Friday, August 30, 2013

What's In It For Me?

 a desert marketplace

I was eating my lunch at a local restaurant yesterday. The food was fine, and the service was excellent.  Our waiter was a pleasant young man who smiled a lot, efficiently took our order, and made sure our iced tea glasses were always filled. We didn't have to wait long at all for the meal to be served and the waiter came to check on us at least twice to be sure everything was going well. 

The only problem with lunch yesterday was that the waiter seemed a little "too nice."  His "niceness" came across as being somewhat artificial and it distracted me. I kept wondering "what would happen if, on one of his visits to our table, I told him, "you are doing a great job and we really appreciate your service, but I am a little short on cash today so, unfortunately, I won't be able to give you a tip?"

My guess is that the smiles would quickly end and the iced tea glasses would most likely remain empty.

When I was in graduate school studying Interpersonal Communication, I remember coming across a theory about human interaction which at the time was very troublesome for me. Social Exchange Theory says that every human interaction is something like a business deal. People enter into a conversation or they form a relationship with the underlying agenda of "what's in it for me?" The theory suggests that in every human interaction, people are always (albeit subtly and sometimes without knowing it) conducting a cost-benefit analysis: "How much should I give and what will I get in return." 

When I first studied "Social Exchange Theory," I was troubled by this analysis of human interaction,  but I have since come to believe there is probably a lot of truth in it.

Many (perhaps most) of our interactions are "ego"- driven. Our interactions with a server at a restaurant, a clerk at a store, a colleague, even a friend or a spouse are often governed by the underlying theme of "what am I getting out of this?" And by the way, Exchange Theory also suggests that in a relationship when the risks outweigh the reward, people will usually terminate or abandon the relationship.

Maybe this is why many people feel so lost, confused and lonely. 

The Buddha taught that the more we live in the "ego," the more we suffer. Buddhists teach that all beings are an interdependent relationship. The idea of an independent isolated self(ego) is nothing more than a delusion, and when people live their lives for the purpose of self-aggrandizement, they are living contrary to nature - living a lie. Hidden behind the false shell of the ego, we will always be alone and we will always suffer. 

I think that from time to time, it's good to reflect on the underlying goals of our interactions and relationships with others.  If it's always "all about me" and "what I can get out of it?" the end result will be a dead end.

Jesus understood this very well. He wanted his disciples to be fully alive.  His teaching was always about changing the direction of one's life away from inward (building a bloated ago) to reaching outward - giving "self" away in order to find your "true self."

Jesus once told a little story about banquet etiquette. It was actually a story about life and how to "fully" live it.  People at a dinner were all vying for places of honor, and this is what Jesus had to say to them:

When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, so that they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. No, when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. And you will be blessed because they cannot repay you. 

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