On a recent pleasure trip with a friend I’ve known since toddlerhood, I don’t know what started the conversation, but it came around to my loss of people who knew me when.
Nearly 20 years ago, my particular friend, my huckleberry friend succumbed to AIDS, and I’ve found that his loss becomes more difficult to bear as time goes on, rather than easier. Why? Our relationship was so rich with – I just stopped to look for a word big enough, universal enough, ‘experience’? ‘everything’? no word can suffice – we helped form each other as human beings, is all, we honed our critical skills and senses of humor and ideas of right and wrong and how to move through the world with a modicum of grace, and there’s no one else, not mutual friends, not even his mother, to share the richness of our memory. I didn’t lose just a person, as if that weren’t devastating enough, the loss was like having the ground fall away to a bottomless chasm just behind my heels, and despite my precarious equilibrium without him, the farther I go in life from the edge of that chasm, the more echoey that chasm has become.
The since-toddlerhood friend and I reconnected a few years ago, after having lost touch for a long time, not in the sense of “are they still alive” but of the minutae of our lives, and I was telling her how – again, word search, ‘valuable’ is so very pale – how amazingly crucially valuable her friendship is to me because – funny I got stuck on the word – our values were formed at the same time by the same people and experiences. How our weaknesses, like putting everyone before ourselves, even complete strangers, and assuming that everyone else shares that concern, was almost bred in the bone. How, if we say we’ll do a thing, you can take it to the bank. How, if we make a mistake or hurt someone’s feelings, we know that we’ll work to make things right again. And how few people we know who have those values, or maybe the determination to live those values.
When I was a kid and someone hurt my feelings, my mother taught me to see their side of it and have compassion. She also taught me that apologies are not a sign of weakness, but of strength, because they signal that a lesson has been learned and pave the way to a fuller, richer life. She was highly sought as a confidante and advisor, my mother, but she seldom gave advice, always turning the question back to the petitioner. Everyone thought she was very wise, but for the wrong reason, I think – they called her wise because they believed that she agreed with them. I call her wise because she almost always kept her true opinions to herself.
Given my mother’s lessons, throughout my adult life I have apologized for my own wrongdoing, obsessively plumbing the depths of experiences, sometimes over years, to ensure that I “got” it, so that I could learn the lesson and become a better person. My toddlerhood friend seems to share this aesthetic, as do most of the small group of people with whom I’m closest, and maybe that’s one reason we continue to share air.
As you may have figured out, given that my year is drawing to an end I, like many others, am reflecting. No, it’s not an egg-white face masque. And if I’ve learned anything at all this year, it’s that in the 21st century when you hurt someone’s feelings – even if they BEG you to do so – they will likely retaliate in ways you can’t imagine.
Earlier this year, I signalled my own hurt feelings to a friend/colleague and in turn, hurt his feelings badly. We both tried to move forward because we value our place in each others’ lives. The one thing he said with which I cannot agree is, when you hurt someone’s feelings, you are responsible for their reaction.
I hold that we are each responsible for our own actions and responses. We’re responsible for setting off the reaction, certainly, but not for the form that reaction takes or what the react-er chooses to do with it. He and I don’t agree on this yet, maybe won’t ever, and our friendship has been damaged – he is far more careful around me, treating me as if I did agree with him, ergo might retaliate in some awful way for opinions of his that I’ve sought.
Which brings me to my current woes. An acquaintance, who already knew my rather harsh opinion on a topic near and dear to them, has sought and re-sought that opinion, decided that the opinion is a personal attack, and has retaliated a thousand-fold, going after my reputation and my good name all over this town I dearly love, attempting to damage not only my current status, but to harm my future by driving me away. I’m getting terrific artistic juice out of all of this, no denial, but it’s also ruining my stomach and my sleep. I know that if I ride it out, this person will do far more damage to themself than to me – and that’s what’s eating me. This is a person in pain, a person who keeps upping the pain-makers so that someone will step in and help, or they will explode with the venom and bile of blaming others for their own actions and indiscretions.
Apologizing, forgiving the other and one’s own foibles, enriches life and encourages compassionate growth. So, unnamed person, I forgive you. I thank you for the art your actions have spawned, I thank you for the opportunity to re-examine my part in all of this, I make a promise to you, to myself, to the world.
Despite my lifelong character trait of directness, of honesty, of believing and relying on the words that come out of people’s mouths, in future I will mightily endeavor to consider whether my own words might hurt someone’s feelings before uttering them. I’ll also consider whether that person is likely to retaliate from the opinion they’ve sought, in other words I’ll strongly consider others’ motives before answering their questions.
Or, maybe, I’ll take another leaf out of my beloved mother’s book: I’ll answer by asking them what they think.
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