Forever Friends

I have always tried very hard not to hurt people’s feelings.  There are certain things I never write about in my blog, even when I’m struggling to find a topic for this week’s post, simply because I know that the post would cause someone pain.  And even though I usually have a lot to say about any given situation, there are times when I stay silent, because I know that my words would just make things worse.  I have even been known to tell a “little while lie” on those rare occasions when telling the truth would be a very hurtful thing.

Yet despite all my efforts to the contrary, I know for an absolute fact that I have, at one time or another, hurt the feelings of every single one of my close friends and relatives.  And as long as I’m being honest, I’ll admit that every single one of them has also hurt my feelings somewhere along the line.

I believe it’s impossible to be close to someone for any length of time and not say or do something that causes them at least a little bit of pain.  Sometimes it’s because we speak or act without thinking first.  Other times, we put a lot of thought into what we said or did and honestly believed that we were being helpful.  (And yet we weren’t.)  The bottom line is that it’s impossible to always know how our words and actions are going to be received and interpreted by others.  So every once in a while, we’re going to say and do exactly the wrong thing, often without having a clue that we’ve done so.

When I think of how easily misunderstandings occur in our relationships, I’m always just a little surprised that people manage to have long-term friends and close family relationships at all.  The key, I think, is the desire to keep those people in our lives and the willingness to forgive and forget all the little ways that we sometimes bump up against each other’s feelings.  I think it takes valuing someone enough to accept them for exactly who they are, which is precisely the same way we want them to accept us.  But however we manage it, long-term and close relationships are a gift to be treasured.

Ann's photoI turned sixty last month, and a few weeks afterwards I went out with some good friends to celebrate.   I “met” one of those friends when I was just one-year old and our mothers plunked us down in the same playpen.  I would have enjoyed the trip to the art museum, the happy hour by the lake, and the dinner at my favorite restaurant no matter what.  But I have to tell you, doing those things with dear friends I have known for forty years, and one I have known for almost my entire life, made the evening so much more special.

There really is nothing quite like sharing a milestone birthday with old friends who have shared so much of my life’s journey.  Perhaps, if I am very lucky, I will be celebrating my 80th birthday with those same friends.  And maybe I’ll even write about it in a blog called “Muddling Through My Golden Years.”

Too Much Information

Sometimes I think I’m a terrible friend.  Don’t get me wrong, I care about each and every friend I have, deeply and sincerely.  I know I’m lucky to have them in my life and what a gift those relationships are.  But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m nowhere near the kind of friend I want to be, and that bothers me.

Last weekend my husband and I went to dinner with a couple of very good friends we have known for more years that I care to count.  We had a great time, eating good food and catching up on what was going on in each other’s lives.  It was a fun evening and one I thought had gone very well, until after I was home and it hit me that I had not once asked my friend about how her sister was doing.  The sister who had been fighting a very serious cancer and who, the last time I actually remembered to ask, was still struggling to fully recover.

All too often, that’s exactly the kind of friend I am:  the one who doesn’t remember to ask the important questions.  The one who doesn’t always manage to keep track of what is going on in her friends’ lives, which means I’m also the one who sometimes doesn’t give the kind of support that her friends need and that I really, really want to give them.

I know what the problem is, and it’s not a lack of compassion.  The problem is that I  don’t seem to have the ability to keep track of large quantities of information, no matter how important that information happens to be.  Like almost everyone else these days, I’m constantly bombarded with information that needs to be acknowledged, processed and categorized so that it can be retrieved when needed.  But in my case, the information is usually misfiled somewhere in the depths of my tiny little brain.

I can remember what I want to ask someone about until that person is actually standing in front of me, or I’m talking to them on the phone.  That’s the exact moment that I can remember only that I need to schedule a vet appointment for my dog, get a flu shot, take our passports back to the safety deposit box, and drop some food off at my mother’s house.  Later, when I’m standing in my basement trying to remember what I went down there for, I’ll remember that I want to ask about a good friend how her recent job interview went.  (Not that I’ll actually ask her, since she’s not standing in my basement at that exact moment.)

I worry that my over-stretched memory means that my friends and family must think I am self-centered, and worse, that I don’t really care about what is going on in their lives and that they can’t count on me for support when they need it.  The truth is, I couldn’t possibly care more, and I am always ready to give any kind of help that they need.  But it’s also true that they might need to remind me that they need that support.

