While writing this piece in my head this morning at five ‘o clock, the song Human Behaviour by Björk was the mental soundtrack. So if you want the full experience, put on that song while reading this.
In my experience, friendships are strange beasts. Unpredictable beasts. For me they are almost impossible to understand and get right. I can look a dog in the eyes (careful with that, looking a dog in the eyes is a complex ritual!) and know exactly what is going to happen next. I don’t always do the right thing, but I know what went wrong then. With human connections it is not as easy for me. I can look a friend in the eyes and get it all wrong. And suddenly the connection transforms from easy, highly rewarding and all consuming to hard, highly frustrating and draining. And I hardly ever know what went wrong. Not as exactly as in the case of the dog. It has happened to me many times and it keeps happening.
How to deal with that? How to deal with the the need for close friendship, a need that periodically throws up so much pain and confusion?
The answer is that I started to read a lot about it lately and that helped. And the most helpful things I read came from Buddhist principles.
As you may know if you read my blogs or know me personally I am extremely wary of and sometimes downright hostile to anything that has to do with doctrine and religion. But the only exception I make is with Buddhism. Mostly because it is neither a doctrine nor a religion. And I treat it just like any other philosophy: there are good things in it and there are less good things in it. But at least it is a well of thought – a well filled over a long time – from which you can use what you need and benefit from what others have experienced and bent their brains to.
An analogy: Ever bought a garment that seemed to fit perfectly in the dressing room but wearing it in daily life turned out to be less comfortable? And it even looked exactly the sort of garment you were looking for. But it just doesn’t feel right in daily wear. No matter that the buying of the garment cost you a lot of energy – going to town, hopping from shop to shop, trying on dozens of garments – and that it has cost you money, the garment just doesn’t feel right anymore. However infatuated you were with it in the shop.
Now after this analogy you may think that I mean ‘me’ with ‘you’. But that’s where Buddhism comes in. As human beings it is in our nature to view the world from our own eyes only. With everything we do we project our own viewpoint. It is very hard and it costs a lot of energy to try and see things from someone else’s side. At least that is what I find. But try and see yourself from someone else’s eyes and dare to undergo that confrontation and a whole new world opens up. It’s confrontational to the extreme but it also helps to understand the world and your place in it a little bit better.
Another analogy: I am like a goods train delivering goods: I steam on and on. In some friendships I give and give and keep on giving. And although I do this without ever expecting the same amount of goods delivered in return, it does create an imbalance. At the same time I am quite insecure in friendships (probably the fuel the train runs on: the fear that saying ‘no’ jeopardises the friendship). This creates a need for constant confirmation that the friendship is still there. And this is demanding for the other side. Too demanding.
Bear with me, it’s a roller coaster of thoughts I know, so back to the first analogy: Seen from the other side, my friends’ side, the garment does not fit as well as thought at first. It pinches here and there. And the garment is left in the closet or only worn out of guilt. That is the analogy of the painful moment – both for me and the friend – that distance is needed. Breathing space. Unlike the garment however, I am active, not passively hanging from a clothes hanger. So I panic and react by giving my insecurity full rein. This causes the friend – if it is a good friend – to pull on the brakes with a little more obvious force (yep, back to the train analogy). If it is a very good friend, he or she will do so repeatedly. If it is someone who has less patience or was less of a friend in the first place, the friendship ends there and then.
The hard part for me is accepting the having to slow down the train. The feeling of ‘but I have done so much for you’ rears its ugly head. And jealousy, that most dangerous of feelings peeps up. Jealousy of others who apparently fit the other person’s needs better. And this is where the train and the garment analogies serve a complimentary purpose:
- The train does not have to stop but it has to slow down. Drastically. The wheels may screech, there may be sparks, but after the slowing down, the train can still move and it can still deliver its goods.
- The garment isn’t the perfect fit. Even if it seemed so at first. This analogy however is valid seen from both participants in the friendship. It means that no matter how much energy was put into it, it still may not be the perfect fit. The garment may be altered or the contours of the wearer may change, so in time the garment may fit better, but for now it is just a fact of life that the garment will be in the closet.
Buddhism suggests (see: I didn’t use ‘preaches’ or ‘teaches’) that you view life with less of an individual eye. Why do you think yourself so important to your friends that you have sole possession of them? (Jealousy.) Why does everything you did for them out of your free will give you any expectations? (Entitlement.) There is no preferential status or entitlement in your relation to the world. And this flies directly into the face of the modern Facebook driven society and the “Look at me, I’m so interesting!” mentality. But it is a much more relaxed attitude to dealing with everything life throws at you.
The main thing to get out of this is that guilt and recriminations are the killing blows for any friendship. Buddhism also advises that you ‘open your heart’ – a desperately corny term, but once you accept the wider meaning it works – and accept that the friend must have the freedom to change his or her views. That feelings change. That mistakes are made and reacted to. But that if you close your heart, i.e. react aggressively, it is certain that there will be a lot of hurt on both sides and that the friendship is lost forever. But if you pull back while at the same time stay approachable and open to the other, and accept requests for renewed friendship without jealousy or recrimination, there is a good chance that you will both benefit from it.
It is hard to change oneself. And I am no Buddhist and probably never will be one. But it has helped me to read some of the thoughts coming from Buddhism and apply those thoughts. It has given me what other people find in psycho therapy: a way to deal with a difficult and painful time.