Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Trouble with Keeping in Touch

One thing I was somewhat concerned about when leaving for Peace Corps was whether I would have enough time and energy to maintain contact with all the people I would want to talk to whom I wouldn’t see for a couple years.  Those last couple weeks of good-byes were crushing at times.  You say good-bye just when things with Friend X seem to have gotten so much stronger.  Now you’re going to leave for two years and who knows when you will see each other again.  This happened a lot.  When you part, having realized or remembered what a great connection you actually share, you both promise and internally resolve to make that extra effort to keep in touch.

What’s been strange is how that desire to keep up has evolved over time.  There are some people I told myself I’d be in frequent contact with that I’ve barely talked to over the last eight months.  There are other people I never really imagined having an exchange with, yet they’ve become regular contacts.


Some people remain close no matter what happens.  Anytime you talk, no matter how much has transpired in each of your lives, there is no barrier to overcome.  All is open, the dynamic does not change.  I find that basically everyone who falls under this description is someone I think of as family (through blood or not).  And, interestingly, the people I consider to be my family are not necessarily always the “closest” to me.  That is, they may not be the most important or immediate sources of comfort and support, they may not have the most up-to-date knowledge of my situation, and they may not be privy to the deepest parts of my being.  But for whatever reason, they’re family, and nothing changes that.  With these folks, I never worry about how long it’s been since we’ve talked—which doesn’t mean I don’t want to talk to them.  I just don’t get stressed about it.

Most people, however, are not family.  My relationship with a non-family friend might be subject to change over time, and is somehow connected with our respective life circumstances.  You know, that friend you were really close to in high school, but contact sort of faded when you went to different colleges.  Or that friend who was critical for a year or two, but your paths diverged.  Or the colleague who was your best bud as long as you worked together, but once someone moved on you just didn’t need each other anymore.  I was close with one friend in middle school, we didn’t talk in high school, then we got close again in college, and at the moment we rarely speak.  There’s this dance of moving in and out of each other’s lives. 

I guess most people do that dance with most other people.  Sometimes you snap to attention and realize that the moment has passed, your paths have diverged again, even if there was nothing to signal it.  Then you might wonder what the hell just happened and why you and your one-time-best-friend aren’t talking, and (worse!) you don’t even mind that much.

I also think most people realize, if only subconsciously, that this is the case.  And so, at the moment of parting, they promise to keep up through writing or calling or social media or whatever—somehow to reject the possibility, often an inevitability, that their paths are going to diverge, and soon.  And they even manage to convince themselves that it’s true—they will write those letters and send those emails and make those phone calls.  In most instances, reality takes over after that.  One cannot carry on pouring effort and attention into the maintenance of relationships that are dependent on proximity for their value.  Of course, one can try, but it usually ends with a thud and a shrug.

That isn’t to say that all non-family relationships are rooted in physical proximity.   Some friendships grow stronger with distance.  But most do not, I think.  And I think as a society, we kind of have a hang-up when it comes to admitting that many friendships are coincidental—they grow more out of shared circumstances than some connection of the soul.  When the circumstances of the people involved change, so does the friendship.  It sounds rather cold and horrible, but is it really?   Everyone’s lives are always in motion.  Is it at all realistic to expect to keep close with everyone, or to expect everyone to want to keep close with you?  Sometimes people need and seek each other, sometimes they don’t.  Why get cross about it? 

Like most people, I’ve got no lack of Facebook friends that I haven’t spoken to in a year or more.  Our paths have diverged, we’re each experiencing different things.  But acknowledging that sometimes paths diverge is only the first half—sometimes they converge again later.  This is one reason that I like and continue to use social media.  Just because we’re not close now, doesn’t mean we won’t get close again later.  The point is that you don’t have to shut the book on people just because you’ve strayed apart, nor do you have to fight to stay on the same page if it needs turning [end of metaphor].  You shouldn’t feel offended if it seems that someone has moved on. 

And then there’s always the option of refusing to accept a natural divergence, as many couples do.  That could be very perilous or very worthwhile, but how can one tell beforehand?  It demands a lot of sacrifice, without question.

I think in the past, before the world was so damned small, people would lose touch, and that was it.  If you knew someone when you were a teenager or in your twenties and then lost touch, that person remained a static image in your mind.  You carried that image for decades, every so often remembering dear so-and-so.  He was so _______!  I wonder what he’s doing now?  These days, you don’t have to wonder.  People are easy to find and reconnect with, and when you do find them, you realize that you are not the center of the universe, that that person went on to live his own life, just as full and elaborate as yours.