I suppose the fact that I actually have friends means that there are people in this world who, if they don’t always understand me, or at least willing to put up with me.  And for that I am deeply grateful.  I suppose the true test of any friendship is the ability to accept people for who they truly are, flaws and all.  And maybe it’s time I began to do that for myself as well.

Great Expectations

Several years ago, I read an article in which the wife of a long-married couple was asked what she thought was key to her happy marriage and she answered, “I learned early on to lower my expectations.”  Personally, I sort of wondered just how much longer her happy marriage was going to last after her husband read that article.  And I thought that she was being a bit harsh, or had perhaps married a man who was simply not right for her.   But lately, I’ve come to believe that if I put her words into the context of simple human relationships, she might have been much more perceptive than I realized.

The older I get, the more I think that most of the conflicts we have with other people stem from the simple fact that they don’t live up to our expectations.  They don’t act the way we think they should act, or they don’t treat us the way we expected them to treat us.  And because they don’t, we find ourselves feeling hurt and angry, sometimes even lashing out at the people we think have failed us so miserably.  If we’re not careful, the problem can escalate from there, causing permanent rifts in our relationships with family and friends.

Sadly, this seems to happen in all aspects of our lives, and not just in the close relationships we have with family and good friends.  I once angered a fellow blogger because I commented on the photo that accompanied his post rather than the poem that he had written.  This was a person I had never met, but the fact that my response wasn’t what he had expected obviously stung.  If it’s that easy to hurt feelings of someone I barely knew, just think how easily it happens with those we know best.

I think the key might be in remembering that while our expectations always seem reasonable to us, that doesn’t mean that they are reasonable to other people, and it most certainly doesn’t mean that other people will meet them.  The fact is, we all look at things just a little bit differently, and so what makes perfect sense to us often seems completely illogical, or even rude and insensitive to others.  Sometimes I think we just need to take a step back, remember that the slights we perceive are rarely intended, and that the best thing we can do might actually be to “lower our expectations.”

I have come to the belief that lowering expectations is actually both a good and necessary part of how we handle our personal relationships.  It doesn’t mean that we don’t expect good behavior from others, it simply means that we stop projecting our ideas and values onto people who usually have their very own ideas about what is and is not appropriate.  It means that we put our own egos aside and learn to love and accept people as they really are, and not as who we may want them to be.

Which actually means that our expectations haven’t been lowered at all.  They’ve simply been expanded, and that’s a good thing.

Good Enough

IMG_4713I remember clearly how excited and nervous I was when I finally started this blog.  I was excited because I was finally trying out a new writing venue, but at the same time nervous about putting my writing on the internet.  I didn’t know whether to worry more about no one reading it, or lots of people reading it but not liking it, and then saying so.  I had seen links to blogs on Facebook with lots and lots of cruel comments, and I didn’t want to deal with that.

Luckily, I didn’t have to worry about either of those things.  Enough people read my posts to make me feel that it was worth writing them, and the worst thing that appeared in my comment section was some random spam.  Aside from struggling to figure out all the technological issues and getting over my distrust of all things cyberspace, I managed to launch my blog with no problems.  There was really only one issue that I struggled with a bit, and that was how to deal with friends who made it a point to tell me that they had no intention of reading my new blog.

I’m not going to lie, at first it hurt my feelings.  I thought starting a blog was a very big deal, and I had naively assumed that all of my good friends and close relatives would support me in this venture.  And most of them did, for which I will be forever grateful.  Still, several good friends congratulated me on my new blog, but followed that up by saying they didn’t have time to actually read it.  I smiled and told them that was fine, but that wasn’t true.  I was thinking, “Really?  I write a short post that takes at the most five minutes to read, twice a week, and you don’t have time?  You can’t spare ten minutes a week for something that is clearly so important to me?”

But eventually, I began to understand.  Sure, my blog is important to me, because I’m a writer and therefore, I take writing very seriously.  But the friends who were telling me this weren’t writers, and for the most part, they weren’t people who enjoyed reading a lot either.  To them, my blog was just something I did on the side, like gardening, and while they were pleased I had found a new hobby, they honestly had no idea that I was actually hoping they would read it.  They weren’t trying to hurt my feelings or dismiss my creativity, they were just looking at things from their own, unique point of view.  Which is, of course, what we all do.

