The fact that I’ll be turning 49 on Monday has put me in a contemplative mood. As the years roll by a bit faster, it’s sometimes easy to miss changes. Whether they are changes in values, beliefs, habits, understandings, goals, or just almost unnoticeable drifts of daily life, the occasions for stopping to assess them just become fewer. No more big moves, no more graduations, no more births. You accommodate to the inevitable, and rise to unexpected challenges, and perhaps gain some insights if you’re curious and observant, but things seem to grey down a bit (to match the hair that now has to be artificially colored). Is there anything of particular note in the last year? At first, I didn’t think so, but then I started having thoughts.
A year ago, I was very frustrated and even sometimes angry about some interpersonal challenges. Those feelings have become much more infrequent, partly because I’ve learned how to disengage from attempted escalations about things that are really not very important. I’ve learned how to respond more neutrally when dealing with difficult people, and not to let someone else’s issues affect my whole day or even week.
The deeper understanding about boundaries of various kinds has greatly reduced my stress level, as well as putting me back on track with some of my talents and strengths. The way I was approaching my work day and the things that needed to be done just frankly took too much out of me (that’s improved too) without being angry and upset on top of it all. Last year, I felt like I was on the edge of some sort of major collapse. This year, I’m tired but I feel like I’m accomplishing much more during my work day, I don’t need to isolate myself so often or for so long, and what I think of as my recovery time has reduced somewhat.
I’ve been revisiting the topic of boundaries and friendships for a few years now, but there have been some positive shifts this year.
I’ve tended to be a fiercely loyal friend, but at the same time I’ve had a kind of economy of friendship in which things were very (almost mechanically) reciprocal. If I was being treated well, I would treat the other well. If objectionable behavior was expressed in my direction, I would hit back at just that level, plus one. Usually this took the form of a verbal response. What was really happening? I was hurt, because I considered myself a good and loyal friend, but I wouldn’t admit that hurt, so it turned into a defensive attack. Then, because I had some frustration and anger hanging around anyway, I took it as an opportunity to respond in just that way because… because… because I can. I’m good at it. Words rarely fail me, and I can rip back pretty effectively. Almost effortlessly, I point out flaws and unfairnesses and points of contention, at a pace (and with a passion) that be overwhelming to others. The behavior of the other person ended up not just triggering my defenses but also gave me an excuse to shine, to myself, just because the things I do best don’t really seem to be called for in most of my environments very often. So in addition to forgetting that this was a friend, and not an enemy, I was losing sight of the fact that it was even an individual. It didn’t really matter who I was talking to, because at some level I wasn’t even really talking to that person as a person. I was just letting loose in the space of words, where I feel most comfortable and at home.
I know this sounds like really basic stuff. I didn’t realize how ready I was to believe that defense/attack was required. I grew up largely distrustful of the world around me. I’m an introvert, and often socially uncomfortable in group situations, and there is a habitual feeling that I need to perform and be amusing so that people might not automatically just hate me. Most people who know me think I’m extroverted. I’m not. A nervous laugh, now toned down but still present, developed as a “please don’t hurt me” strategy when I was still very young. Giving anyone a chance to know very much about me, such that we could authentically become friends, or not, is challenging to me. I have a lot of masks, and I love to try them on. When someone actually gets through to me enough that they are able to offend, upset or hurt me, the second layer is that I’m ready to pounce. Like… immediately.
I’ve found a few real friends who model something different in the way they treat me. Because of this, I have realized how unfair it is to people I care about to have this attack mode as the default response when I feel attacked or hurt or upset by their behavior. There are other ways to respond, after all. A simple naming of how it looks to me, such as I would do in a less charged situation, is a far better option, and asking questions to try to understand what’s going on is usually very helpful. If I’m in a better space with myself, I can navigate through all kinds of difficult terrain, but there has to be a basic layer of trust, and I have to do better with remembering my caring toward the other even when I’m feeling disappointed or betrayed.
My reasons for becoming and staying friends with people has sometimes been far too mysterious; there have been too many circumstantial, historical friendships that I felt compelled to maintain long after their times were past. People with whom I really had very little in common other than similar experience of some kind, people who didn’t actually wish to see me thrive, people who demonized me because of political misinformation (or general misunderstanding), people who were attracted to interactions with me, but for reasons that seemed problematic – all of these were like healing projects for me. In some cases, I would feel a strange repulsion/attraction thing going on, and I would try to gradually erase the repulsion side, seeing it more as a problem with me (my critical side has fairly high standards sometimes) than the other person. After all, you create what there is in the “between.” I would know that something was wrong, something was off – maybe even something pathological – but couldn’t articulate to myself what it was. I would spend time and energy assessing, and then trying to “fix” whatever it was – a very Western view of relational ethics, but I’ve never really been that great at acceptance of all that is. Like the angel of history, I wanted to go back and repair the things that had been broken. I kept thinking that “the cosmos” (insert your belief language here) was trying to teach me a lesson. Maybe it was, but it wasn’t the lesson I thought.
