Stream of Consciousness II 27-12-2011

People will surprise you if just given the chance. Case in point: there has long been an ostensibly arbitrary barrier between my paternal cousins and myself. It was and is senseless, though I could make attempts at explaining it. I rarely see them (maybe once or twice a year on Holidays), I abstain from social networking which is what the family seems to use to keep in touch (though I could always have used text messaging or something similarly direct, I suppose), I have never found myself to have any lasting common interests with them... the list could go on. Maybe this is not so uncommon for cousins, and I am just defining my relationships with them relative to their relationships with each other: they all do see each other frequently, they all do engage each other on social networks and through other communication channels, they all do seem to have common interests and they all seem to be exceptionally close (both emotionally and geographically). Maybe because they are such close friends with one and other and I am not, I have deemed my distance to be the outlier when in fact the reverse is true. Regardless of such rumination about relativities, the truth is that I have always felt as though I could not seriously relate (sorry for the pun) to them in any way.

But when I saw them all again this Christmas, I made a more concerted effort to engage them in conversation, both one-on-one and in group settings. Though concerted, it was not a massively pre-meditated thing: when I saw them, I simply decided to have conversations that lasted longer than 30 seconds. And I kept at it. I tried to have superbly natural, free-flowing conversation that touched upon topics ranging from the trivial to the personal; and what did I find? My largely self-imposed embargo on those relationships was based on faulty notions and conceptions.

Though I was always aware that it was a two-way street that led to distant and faint relationships with my cousins, I still had a nagging suspicion that a fairly large aspect of it could be traced to the simple differences in nature between me and them. Differences in philosophy, politics, culture, social awareness. But I also perceived differences in smaller things like taste in music and in books, or basic hobbies and cares. I cannot think of a way to say the following that will not come off as unreasonably harsh, but: I thought that I could not relate to them because I was bored by them. Maybe not them as people, but I could rarely conjure up a conversation or interaction that I did not perceive as superficial or baseless. This is actually a pattern for me: I hate small talk and I seem to be turned off by people with whom I cannot speak to on a level that is sufficiently and arbitrarily deep enough for me. It may stem from my Existentialist search for subjective meaning in much of what I do, but I'll save auto-psychoanalysis for another time. The point is simply that I distanced myself, slowly and gradually, because I did not believe that I could have a meaningful conversation, and I believed such a thing because of a) experience, and b) perceived discrepancies in philosophy, in ideals and in personality.

But this was largely shattered on Christmas. And not because I had deep discussion on the finer points of Nihilistic consequences of post-modernist thought or because I became enthralled within a heavy dialogue on the ways in which the past decade were shaped by a resurgent brand of aristocratic Imperialism. There were conversations which the intellectual in me would be excited for, yes. But no, it was because I found intrigue and joy in conversations about things which that same intellectual might pass over as mundane at first glance. Asking questions which might typically strike me as cliché or trite, but which actually penetrated the surface of the other person to learn something new about them, lead to insights and discoveries about my cousins as individuals. “What's your major again? … Do you know what direction you want to take that in? … Well what are the problems in that field?” “Did you pick that up as a hobby on a fling or did a friend get you into it? … How serious are you about it? … Have you ever considered doing it on a larger scale?” It seems entirely trivial to most any reader, I am sure, but this is something that I am still learning evidently: to get to know some one on any sort of non-trivial level, you have to ask the sort of super-common questions that actually reveal basic details and open avenues for further penetration and understanding. That's precisely why such questions are so common: that is how people often get to know one and other.

And asking these questions to my cousins let me learn more about them that I could have known so long ago. I honestly did not know that two of my cousins are going to become teachers at the middle and high school levels, that another cousin is studying to pursue graphic design, that another cousin wants to go into a field tangentially related to my own and has recently become intrigued by rock climbing. Learning such basic things about a person, such as what they do, what their ambitions are, what their concerns are, allow you to see them in a much brighter light. And what that light did for me was to illuminate the fact that my cousins really do not bore me at all: they are fascinating people in their own right. We might not have the same level of interest in Albert Camus or in the nature of Free Will (or maybe we do and I just have not discovered it yet!), but there are concepts and activities and items which intrigue them, which they are passionate about, and we can discuss them all the same; and if it becomes something that I develop a passion for, all the better. But if not, then who cares? I am still learning something about some one! And who knows, maybe one day we could converse about which Vonnegut novel was the best or which Washed Out song was the most enjoyable or which branch of Liberalism has the most credibility. But if we don't, there is still much more to discuss, because there is always more.

My cousins surprised me, not by doing anything different or particularly new to engage me, but because I allowed myself to be open to conversations that I might not normally care for. I find it particularly enchanting that it can take so little to learn so much, and that all it takes to begin to reverse a long history of stupid separation is innocent conversation. But I also find it just plain cool that one can be freshly and positively surprised by those that one has known for a literal lifetime. That's people for you.