Practically every time I finish a column, I feel dissatisfied, regretting what I had to lop off and the parts I never got to in the first place. I reassure myself, “I can always write a Part II,” but I never have, until now, continuing my musings about friendship, perhaps because two beloved longtime community members, Phil Hogan and Peter Pestalozzi, have died recently. They are remembered for their generous natures and gifts of friendship.
In my last column, I wrote about some of the dynamics in friendships and relationships in general, how our formative years might skew us toward particular proclivities of being open and trusting or cautious and closed, and how we might thrive or stagnate in our chosen relationships.
My very smart brother with Asperger’s Syndrome was only three years older, but we lived in different realities, in some ways like only children. Both avid readers, we lived through books and in our heads a lot. Our family was close to the Joneses who had five kids, and we spent a lot of time with them, including on holidays and vacations, like pseudo cousins, orbiting as distant planets around the Jones sun.
I was quiet and shy, so even with the Joneses and other girlfriends, I rarely felt confident enough to be my relaxed self. I remember making friends with a new girl named Pam who sat next to me in eighth grade social studies, and when she shared a perception about something I’ve now forgotten, I thought, “She feels just like I do!” It felt like a stunning revelation, that another human shared my exact perspective, that I wasn’t completely unique or odd in my thinking. Looking back, that seems like a lot of years to live without realizing that.
That spark of connection is a beginning point for many friendships: “Ah, she gets it!” “He laughed at my jokes and we hate the same politicians!” “Wow, we have a lot in common.” The experts in relationship-watching say that we seek out those commonalities when we’re interested in getting to know someone, feeling the glow of like-mindedness, and tend to gloss over differences…until the initial glow wears off, followed by, “Boy, s/he sure has changed since we first met.” Well, probably not. It’s just the rose-colored glasses have slipped a bit and now you see more clearly.
Somewhere in there is a turning point for the relationship: is there enough interest to invest the time and energy to pursue the relationship? Or will it be relegated to friendly acquaintanceship? We all have various levels of friendships with different commonalities and varying levels of intimacy; there is not one desirable configuration, but research into the psychology of healthy and happy human beings does point out that it’s the rare person who does not need to have at least one good friend who sees us with all our warts and loves us anyway, even when they may not like us much on any given day. Some people get lucky and marry their best friend or cultivate that deep friendship after marriage.
I used to think, when I was much younger and way more naive, that we would all be better off if there were more transparency between us since poor communication seemed to be at the heart of so much human misunderstanding. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if we quieted down and developed our clairvoyance so we could all just see what each other was thinking without having to use words? That would make us clean up our acts!” I realized, with little further reflection, that mayhem would result, as we would never be able get our mental and spiritual acts together quickly enough to embrace only caring, compassionate, generous thoughts at all times. Everyone would be mad at everyone else, there would be even more wars than we have now. People would shun each other, no babies would be born and the human race would wither. Total honesty is not always the best course.My mind cruised down that path because I was aware that I seldom let people see who I really was, often out of timidity, but also came to realize that few others were transparent either. We choose to show as much of ourselves as fits the situation and our comfort level; pretense is the byword that protects our pride and harbors our family secrets. A friend of mine, who was unusually honest and transparent was frustrated by the world around her that wasn’t at all, said that people “hid behind their faces.” Some say we wear masks, but author Glennon Doyle Melton in her book, “Carry On, Warrior,” says when we don’t feel confident or safe being our true selves with others, we send our “representative” out instead…not just a mask, but a whole phony self. Regardless of inner turmoil or pain, when asked how we are, we say, “Fine, doin’ OK.” We grin and bear it. We send our representative to work with co-workers’ representatives; we often know very little about each other. That’s all part of life; we don’t need to be open and gushing, but it’s a matter of degree. The danger to our sense of self comes when our representative is ever-present, even when alone, when we never feel safe enough with anyone to let down our hair and be ourselves, when we have no one who will just listen and understand our humanness.
I’m intrigued to hear friends’ stories of their growing up. One friend has five siblings who are still quite involved with each other in middle age, a lifetime of helping each other, arguing and giving advice, celebrating and mourning, being there for each other as best they can be. I think of them as growing up in a puppy pile, with energetic, playful romping, egging each other on, protective at times, bullying at others, vying to be top dog, metaphorically tugging on ears to get the others in line, collapsing in a tangle of legs and paws. I have several friends who have twin sisters, a unique closeness from the womb on. One pair roomed together in college, pledged the same sorority, majored in music, and both went on to teach elementary school music. They talked daily, sharing tunes, classroom activities, and other resources. Another pair once lived in a communal house with their husbands and children, share political passions and activism, love hanging out together way beyond the three-day guest limit and never have serious disagreements. Most of us may never know that degree of intimacy. Another friend lost her twin sister, who drowned when they were 19 years old. The loss rocked her family. Her narcissistic mom acted like the daughter never existed, and I don’t think my friend ever fully regained her balance.
We are all seeking, in one way or another, to contradict isolation, to feel connected, with the ever-present question hovering, “Why am I here?” That existential angst leads us down many and varied paths as we hook up with different people, religions, job opportunities, a multitude of explorations, with often numbing-out strategies and addictions that cause disconnection. Author Richard Bach wrote, “The opposite of loneliness is not togetherness. It is intimacy.” My hope is that as we evolve, personally and as a species, we find ways to show up in the world as our authentic, best selves, sharing our gifts and helping create the web of connections that gives us strength and flexibility.