Even radical acceptance of the other has to include the boundaries of self-love; you can accept them as they are, and still gauge the best distance at which to keep yourself. I fear I’m never going be able to offer unconditional love to very many people in my life, much less all humanity. Maybe this is a kind of giving up on that, too. The best I can do, and that only sometimes, is to feel genuine sadness about what I’m observing.
In the last year, really only the last year, I have learned how to allow myself to say “there are some major things about this person that I neither like nor respect, and all the positives that are there are not enough to outweigh this fact.” I don’t need to engage in the push me/pull you game, which always felt vaguely dangerous anyway. I can simply walk away, knowing that it’s too destructive or toxic for me, and maybe I don’t even need to know the reasons why.
I have hesitated to allow myself the power of real choice in this matter. Even after things that were fairly egregious, I would try to talk things through, get back to a good place. You don’t abandon your friends, right?
Now I can ask the essential questions of qualification, and still remain true to my ideals about friendship: “Are we actually friends, and if so, on what basis? Of what value is this?” I’m resolved to trust not only the available data, but also my own instincts. If I sense that this person really doesn’t actually like me or get me in any significant ways, seems threatened in some way by my existence, has some kind of agenda, or is really, truly (as Carlin pointed out), stupid, full of shit, nuts – or all three, then I have to trust myself enough to just step back (or back away slowly if needed). If I can formulate any questions to ask, I can do that, but it’s really not required – not if the instincts are strong and I can’t answer the friendship qualification questions affirmatively. I have always been so concerned that maybe I was just being paranoid or overly suspicious because of hard-wired or environmental influences that I sometimes overcompensated and stopped listening to myself. If I get too repeated flashing warning lights, I need to listen, and act accordingly. There is no ethical obligation to befriend anyone.
I value real and meaningful friendships, and you can’t force that. When I disagree with and argue with real friends, as I sometimes do, I’m at least as concerned about where they are as where I am, and the issues are (mostly, I hope) just the ones before us and not piled high and deep with unrelated dynamics.
There are all kinds of friendships. I also value friendships with a light touch, where there is enough common ground that we have fun and we don’t really need to know each other very fully to enjoy each other’s company and conversation. After all, how many true, deep friends has anyone got? Some overlapping interests and compatibilities will work just fine for socializing, communicating, and learning. It’s also part of the natural flow of things for friends to appear and fade through the different times and spaces of your life. It could even be that there’s nothing particularly wrong, but it’s just not a friendship I’m interested in cultivating anymore. No big deal. As one friend I’m very fond of says, “Whatevers.”
While it is true that even asshats can teach you lessons about relationships and boundaries and personal insights, it’s impossible to completely avoid them anyway, and there is no real reason to let them get close enough to be destructive or to drive you crazy. You can’t fix other people. What you can do is be as authentic as you can with the people you truly like and respect, and the effects of that are mutually beneficial.
Of course, I hold in reserve the smackdown ability for when it’s truly useful and needed, but I could and should channel more of that impulse into something more creative. That sort of thing has not only been a blind spot for me, but it’s also been so energy-wasting and disturbing in my life, now that I look back on it. I have a growing sense of the limitations of the time remaining. Another thing that has objectively changed this year is that our son is taller than me, and I wasn’t a young’un when I delivered him. I need to focus on more of the good parts of life.
Next year, it would be really lovely if I could report that I’ve found a lot more energy for everything I want to do, I’ve lost ten-fifteen more pounds, I can hit E above C again, I don’t even crave a cigarette, my novel is selling like hotcakes, my student loans have been paid off as a token gesture against my lottery winnings, and I’m living on the most beautiful island you’ve ever seen. This is in rough order of probability. I’m putting it all out there in case there’s anything to that set of beliefs around focused intention – from dumping it onto the gods/goddesses to lining up with the mild (or strident) forms of the “power of positive thinking.” I welcome gifts from the benevolents, as always, and I’m totally grateful, but you could maybe tone it down a little on the pranks this year (just a sweet suggestion, especially if you’re hankering for more sage and lavender this summer).
Maybe next year, a few more things will be better than they were before, and the changes might even be in a completely different register – all part of the lifelong journey for curious seekers.
Be well. Be strong. Be kind. Laugh every day. You can dance if you want to. If you need some perspective, revisit the wonder of the starry skies above.
“Stars” by The Weepies
Tangerines are hanging heavy, glowing marigolden hues
Teasing a half-pale moon
And I feel a pull to the blue-velvet dark and stars.
Pink Magnolia, blushing and coy
Savors the sun while she shines
You’ve got yours and I’ve got mine
Together we glide through the blue-velvet dark and stars.
All it takes is a little faith, and a lot of heart
Back and forth we ply these oars
They move in time and get entwined
Green with joy then gray with sorrow
Ripened fruit that falls tomorrow
Filling us with brilliance
Branches are bare with a pulse underneath
Flowering slowly inside
Your hands are warm and my body is wide
To hold all the promise of blue-velvet dark and stars
All it takes is a little faith and a lot of heart