I’m sure if I asked every single one of my friends to name a time when I didn’t offer support to them on an issue that they considered important, each of them could offer at least one example, and probably several.  The time I forgot to ask about the new grandson they were so proud of; the time I didn’t recognize a career crisis they were going through, or the time they found the courage to follow a dream and I simply told them, “that’s nice,” and then changed the subject.   Too often, we are so busy dealing with the chaos of our own lives that we don’t always keep up with, or even recognize, what is important to others, no matter how much we care.  It doesn’t mean we don’t want to “be there” for each other, it just means that we don’t always manage to do it.

Ultimately, I’ve learned that good friends aren’t the people who understand everything about us, or who always do what we want them to do, when we want them to do it.  They are just the people who love us, and who really are giving us their best, in their own unique way.  And that’s more than enough for me.

 

 

Second Chances

Last night, my husband and I went back to a restaurant we had visited a few months ago, where we had a great meal and a nice waitress, but where we also had what seemed to be a rude encounter with the chef/owner as we were leaving. I wrote about it in my blog post, Be Nice, and some readers suggested that I needed to give the restaurant another try.  Frankly, I wasn’t sure I wanted to, because I thought the owner had insulted my husband and I, and I wasn’t quite ready to forgive that.  But some close friends were anxious to try the restaurant (its fairly new and getting great reviews), so we agreed to meet them there last night.  And I’m so glad we did.

The restaurant was definitely more crowded than it was on our previous visit, but we had a reservation and were seated immediately.  Once again, our waitress was friendly and helpful, the food was delicious, and I did spot the chef/owner walking through the dining room a few times, scowling a bit. But as we were leaving after our meal, he approached my husband, asked how his meal was and thanked us for coming.  My husband assured him the meal was fabulous and told him we would be back, and we will.

The thing was, he deserved a second chance.  Because now I realize that maybe what I took for a scowl on our first visit could just be his natural expression.  (I know when I get a sinus headache, as I frequently do during allergy season, I tend to walk around looking rather crabby.)  And maybe when he walked by us on that first visit, rolled his eyes and muttered something unpleasant, he wasn’t directing it at us.  I tend to take the actions of people around me personally, but maybe he had just burned someone’s dinner or spotted something near us that upset him.  Because, although I have a hard time believing this, it’s not always about me.  Go figure.

One of the good things about reaching middle age is the opportunity to look back on our lives and see some definite patterns.  And one pattern I have noticed is that when I forgive someone who I think has insulted me or hurt my feelings, I am almost always glad I did.  Honestly, I can’t think of a single person in my life who hasn’t said or done something that has caused me emotional pain at some point, and I’m quite sure every one of them could say the same thing about me.  I  think that’s just the nature of human relationships.  We sometimes say or do the wrong thing and hurt the feelings of the people we know, even those we care about the most, and usually without even realizing we’ve done it.

0516 2Which means that we have a choice:  we can either hang on to the hurt, nurse the grudge, and distance ourselves from the people who have hurt us, or we can choose to forgive them, and let our relationship with them grow and mature.  Sometimes there are just too many emotionally painful instances to forgive, and then it probably is best to move on.  But most often, when we are strong enough to forgive and give someone a second chance, we’re rewarded with the kind of deep, honest relationships that are real gifts in our lives.  Or in the case of this particular restaurant and its owner, the chance to enjoy another great dinner……

Let It Go

IMG_0348A few days ago, I was walking a shelter dog when a car did a “rolling stop” (think brief pause) at the stop sign before proceeding through the intersection I was crossing at the time, forcing me to stop in the middle of the street and wait until it passed.  The car was going slowly enough that I had plenty of time to see it and stay out of its way, so there was no real danger that I was going to be hit.  Still, I was a pedestrian (two pedestrians if you count the dog), crossing legally, and the car should have waited at the stop sign until I was safely across the street.  And there was no doubt that the woman who was driving the car saw me, because she turned and stared at me as she drove by.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit ticked off.  I glared at her, although my sunglasses probably meant she couldn’t see my angry expression.  And when I saw her pull into the shelter parking lot and get out of her car, I made a special note of what she looked like.  Then I mentally rehearsed exactly what I would say to this woman if our paths crossed, and none of it was particularly nice.  I was going to point out that stop signs mean “stop” and not simply “slow down a little,” especially when someone is in the crosswalk.  And I was going to ask how she was so certain that I would actually see her in time to stop and not get hit by her car?  I was right and she was wrong, and I wanted to make sure she knew it.

