Molecules and Bonds

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- Me, if I were a YouTuber

Wow, it’s been almost a year since I last wrote for this blog. So much to catch up on, but who knows how much energy I have for all that. Let’s try to breeze through the highlights.

About a year ago, I started looking for a new job. In November, I left Apple for a small company that manufactures electronic equipment. I wasn’t super qualified for the position, but I did have some skills they were looking for, so the following six-month probation period was filled with me working my ass off to learn the technical side and basically ensure I kept the job. In the same time, Carrie started a new job, studied for a few months for her licensing exams, quit that company, and went full-time into her private practice, which was the completion of a 10-year effort, roughly. To say the least, we were both very busy during that time. While we had three sources of income, we splurged on ourselves to compensate for the rough couple years prior, but since then, we’ve paid down debt, restructured some of it, and have begun to live more sensibly. Things are comfortable again, though we still have our struggles.

I started therapy again back in the spring. I had to take a break a couple years ago so that I could shift the focus from my emotional and mental health in favour of my financial health. Carrie carried us through a lot of those years with her income, so it was time for me to begin contributing again in a meaningful way. Now that our finances are back in order, I’m slowly dipping my feet back into the psychological waters, with the main difference being to sustainably balance all the areas of my life at the same time. It’s like when you walk a tight rope and lose balance. You have to shift your weight all the way to the right, then to the left, and slowly you have smaller shifts and swings back and forth until you reach that balance in the middle. From my monthly appointments with my psychologist, the contents in my mental pot have all gotten stirred around again, so I need to start externalizing my thoughts again in order to make sense of the mixture. It also doesn’t hurt that I’ve heard from a couple people recently that they missed my writing. With that quick recap, let’s dive right back in to see what’s on my mind.

An idea that I’ve been chewing on is about two aspects of our relationships with each other. You have to make judgements about both the person’s character and your connection with that person. Using my fuzzy memory of high school chemistry as an analogy, you study characteristics of different molecules on their own as well as their bonds with other chemicals. There are well documented properties shared by all kinds of chemicals, like melting point, colour, texture, reactivity, density, and mass. In addition to that, there are also well-known interactions when they are placed together with other substances in certain environments, like the reaction when dissolving in water or alcohol at standard atmospheric temperature and pressure. Without dwelling too much on the analogy, there are certain types of characters when it comes to humans, as well as known interactions between these types of people. You have the best friend relationship, the parent-child dynamic, employer-employee, classmates, the frenemy. I’ve been taking inventory of my relationships by examining not only how I get along with another individual, but also what kind of person they are as well. I don’t mean to say that I typecast people into rigid categories, but it is worth evaluating the nature of the person with whom you’re in a relationship. Are they honest, mean-spirited, ethical, self-centred, hard-working, interesting, open-minded, considerate, troubled? What’s their schedule? Where do they live? What’s their energy like? What’s their vibe? These are all questions we inherently answer for the people in our lives, so it’s worthwhile to make it explicit and to be conscious of what those answers are and how they change with time.

Why am I thinking about relationship dynamics and people’s characters? Oddly enough, it stems from my recent commuting experience to my current job. I drive to and from work most days now, some 15 minutes per direction. I’m fortunate in that sense because it’s in the opposite direction of most traffic in the city, so I can drive quite quickly with minimal cost relative to the people sitting in bumper-to-bumper gridlock on the other side of Deerfoot Trail. I used to be quite ruthless on the road, driving quickly, tailgating, cursing, zooming around people, retaliating against those who tried to skirt the unwritten rules of the road. Now that I’m a bit older, I don’t have the energy to get so upset at people. I actually don’t enjoy driving anymore, which has become such a chore even with my easy route. The main insight that got me thinking about relationships is how I would so quickly and permanently judge someone based on their maneuvering on the road next to me, while I was also making mistakes and being rude to others at the same time. These days, I’m actually quite anxious on the road, fairly conservative relative to Calgary drivers with my speed, and I’m mature enough to see how I would sometimes hate driving behind me if I were in those drivers’ seats. I’m no longer the young, hot, brash male driver who needs to be in the fast lane to get to my destination two minutes earlier. I can take my time, let others pass, even show up late, and accept that I’m not a race car driver despite winning a race against coworkers at go-karts once. I’ve judged people harshly on their driving, but I realized how I wouldn’t want to be judged that way, based solely on a single aspect of my entire being during a short timespan on the road with another person. 

