I offered to do a favor for a friend yesterday and got the usual response: “I’ll owe you one.” This transaction always makes me uneasy, and I am usually quick to protest that no, nothing is owed. I don’t say that because it’s polite, and I don’t think people lack compelling things to offer in return. I say it because I already feel indebted, and any kindness I show is an effort to correct at least a little of an insurmountable imbalance.
Not that I maintain a ledger in my head of everyday kudos and transgressions. My knowledge of how a gesture impacts me is imperfect, sometimes unfolding years after the fact. I am even more blind to any influence my own actions might have on someone else, and reluctant to presume my efforts hit their mark. Even if I could pay close enough attention to measure such things, I’m pretty sure it would be a frustrating exercise, because the things we intend to touch someone are seldom the acts that resonate most deeply. How should I measure intent? A serendipitous gift? The unknowing but perfectly timed kindness of a stranger? We can’t even figure out how much something concrete, like a kilogram, should weigh; it must be folly to assess debts beyond the financial.
So I hedge. I have a hard time shaking the conviction that I am woefully behind, and everyone is simply too polite to collect their due. Meanwhile, I feel the interest compounding unless I offer unrelenting kindness. Not that I think I’m any worse at this than anybody else. It’s not so one-sided a deal. I reap the rewards of seeing their burdens eased, their lives more content, even happy, by my hand.
Now, if you’re trying to do something for me, you will find me insufferable. Accepting your support draws more attention to myself than I prefer. Unless the need is dire, I won’t mention it at all. I seldom ask for things I want. I’m hard to shop for, harder to repay for whatever it is you think you need to repay me for. This is not meant to maintain a deficit of some kind between us, but I see how it might be seen as unfair. The worst part is, even if you figure a way around these defenses, there’s a very good chance my enthusiasm for your gesture will be less than profuse, even if I’m really excited. I am not given to exclaiming.
I am in your debt. It’s okay if you think you’re in mine too. We can all be beholden to each other. There’s room on the scale for everybody to stand on one side or the other. The things we owe, I don’t think we can make a conscious effort to repay. It happens by just living in each other’s lives, that constant stream of checks and balances, gifts unasked for and, as often as not, unknowingly given.
Every two weeks some friends and I create new posts on the same topic. This week’s synchroblog posts about debt are listed below. Please read them, and if you’d like to participate, let me know.