But she stopped at the front desk, and didn’t come near the area where I was returning my dog to its run and leashing up the next dog to take for a walk, so I lost track of the woman until about twenty minutes later, when I saw her leaving the building just as I was coming back in.  I don’t know if she remembered me or not, but she smiled pleasantly at the dog I was walking, and rather than pointing out the error of her ways, I found myself smiling at her and saying hello.  She responded by beaming back at me and adding, “What a cute little dog you’ve got there!”  I agreed that he was, and went on my way.

Now you might think that I was ashamed of myself for wimping out, or that I was nice to the woman simply because I was am shelter volunteer and she was a potential client, and I am always nice to the clients.  But neither would be true.  I was actually just happy to discover that this woman, who had aroused such fury in my heart just a little while before, was actually very nice, even if her driving skills left a lot to be desired.  I actually felt more lighthearted in that moment than I had all day. Yes, she had “done me wrong,” but I let go of the need to point that out to her, and I’m glad I did.

We share our world with millions of other human beings, most of whom are going to do things we don’t like from time to time, sometimes intentionally but more often not. Maybe this woman really didn’t see me when she pulled away from the stop sign and only saw me when she was passing me, and that was the reason she turned and stared. Or maybe she was just in a hurry and made a very bad judgement call.  I’ll never know.

What I do know is that all of us make mistakes, all of us occasionally misjudge people and situations, and all of us sometimes get a bit careless when we are in a hurry.  I also know that when we see someone else making those mistakes or bad judgments, its only natural to want to point it out and correct them.  But I don’t think its necessary or helpful to do so, as no one likes to have their faults pointed out to them.  Usually pointing out someone’s mistakes just makes that person defensive and angry, not remorseful and determined to do better next time.

Obviously, we do have a moral obligation to speak up when someone (human or animal) is being neglected or abused, and I will always do that.  But I’m not talking about anything that serious.  I’m talking about all the little times in the day when we feel wronged by someone else, or notice that someone is not doing things exactly the way he or she should, and want to let them know about it.  I honestly believe that in those cases, its much better just to “let it go,” and that when we do, everybody benefits.

Traveling Light

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I have never been a person who is comfortable with having a lot of “stuff.”  Maybe that’s the result of spending part of my childhood in a five-room apartment, where I was allotted two drawers, half of a small closet and three narrow shelves in which to store all my belongings, although I have to say that I never felt I needed more space.  Later, when I was heading off to college, my family was also moving to another state, so I had to pack up everything I owned at the same time.  I don’t remember how much I packed to take with me to college, but I do remember that the rest of my possessions fit neatly into two medium-sized cardboard boxes.  And the movers lost one of them.  I took that as a further sign that, in the grand scheme of things, I was not intended to have a lot of possessions.

All I do know is that if life is a journey, and I believe it is, then I prefer to “travel light.”  I don’t want a lot of material possessions weighing me down, especially since I can’t stand clutter or mess.  As far as I am concerned, having a lot of things just means I have to spend way too much time keeping all those things cleaned and organized, and that’s not how I want to spend my time.

But lately, I’ve come to realize that “traveling light” is not just about material possessions.  One of the advantages of being middle aged is that we are just over the half-way point of our life’s journey.  We can look back over the long road of where we’ve been and clearly see what worked, what could have been done better, and what was a downright disaster.  But we can also look forward to a road ahead that is still long enough (if we’re lucky) that we can make the needed adjustments to get us closer to living the life we want to live.  And I think the key to that is also “traveling light.”

I may have screwed up a lot in my life, but that doesn’t mean I have to carry that guilt or embarrassment with me forever.   And like everyone who has ever been in any kind of relationship, I’ve had my share of hurt feelings and disappointments over the years, but that doesn’t mean I have to nurse those grudges for the rest of my life.  That’s just too much baggage, and all it does is weigh me down.  It makes so much more sense to forgive, both myself for the things I’ve done that I’m not so proud of, and others for the times they have unintentionally hurt me, and move on.

With my material possessions, I’m constantly evaluating what I have, deciding if it’s worth keeping or if it’s time to let it go.  And I think that’s the best way to handle my emotional baggage as well:  decide what is good and worth keeping because it enhances my life; and what is no longer worth hanging on to because it doesn’t serve any positive purpose.  Because I really believe that if I want to get the most out of life, I always need to “travel light.”