I’ve been thinking a lot about this scene from one of my favorite films by Wong Kar-Wai called In the Mood for Love. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, excruciatingly slow, and almost nothing actually happens. It is, quite literally, two and a half minutes of two people being people — only crossing paths and exchanging a long lingering glance in the last 15 seconds. But the friction-filled punch those 15 seconds pack is apparently potent enough for some of us to want to write an essay about it.
Admittedly, it’s a cheap shot¹. Anyone can put romantic music over muted footage of peoples’ small interactions and immediately hotwire the human brain to ascribe a deeper meaning. But I still think there’s something interesting to unpack here about how people exchange acknowledgements of each other’s existence.
The little things you do for others that remind you both of who you are, matter. They’re what define the thread count of the human experience. It’s micro gestures like small smiles, arm squeezes, and “hey you”s that root us in our sense of self without committing to the relationship’s definition beyond momentary shared space. As Philippe Rochat puts it in Others in Mind, “such simple, yet constant social acknowledgment amounts to the experience of tremendous relief.”
Providing this acknowledgement for the people you love is something that I think we could all get better at. Validating the other person’s perspective, reacting and explaining your own, maybe sending a smile. Just like the silence in Wong Kar-Wai’s corridor scene, it’s not just about what is said, it’s about what is unsaid: I see you, I’m here for you, I love you. This is something that for the most part, I don’t think technology can ever fully satisfy — it’s just too frictionless. Acknowledging existence requires real, personalized effort — something that tapping your screen to heart react will never fulfill.
I come to these realizations from a perhaps uncommon perspective. Having grown up in an environment that required extreme attentiveness to others and then rejecting anything that resembled that duty once I escaped, I have since come full circle to see the value in reinventing this practice for myself. As the sheer number of people I love has dramatically expanded in the past year, I keep finding myself looking around asking, “isn’t it insane how much acknowledgement we all need and how great it is to give it?” For the most part, people do not find it insane. In fact, most have no idea what I’m talking about. In conversation, love is often tiptoed around and treated like a scarce resource. But it doesn’t really matter because my revelation remains the same: I’ve found a deep sense of purpose in dedicating myself to bettering the lives of the people I love.
This is… a very explicit manifestation of femininity. It’s also something I’ve come to realize makes me stand out in the world because I simply refuse to have different modes of operation in work and life. Being a woman in a male-dominated industry has made me very aware that this culture is sorely lacking something I am naturally able to provide in spades. Not in a way that saps me of energy or makes me feel like a martyr, but in a way that feels fulfilling and grounding in my sense of self.
Should women have to do this emotional work? Absolutely not — and most don’t have the capacity to. But my decade of being pushed to the extreme in this regard has enabled me to feel fully comfortable setting boundaries to the support I provide. In defining my own capacity, I am able to shape this skill into something that serves me.
But this leaves me wondering: why is this so rare? How did we get to a place where genuinely caring for those around you is perceived as "special"? Why do we starve each other of compassion and support?
The answer is, of course, complicated. One way of looking at it is that our society exists in a patriarchal gridlock where emotionality and connection are only socially acceptable in certain settings — for most men, that’s just with their single romantic partner. To make matters worse, compassionate “effort” is emotional labor that our society has neither the self-awareness nor vocabulary to value. Whose job is it to take care of the tribe in 2022 and what words would we even use to describe that work? Compounding this issue is that the scarce resource theory of love runs deep. People are taught at a young age that love is limited — giving it away is relinquishing power and withholding love keeps you in control.
I deeply dislike this zero sum approach to love and intend to devote my life to disproving it. I’m willing to bet good money (or support) that if you try giving those you love the acknowledgement that they clearly need, you’ll find that you probably possess a lot more love to give than you thought. And perhaps more personally, you’ll uncover a secret — that being your best for others is the easiest way to discover a deep sense of acknowledgement and meaning for yourself.