Not long ago, I was driving in the fast lane on my way home after work, changing the music on my phone to suit my stress level, when I noticed a coworker driving behind me. He decided that I wasn’t driving the way he wanted me to, changed lanes to pass, looked over, and was a bit shocked to see that it was me. After changing my music, I caught up to the normal speed and passed him, but that moment gave me pause. What would he think of me? Did he really notice it was me? Did I undo my faux-pas when I sped back up to everyone’s speed in that lane? Would he judge me forever on that one moment and interaction?

More seriously, I realize that the way I’ve interacted with people in the past could deem me in one moment as the most evil person they knew as well as the kindest angel on earth in another. For example, when I was working in the Genius Bar at Apple, there were many moments when I made a customer so happy they were in tears, later emailing my managers about the depth of my empathy and humanity, while in the same hour I could have been another customer’s worst, rudest customer service representative ever who would later turn them off of the company’s entire product line for the rest of their lives. Both of them could have been correct about me. Now, would it matter to them that I think I’m really a nice guy? Would it matter to them what my overall score was on customer surveys and coworker feedback? That’s also one of my fears in writing for this blog, that someone would take a single line or post out of context, vilifying me irreversibly, judging me accurately or otherwise without considering the other data points of who I am. That’s the inherent risk and asymmetry of this kind of interaction though, so I have to own that. Once upon a time, I was a bully in elementary school. Would any of my victims care to know that I was bullied at home? Does it undo the damage that I did or pay for the ripple effects I contributed to in their future relationships? Would it matter to them that I no longer behave that way, that I sought treatment and processed the negative and toxic influences in my life to seek to help others much later in my life? 

Carrie and I have been talking lately about the impacts of today’s Cancel Culture, where someone is completely written off today for a previous mistake. Cancel Culture says that anyone can be silenced at any time for an oversight in the past, which is at the same time the best and worst policy depending on how you feel about who it’s pointed at. Is that fair? Is there room for growth? Can I disavow my past self for doing or saying something I now regret? Can I apologize and ask for forgiveness even when I don’t deserve it? If you’ve followed my blog for a minute, you know how I stopped talking to my family because of how our dysfunctional system drained the life out of me. Was I wrong for cancelling them? Should I allow them back in my life if they apologize? Should they cancel me in return for missing recent weddings and funerals? Should I cancel myself?

I do miss my family, at least the aspect of the bonds we shared. It’s hard to replace, having people who have known you for so long, who have your history, who aren’t afraid to call you out. However, the big turning point for me was when I looked deeper at what kind of people/molecules I was interacting with. Asian culture can strongly emphasize the family bond at the cost of everything else. I’ve heard numerous stories of families sweeping major crises or scandals under the rug. That’s a value that was often repeated to me when people commented on the dirty laundry I aired, that family comes above all else. However, I couldn’t carry on with my immediate family relationships. There are people whose characters are asbestos, nicotine, poisonous lead. There are those that are highly reactive and volatile, weeds that behave like grass but suck all the nutrients out of your environment. There are species that eat their own young. I didn’t base my decision on a single interaction or moment, but there has been some decades of both good and bad times. I also don’t cancel relationships when friends do bad things. I have close friends who have committed egregious acts in their past, while their other friends have cancelled them, based on those very sins. I continue to stick beside them because I’ve seen who they are across numerous scenarios and situations. I know them as much as I’m able to with the time given us.

There’s more to an individual than a single decision, but admittedly some are much worse than others. My point is that we need to make these decisions on an objective level, not solely on how great our dynamics might be with certain individuals. I can’t be friends with someone who is actively evil and oppressive just because we can laugh at the same jokes. But I also need to take into account that we’re all human, that we all make mistakes. And though we should all be allowed to be imperfect and have room to grow and change, we cannot blind ourselves to the need to judge ourselves and others based on the content of our character.

Jonathan Phan Lê @jon_le