May 01, 2018

Can you pay for unconditional love?

Elif Batuman's New Yorker piece on Japanese rental family services challenges the notion that genuine love & care can't be bought. I particularly like her meditation on massages, near the end:

One evening, back at my hotel, feeling jet-lagged and confused by all the stories I had been hearing, I decided to splurge on an in-room massage. Unlike the sessions with the weeping swordsman and the rental mother, a massage wouldn’t count as a work expense. On the other hand, I reasoned, I had missed a shrink appointment back in New York, which cost more than the massage, so I was really saving money.

Two hours later, a smiling young woman knocked on the door, waited to be asked inside, took off her shoes, and gave me a form to sign. The form said that I agreed not to demand a sexual massage, and that if I was a man I would keep the hotel-room door ajar. Everything contributed to the dreamlike atmosphere: her soft voice and sure touch, the fact that I was lying on the bed, and the compactness of Tokyo hotel rooms, which meant that she periodically had to move things around to make enough room to stand. At some point, I realized that she was kneeling next to me on the bed. How strange that it was somehow O.K. for us to be in bed like this together. "Your shoulders are so hard!" she said, somehow releasing the muscles with her fingers. I felt full of love and gratitude, and thought about how the fact that I was paying her, which could have felt uncomfortable, was instead a source of joy and relief, because it meant that I didn’t have to think about anything at all. I could just relax. It felt like unconditional love – the kind you don’t get, or ask for, from people in your life, because they have needs, too, and you always have to take turns. I didn’t have to give her a massage or listen to her problems, because I had given her money, with which she could do anything she wanted: pay bills, buy an aquamarine coat, or even hire someone to give her a massage or listen to her problems. This hour, during which she paid attention to me and I didn’t pay attention to her, wasn’t going to be entered in a ledger where she could accumulate resentment toward me over the years. I didn’t have to feel guilty: that was what I was paying for.

I’d started off assuming that the rental schema somehow undercut the idea of unconditional love. Now I found myself wondering whether it was even possible to get unconditional love without paying.