic accomplish what they wanted to? They found somebody, but was that what they actually wanted? 

They wanted to settle down with someone, but what were they looking for? If they were looking for the best option out of the options they were able to find, then mission accomplished. But if they were indeed looking for the One (if you believe in such a thing), or something more extraordinary, then we might have a problem. And the problem is is that our bachelor or bachelorette lost sight of the relationship between input and output. The truth of the matter is that the input is not a single idea, but something more complex. If we're generous, we can say that our input is a combination of (1) our intentions and wants, and (2) our actions. I think if we're being realistic, the input really only consists of our actions, as far as practicality is concerned. It doesn't matter if our subject was looking for true love if their means of finding it only brought them the best partner they could find. Consider this- when looking for love, when you have a list of possible suitors, the one you choose is probably the best option out of the group, but that doesn't mean that they're the One. If that's truly what you're looking for, you've missed the mark by a substantial distance, because rather than finding a perfect match for you, you've gone and found the best match available. it becomes less about an objective consideration of a person's qualities, and more about a person's qualities when compared to others. 

What happened here is that the output, meaning the possible partners we've found, has influenced what we're willing to settle for. What began as a quest for fairytale love has ended in a darwinian, survival of the fittest, competition- winner takes all. 

It seems painfully obvious when written, but the childhood truth holds up surprisingly well in adult life- Our actions (inputs) have a large effect on what life gives back to us (outputs). It seems important to make sure that our actions are reflections of our true intentions. If they aren't then we're not going to end up with what we meant to get out of life, barring a miracle. It is far too easy to go through life assuming that our inputs are in order, that we actually act in a way that reflects our desires. But there are countless examples of why that might not be the case. Often what we want is hard, and long-term. It's easy to understand why someone who is looking for a better job might fruitlessly toil away on job applications that they never send in, because it is easier and provides more short term anxiety relief to do this than to put in the real work and risk disappointment. It's easy to understand why someone who wants to lose weight might make several short lived attempts at joining a gym, rather than doing the difficult and monotonous work of going several times a week for months on end. 

When it comes to relationships, it is easy to see why someone who truly wants to settle down and find someone to go through life with would spend years of their life asking the comparative question rather than the objective question. The comparative question involves figuring out who among the available options is most suitable, and what traits we desire or dislike, and what we're willing to settle for. The answers to those questions are why you match with one person on tinder and not another, why you approach one person and not another, and why you ask for one person's number and not another. 

The objective question is much different. The answer to that question does not return traits, but people. It allows you to find someone you have been waiting and hoping for, if that's what you really want. Sure, the person you find has traits which can be described, but their selection is not the result of having the most traits among your suitors. They are it, a real person, who somehow cannot be compared.

This distinction involves hard work. Plenty of people believe that they can go through life asking the subjective question until someone special comes along. Someone who makes it so they no longer want to ask the subjective question, to compare possible partners. Maybe that's true. But why would you risk it? I don't believe in the One, that there is one person you are supposed to be with. But I do believe that this distinction between the subjective question the objective question reflects the common disparity between our intentions and our actions, especially when it comes to relationships. This is especially true as we grow older. 

I honestly believe that this view of inputs and outputs, while seemingly obvious, reflects a reason why people can go through life busy, and working hard, but staying unfulfilled. It applies to the question of who we want to be with, but also what we want to do with our lives, where we want to go, and what we want to eat for breakfast.

So what question are you asking?


Duncan FieldComment