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What Do I Owe You?

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.

Debt, n — nights­bright­days
Debt of Lament — pas­sion­ately pen­sive
debt we debtors — m: works on paper, et cetera
Indebted — mud­dled­dreamer
my baby, the earth — i write to be rid of things

  1. […] : What Do I Owe You?—Word Shep­herd : debt we debtors—m: art, et cetera : my baby, the earth—i write to be rid of […]

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  2. Beau­ti­ful writ­ing, as always. I’m still wait­ing (patiently) for you to write that book, my friend.

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  3. […] What Do I Owe You?, Word Shep­herd 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. This entry was posted in Uncat­e­go­rized by David Mahaf­fey. Book­mark the permalink. […]

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