Tuesday, April 19, 2011

People Are Not Fungible

Okay - I admit it: I consider myself reasonably intelligent, and my vocabulary a tad more extensive than that of your average bear.  So it was much to my chagrin that I found myself stumped by a classmate's comment during my first year of law school.  Our Contracts professor had erroneously called me by my roommate's name.  Or perhaps, vice-versa. 

After class, said classmate remarked on the mix-up (presumably) jokingly: "Well, you two are essentially fungible."  While my external response was something akin to a half-laugh and a "whatever" smirk, my internal response went something like this: "Fungible?  Fungible?! What the hell does that mean?!  Is he calling me some kind of mushroom?!  Who uses a word like that, anyway?!  Jackass."  (With sincerest apologies to said classmate should he ever happen upon this entry.)

Naturally, the first thing I did upon returning to my dorm room was bust out the dictionary and look up this mystery word.  (Yes, I'm old -- this was long before such handy things as smart phones and Google existed.)  Okay, so, essentially "interchangeable."  Still no compliment, but arguably understandable.  My roommate and I were of a similar "type":  blonde, slender, young for our class.  And, being roommates, and not yet knowing many others, we did tend to travel as a pair in that first semester.  

Though it happened 20+ years ago -- Dang I'm old!  Have I mentioned that lately? -- and the roommate and I have long since moved past fungibility, the story of how I first added the word "fungible" to my vocabulary is one I've told on several occasions since.  Mostly, just to poke fun at myself.  And maybe a little bit at people who use "big words" in pretentious fashion. 

Lately, though, I've pondered that concept a bit more:  Are people fungible?  Are certain folks, at least, interchangeable?  I think, perhaps, that as to mere acquaintances, the answer may be, "Yes."  But once they breach the Inner Circle, I think not. 

I wasn't always convinced of that.  Even when it came to relationships.  I'm not certain why I thought so, but it simply seemed that, although different actors were cast to play the part at different times in my life, they all were playing essentially the same role.  I consider that now and feel more than a little embarrassed at it.  I'm not sure if that was naivete or simply self-absorption.  But it prompted me to make some seriously stupid decisions along the way.

For instance, after my marriage ended, I felt very much like a failure.  Yes, it takes two to make it work, and, in fairness, we both fell down on the job.  But I wasn't supposed to.  Maybe it's my Virgo-perfectionism.  Maybe ego.  Maybe just leftover little girl fairy tale fluff.  But I allowed my disappointment in my failure -- in myself -- to convince me that any relationship could work if one simply committed fully to it and worked hard enough at it.  Any one could fit if I just found a way to let them. I would not fail again if I just tried harder.

Sometimes, I wish I could go back to the "me" of that time and slap some sense into myself.  Because, of course, that theory simply isn't so.  And I subsequently made the terrifically unfortunate choice of testing it out on a person who couldn't have been more ill-suited to me.  It's tempting to bemoan the many reasons why, but also unfair and unkind.  I voluntarily went there, after all.  I can only say that I now have a full understanding of what people mean when they refer to "toxic relationships." 

You'd think, perhaps, that I'd have walked away from that situation with the realization that, no, of course people are not fungible, and relationships cannot be readily swapped out like iPod/iPhone chargers.  But I don't think I fully came to accept and understand that until quite recently.  Though the ideal leading man in the play of my life has remained the same for, well, essentially all of it, I've tried several times to recast -- usually, with less than stellar results.  And though not long ago there was one who held much promise, this time it was I who became the not-quite-right puzzle piece.  I could not sufficiently fill the void left by another.  Cinderella's slipper didn't fit after all. 

In recent months, listening to some dear friends face similar dilemmas has really driven this point home for me.  Finding that perfect fit -- the missing puzzle piece -- is not at all an easy thing.  Which is why commercials for services like "Match.com" and "e-harmony" bug the bejeebers out of me. They bill themselves as the savvy, modern way to meet "that special someone."  But it's the same mentality -- you're auditioning others (and they, you) for a role. Building a solid relationship isn't simply a matter of finding someone with a decent resume; someone who's "qualified" for the job. 

The problem, of course, with this mentality is that it prompts us to try and make someone fit where we think they should. But no matter how hard you try to mould and reshape another, you inevitably come to the realization that you cannot.  And attempting to do so most often results in pain and/or disappointment for both parties.

We don't do that with any other meaningful relationships in our lives:  We don't audition family members, and try them on for size.  Even friendships -- at least those of a lasting nature -- arise from genuine affinity and affection; an appreciation of and respect for the special qualities they bring to our lives.  And none of these souls, if we truly love them, are interchangeable.  Nor are they replaceable. 

No -- people are not fungible.  Each person we let into our hearts leaves his own unique imprint on it.  That is as it should be.

1 comment:

  1. Terrific piece Susie. Sometimes it seems that if we squint just the right way, that person becomes fungible! But, alas, that's not true either. And sometimes the pieces, er, people will be funge...is that a word? And that is as it should be also. Even if people appear the same...