Sunday, July 29, 2018

On Discovering Ourselves Through Choosing Others

Online dating, or, I suppose, regular dating (but I barely remember what that even is anymore) is a fascinating exercise in identity discovery. To take part in the game, we have to know who we are and what we want. Those are huge questions.

We carefully choose what to reveal in an attempt to surmise our most important vitals. Some go for the best portrait of themselves: casting a wide net by glorifying parts that will most likely entice the most people. I opted for the most necessary bits for connection: the parts that people need to like for anything to work. It's a process of weeding out rather than a sweeping in, which I prefer regardless how thin the weeds were to begin with. But even just this question is a struggle. How can we ever know the parts that are most important? I went for reading, cycling, and canoeing, but that's barely what I'm about. That's just what I like to do. It's so superficial and artificial. We find ways to pigeon-hole ourselves to be understood by others, whether we're funny or smart or adventurous. What an odd expectation that we can boil ourselves down to a list of adjectives.

And then there's the choice of the important traits of another unknowable human being. Everybody thinks they're nice and good listeners and all that jazz. Even with the most honest and authentic profiles, it's impossible to describe the self to another to determine compatibility. An attempt to even know the self, which is always in flux, may be a targetless exercise. And "common interests" is such a ruse, a red herring that can send us careening down the wrong path with expectations held high. I might find someone who loves canoeing as much as I do, but they might be just a bit too overbearing or chatty or serious or something that a fleet of Old Towns couldn't override in a cost-benefit analysis. 

But it's fascinating to me to observe myself making decisions about people based on scant information. What do my choices say about my own identity and where I think I fit in the world? And what do they say about my prejudices? And what's the difference? If I pass on the guys in suits, is that about attraction or an anti-corporate bias? I think biases are completely enmeshed in our preferences for another, and I don't think there's much we can do about that. I could date CEOs over and over, but I can't make myself like it. And I might find one that has a similar value system as I do. It's possible, but less likely that some guy in jeans, I think. But I only think that because of stereotypes based on previous experiences and media. But we need some way to decide.

This is all so very unsavoury and dehumanizing.

Is the guy in the suit with the expensive watch in front of the fancy car just adding that pic because he thinks it will impress girls because our culture provokes us towards that image, or is this a reflection of what he actually values in life? I'm not sure which is better or worse.

Does sense of humour matter more than interests? Does hamming it for the camera even correlate to being funny in person? Doesn't everyone have a sense of humour, but just of a different type - like having a taste in food? And is a similar sense of humour important only because I hope to be entertained? I tend toward people who have different interests or abilities so I can learn from them. We look down on people who light up at the prospect of a partner with wealth, the golddiggers, but is coveting a wealth of ideas that different? Isn't it still just looking to get something rather than to share in something? In the back of my mind through it all, I have Aristotle looking down his nose at relationships of utility over the infinitely more laudable relationships of virtue. But we can't easily assess morality from a self-description. Everyone thinks they're virtuous.

Should I just ignore the too formal living room in the background, the ratio of photos of their face to their vehicle, or the number of sports they list as interests? These things seem to warrant a quick pass, yet I've been happy in the past with a hockey playing motorcycle enthusiast with a more formal aesthetic than my hippy decor. When I ignore education levels, is it because I really see no correlation between intelligence and education or because I just want to believe that about myself? I'm fully aware that it doesn't really matter. I might do as well if I threw a dart at my computer screen. But we have to whittle down the numbers. And we need an in, a starting point for conversation that isn't necessary in a more natural meeting where spontaneously disagreeing with someone else's comment or randomly having the same shoes could be a point of connection. Or sometimes there's just a smile that makes us weak in the knees and renders those details superfluous.

That one was too difficult to navigate realistically. But that sudden overwhelming electric surge flooding my body when our eyes connected reminded me of the painful nature of desire. It's easy to pick and choose when it's a matter of interest. It's so much harder when suddenly there's a longing that you didn't expect. But where would we be if we lived life with a surge protector!

On top of being near impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff, the whole enterprise is also fraught with emotional turmoil. It kills me not to respond to someone who seems a poor match, but any comment, even, "Thanks but I don't think we're a good fit," is often met with a defensive hostility. There's a raw vulnerability in revealing a desire for connection, in displaying a wanting, in making overt that there's a missing piece in our lives otherwise outwardly illuminated as a perfectly content. Mid-conversation with several prospects at once (something that goes against my monogamous nature in the first place), I went into the woods for a time without access to wifi and returned to an onslaught of "arrogant cunt" and the like. I've narrowed my search to people old enough to have spent the majority of their adult lives before cellphones, yet many nevertheless have fallen into the expectation of immediate responses. I'm too thin-skinned for some of the fear-induced hatred coming my way. I can tolerate it when people react heatedly to a perspective I hold, but not to my silence threatening their self-esteem. The message boards are rife with a sense of feeling completely misunderstood by one another. Instead of helping us connect, this tawdry process can eat away at our belief in our worthiness of connection.

Many demand "no baggage," but who among us is that untouched by the world? Who would want to be? Relationships are never about not having any flaws or issues, but about being able to overlook or forgive or understand the more difficult idiosyncrasies of the other. I'm fond of poet David Whyte's discussion of the purpose of relationships, that it's not about improvement or growth:
"the ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another, to have walked with them and to have believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone."
And then, of course, there are the booty calls. Yuck.

It takes time to meet people and really get to know them in order to weed out the crooked ones, time I could be actually weeding my garden or my pile of books to read. And from time to time I think I'm less interested in a partner than in a people. I grew up in a large family where there was always someone who had time to play a game with me. I still idealize communal living or intentional communities as they're now known. We can't expect one person to cover all the bases, the reading AND the canoeing. It makes sense to have a wider base. My most content moments were never because of a partner, but because of a group affiliation, typically when I was living in a house full of friends. But once people couple up, that form of relationship sits at the top of the hierarchy. It's seen as better, an improvement over communal formations. As Fredrick Engels explained in Origins of the Family:
"[Monogamy] develops out of the pairing family, as previously shown, in the transitional period between the upper and middle stages of barbarism; its decisive victory is one of the signs that civilization is beginning. It is based on the supremacy of the man, the express purpose being to produce children of undisputed paternity; such paternity is demanded because these children are later to come into their father’s property as his natural heirs. . . . We meet this new form of the family in all its severity among the Greeks. While the position of the goddesses in their mythology, as Marx points out, brings before us an earlier period when the position of women was freer and more respected, in the heroic age we find the woman already being humiliated by the domination of the man and by competition from girl slaves."
There's lots to unpack there! But I'm just going to move on and leave this little Wagoner poem here. It feels entirely relevant, even though I can't quite explain why:

From here.

ETA - and it's just bizarre that horoscope counts as ethnicity!

ETA - This study suggests we're all looking for someone out of our league, but for women over 40, that's pretty much everyone.

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