Anyway, relating this back to Peace Corps and keeping in touch and all that.  There’s this thing going on that really bothers me.  At this moment, my life is in Indonesia.  Most things that I think about in a given day arise from some stimulus I encountered in this country.  Most things have some connection to life as a PCV.  New experiences lead to new thoughts, insights, realizations, etc.  Those experiences and new ideas in turn form to the core of what I have to communicate.  The trouble is that all those experiences happened in this new world, which is alien to every person who was close and important to me eight months ago.  Unfortunately, nobody in that old world shares my circumstances, so there is a real limit to the amount and kind of support I can expect from them.  Most of what I have to share these days requires long explanation and some understanding of my circumstances and the culture I’m living in and my day-to-day life and all that.  With only limited time to talk with friends, this is hard to establish (but not impossible).

Moreover, there’s really no guarantee that all the stuff that seems so important to me actually matters to others.  I might scream in your face:






But how deeply can that affect a person whose environment has not made them highly sensitized to such things?  And it’s not that person’s fault, of course.  It’s just natural.  Why would, or how could, someone care so deeply about things that are so remote?  I take myself as an example.  Things that would have commanded my undivided attention a year ago—e.g. the upcoming election, the success of my favorite sports teams, what happened on this season of some fantastic TV show—now elicit little more than a shrug.  (Seriously, I don’t want to watch the video clip of Rick Perry’s latest gaffe).  I mean, I do maintain an interest in a lot of things and I try to stay informed, but the intensity of my interest is an order of magnitude lower. 

So most of the stuff I want to talk about is rooted here in this world and most of the stuff others want to talk about is rooted in their own world.  Again, disclaimer: great communication is surely still possible, and it’s not like people can’t be interested in what the other has to say.  It’s just that the capacity to relate and thereby offer support is limited.  What really irritates me in conversation—and the thing that I wanted to eventually express when I began this posting—is when I feel that one person is trying to force the other to come into their world. 

In fact, I mean this less as a critique of other people than I do of myself.  For the most part, other people are really gracious and listen and put up with all the Indonesian-themed stuff that I try to shove down their throats.  But I do get defensive when people don’t acknowledge what I want to communicate or somehow convey that it’s not as important as what’s going on in their own life.  Really, though, this is rare.  If I feel unacknowledged, it usually has to do with the limitations of a person’s ability to relate rather than that person’s smugness or sense of superiority.

Far more commonly, I nettle myself by unintentionally making every conversation about Indonesia, somehow.  Talking with other PCVs, this is no problem, because everything we experience is in the context of Indonesia, so with each other it’s not like we’re just babbling about this exotic foreign land all the time—we’re just discussing daily experiences.  But what would be a story about “something that happened in school” among PCVs becomes a story about “something that happened in Indonesia” between a PCV and someone in the USA.  I don’t mean to do it, but simply by sharing experiences, it feels like I end up shoving “Indonesia” under the nose of everyone I talk to and forcing them to take a whiff.  I don’t want to do that!  By the end of some turn in the conversation, I get this bad feeling like I’ve been an insufferable jerk who just tried to rip the person out of America and make them live for a moment in my world. 

And even worse, I can feel snooty about it. 

Whatever, all the crap that you’re worrying about in the States are whiny first world problems.  I don’t care about the stupid nomination rat-race, I’ve got students who’ve been studying English for five years and don’t know how to say, “My name is Ahmad and I am from Indonesia.”

(or perhaps)

Don’t tell me your dinner was bad.  All the food I eat is fried in two inches of palm oil.
Don’t tell me it’s hot.  I live on the equator with no air conditioning.

I really don’t like thinking that way.  It makes me distant from other people, and I fear it makes them want more distance from me.  Really, I don’t mean to make it all about Indonesia, just as you don’t mean to make it all about America (or wherever).  It’s just that our paths have diverged a bit, so the balance of conversation is harder to find. 

At present I’m not sure how to clear this communication hurdle.  As I said, it’s not an issue with people I consider family.  But with other people, it can leave me with a queer feeling.  I suppose this can be combated with awareness and patience and attentiveness.  Paths diverge for a while—the distance is natural and normal.  It will probably be worst right after coming back to the US, and then it’ll get better.



  1. This ride -- the ups and downs with family, friends and acquaintances -- continues to evolve over time. It is what makes life so interesting! What we suppose from the outset doesn't necessarily come to pass. What we never could've imagined, happens. It's a rather mysterious process!

    Having come of age in a time way before social media, it was up to my friends and me to write letters to one another. I saved some of these and just recently unearthed them. What stands out is how young we were, yet how connected we wanted to be.

    Whether it's about Indonesia or some political candidate back home, it's all about sharing, isn't it? And if someone is willing to share, then connections remain -- to be fathomed later! Sometimes that means decades later which is the fun part because faces and personalities morph over time yet that kernel of essential truth remains!

    A sense of humor is key!

  2. Plunged into your mind & I realized there's no big difference whether you're American or Indonesian.
    It could (feel) the same when you're get into new (unfamiliar) situation.
    Good to know that!

    Just scream it what's on your mind :)
    That's part of maintaining yourself sensible

    Enjoy Indonesia!