Monday, March 1, 2010

Insert Friend Request Here

I used to know this woman. Let's call her Jean. Jean and I carried on as friends do; when one of us wanted to see or speak to the other, we'd ring on the phone, and have a conversation. Usually, I would try and steer this convo toward face time: phone is just not my favorite medium to engage with people. I so often interrupt, or don't accurately express what I'm thinking. I can't see the other person's body language, and know what they're communicating underneath their words. So, when our schedule's permitted, we'd sit for coffee or a meal, or bring our loved ones with it and have a couple date or two.

Then, not so long ago, I learned a lot about Jean, chiefly, that we have fundamentally different ways of perceiving and engaging in friendship. I believe in a certain level of honesty that can and should exist among friends with whom I am safe. I believe I should be able to, and I would like to be able to, tell my closest friends when they've said something off-color, out of line, out of character, even downright hurtful, and probe at it, to discover if there's an element of discord between the two of us, or within her, or within me. (Pronouns are no accident here. Let it be known that in my friendships with men, I seldom enjoy the safety that permits me this kind of honesty. Let it also be known that my friendships with men are considerably less prone to miscommunication, maybe because the stakes are lower. I've never pulled at that thread.) This is how I believe friendship between two old and dear and close friends should be. This is what I hope and expect from my friends, and this is what I deliver to them.

It has recently occurred to me that not everyone wants this kind of "conscious friendship." For instance, Jean does not ever, ever want to be told that she's hurt or offended someone, not even by her friend and in a spirit of love. She would rather that her friends assume the best about her, that whatever misstep, or even transgression, she made, was wholly unintentional, and to blow it off and let it go. She would rather assume the best of her friends, and have them assume the best of her, and when they fail to deliver, she'd like not to know about it.

This was a fundamental change in the fabric of our relationship for me, and no small one at that, because it felt in direct opposition to the natural way that I treated people that I loved. But I told her I would take that context and apply it to our friendship, such as it was.

I say "was" and not "is" because I learned this in what I think is accurately described as a knock-down drag out. In the course of ten rounds, I learned that Jean had been holding on to some pretty serious anger toward me, anger that hadn't allowed her to let go of some of my behavior that had really hurt her. Evidently, she couldn't treat me the way she wanted me to treat her. We left each other knowing where the other stood; her inhumanly busy schedule wouldn't permit her to make plans with me, but when she freed up time, she'd call and we'd connect for a cuppa.

We had this conversation six months ago, and we haven't spoken since.

I've never been the kind of person who actively cut people out of her life, who has said to someone, "don't call me," or "leave me alone," or "I'd rather not know you anymore." It always seemed like such a negatively final gesture, and what if you need something from that person in the future? Then there's the bridge you burned that you have to build from scratch all over. It probably also lies in the idea that I think I can change everyone, that if I'm enough of something that I can win them over or convince them that I'm right, and the discord is incredibly stressful for me. But for whatever reason, I don't just hang up on people, relationally. I know when I've been dumped, but I am rarely, if ever, the dumper. I prefer to let things drift into a nebulous state of unknowing that isn't actively detached but is situationally detached.

And yet, this drifty business with Jean grieves me.

I think this was a long time coming. We haven't had a lot in common for a long time, and we have distinctly different ideas of how to live, how to treat each other, what to prioritize. If friendship is about what you can give to other people, I was phoning it in with this broad for months. If friendship is about what other people give to you, I got squat from her. So I'm not at all surprised that this didn't work out.

But I find myself thinking a lot about Facebook lately, specifically as it relates to this human. Am I the only person alive without a Facebook page? Maybe in my ZIP code, eh? There is a whole facet of engagement I miss out on for not having plugged into that social networking site. Something that I learned about Jean when last we spoke, is that everyone else seemed to know what was happening in her life because she posted her life on Facebook. The absence we felt from each other, she didn't feel with others because she communicated with them through this tool. But somehow, I didn't know all the things they knew.

I don't feel bad about this at all. It's true that I'm missing out, but I'm really comfortable with that, and frankly, I like it better when my friends email or call me and say, "Hey Jess, I've been thinking of you. I want to see you. Do you want to see me? When can we get together?" I struggle with feeling like one of the gaggle who know the snapshot of your life that you post online.

(Yes, I am totally aware of the irony of saying that on a blog. I'm funny.)

But I wonder about what this woman's Facebook page looks like. I wonder who knows what about her life via photos and comments ("Jess is... glad that February is finally over... wondering how she'd look in a bikini after so many months in the gym...sorting herself out after a weekend of viewpoints and theatre games..."). I wonder if I'd engage her through this medium if I could, if I'd do the stealth thing that some people do and check blogs and pages, or block her and delete all her comments or whatever. Most of all, I wonder if this is the chief medium through which this woman, or my uncles, or my cousins, or you, maintains relationship, and not being a part of it means I don't get to know people.

Screw that. Maybe abstinence from social networking puts me at arm's length or farther from a number of people. Maybe wanting and choosing relationship with people who might "friend me", but who also call me, and take me for drinks, listen to my writing and tell me when it sucks, and let me come sit in their house and help them craft, and who visit me when I'm sick and who take yoga classes with me, maybe wanting and pursuing these things from my friends means my circle is small. I like active, engaged, conscious relationship. It's the way I like life. So seldom is it easy, but it's what I can do. It means the people who have really friended me are absolutely for real.


twunch said...

a)Full disclosure: I have a facebook account. And a blog. I ditched facebook for about a year because of my perception of the dilution of friendship's value but returned to it because I think it is essentially a tool for human-brand-marketing in a world of growing media consciousness. It's sad but then so was the telephone in 1910.
b) I prefer to blog and I prefer to read blogs because of the space where a thought can unfold. One my personal displeasure with the rise of facebook and twitter is that friends who used to blog don't. So people who's opinions I enjoyed reading in their verbose glory simply started rendering them in a more brand-oriented way. And instead of being a person who enjoyed their wit at length, I became another friend/consumer.
c) One of my favorite parts about becoming an adult is the choice to end friendships. As a child my perception was that friendships continued forever (BFF!) but as an adult my perception is that friends are like checkers pieces. You don't move your backpieces, the most valuable ones. But the mid pieces shift sometimes. And the pieces up front are pretty well exchangeable.
d) I always enjoy your writing, Jess.

Jessica Young said...

Man, I was so glad to read your comment. I was totally thinking of you as I drafted this. Nice to know I can still reach an audience. ;)

ABG said...

Jess, there was a great article about this issue in Harper's a few months back called "The Serfdom of Crowds."