Wednesday, July 10, 2013

To Have a Friend You Gots Ta Be a Friend

I feel very bad about myself when I dislike someone who is very nice. I have always been taught that being kind to others is one of the great virtues that we can bestow upon each other, and I would love to be able to honor this trait in others. And yet, I find myself often becoming unbelievably frustrated  -- even to the point of downright dislike -- with people who otherwise should should be worthy of my praise. And my praise, folks, is a great coup for he or she who receives it.

There is a person -- let's call her Janice --  who is in my life basically every day; she truly has a heart of gold, and cares deeply about the well-being of her friends and family. And every day I want to scream at her and tell her to shut the fuck up.

Janice always says she "doesn't have friends," even though she interacts with countless people every day of her life. Still, her social circle seems to consist almost solely of coworkers and family members. This fact further compounds my guilt, as I would love to be someone who is able to reach out and be friendly, but I can't bring myself to do it.

So why is Janice so seemingly bereft of close friends? It isn't because she lacks self-confidence or that she's mean to people or that she's some kind of "loser" who is "undeserving" of friendship. It's because she is just a crappy friend. Not a crappy person, but a crappy friend.

A coworker of mine once said "In order to have a friend, you have to be a friend." And that struck a real chord with me, because what it made me realize is that your own self-worth or face-value quality as a human being does not necessarily equate to having numerous and/or deep friendships. How many people do you know who are total bag-of-shit assholes who have a million friends? They are generally not nice, not that interesting, usually back-stabbing, shit-talking, obnoxious, mean-spirited and grating. And yet they always have a million things to do on the weekends, and a thousand pictures on Facebook where they are drinking on a patio somewhere with what seems to be a dozen other people.

Now I am certainly not bereft of friendship in any way: I don't have a million of them, but I also am not wanting for deep friendship in my life. I have about a dozen or so incredibly close friends that I trust implicitly, fifty or so relatively close friends (I call them "hangout friends"), and maybe 200 acquaintances or friends who are tangential in my life.

Does this mean I'm a nicer person than Janice? Absolutely not, I am a complete asshole: arrogant, pedantic, hypercritical, hypersensitive, stubborn ... if you've met me this is all redundant information. But I know that I'm a better friend than Janice is.

That sounds like an awful thing to say, but my self-awareness of this fact tells me that at least I have the wherewithal to understand what it is to be a friend, and not just a nice person. Let me illustrate the differences.

[Quick note: this is going to seem like me tooting my own horn, but believe me, it's not. This is simply to illustrate the understanding I have of what it takes to be a good friend, versus not really "getting it." Janice, as nice a person as she is, just doesn't fucking get it.]

First, in order to be a friend, you have to care about your friends. This sounds so simple you probably want to slap the side of my head and say "no shit, dummy." But if you've spent a day in your life with someone who doesn't have the curiosity gene, you know exactly what I'm talking about. I was lucky, because I got the curiosity gene in spades, jack. I am genuinely interested in learning not just about events and facts, but about other people. I like to know how many siblings you have, or how you get along with your parents, or what your favorite albums are. Not because I'm trying to kiss your ass, but because you're not me, and I want to know what it's like to be not-me once in a while.

If you tell me, "my sister is being an asshole," someone might say "oh that sucks," which is a nice (if cursory) bit of commiseration. However, I want to know why your sister is being an asshole. What did she do? What did she say? What was your response? You might think that's me being nosy; I consider it moving away from abstractions and into concrete details.

The byproduct of this is that (and this is a little trick you might not realize), since I'm talking about YOU, you are going to find me slightly more interesting. Why? Because I am engaging you in YOUR interests. Again, this is not some ruse or clever trick to get you to give me your social security number: I genuinely am interested. But because I was blessed by God Almighty with a wide swath of interests, I can engage you in almost any conversation you want to have, on your own turf. Because of this, people think I'm much more interesting than I actually am.

Janice is a different story: it is all about her. Always. I guarantee if you put a gun to her head, she couldn't tell you one fact about me: how many siblings do I have? Where did I grow up? Am I married? It never occurs to Janice to ask these questions or to engage people on this kind of level. Not just me, but anyone.

So when you interact with Janice, it becomes about Janice: what's going on with HER, what is wrong in HER life, what is annoying HER. I've seen it in mixed company: a bunch of people get into a conversation at dinner or in a room or wherever, and someone deigns to ask her a question about what's going on, and it usually starts with a long exhale, and then either "Well......" or "So....." And you can almost feel the regret coming off the person who asked the question. They just were trying to make conversation, and instead got sucked into the history of the world.

Secondly, you have to share the burden with your friends. The most wonderful thing about having good friends is the way that you complement each other, balance each other, keep each other in check, and lift each other up when one of you is strong and one of you is weak.

In this same circle of people that Janice is in, I've had some very good, very personal conversations where people are going through crises (or God forbid I'm going through one), and we talk about it, support each other, bounce ideas off of each other, and try to eventually come to a greater truth. Talking about your problems with a good friend who has no agenda is one of the most cleansing and burden-relieving things you can do. It's the raison d'etre of friendship in the first place.

Janice doesn't do this.

Piggybacking off of the example above, every conversation is either about Janice, or Janice doesn't participate. What Janice does do is come into the day with a pre-existing story that she's clearly gone over in hear head about 50 times. She then relays this story not to one person to get it off her chest, but to every single person with which she has regular conversations. And she doesn't just give a 90-second overview: she goes into elaborate, painstaking minutiae, every detail, every nuance. And she does this over and over again. She vents, and venting is okay. But every day she just piles her own shit on everyone else, when lord knows we have our own battles to fight.

Janet will, at least once every 2-3 days, have a tale cued up about some mildly annoying situation that happened at a restaurant, or a store, or in traffic. And she elevates it to epic proportions (even though she doesn't have the oratory skill to make it interesting). She assumes that everyone is going to be empathetic to her tale of woe, even though most of us just roll our eyes, pretend we're reading a text, or quietly slink away so as to not get sucked into a Sorrow and the Pity-length treatise about how unfair life is.

This is going to sound like a stupid parallel but I'm going to use it anyway: remember in high school when your teacher would pile homework on you, and then you didn't do it because you had too much? And then the teacher would say "Well, why didn't you do it? It was a simple assignment!" And you were a kid so you couldn't say it, but what you wanted to say (and goddammit, SHOULD have said!) was "Because I have ten other classes and they gave me a shitload of homework too, asshole!" The teacher forgot that his class was not the center of your universe; you have other matter to attend to. When someone thinks they are the center of the universe -- like Janice does -- they tend to dump all of their problems on you as if it's your solemn duty to help shoulder the load.

Thirdly -- and finally -- and most elementary: don't be annoying to those around you. Again, sounds rudimentary, but how many people don't realize that people are trying to avoid them. And how many people don't realize that the reason they don't get invited places is because they are more trouble than they are worth.

If a bunch of my friends were having a party, and they were purposely trying to keep the event a secret from me, I would absolutely be hurt. In fact, this happened to me a thousand times when I was younger and not nearly as in-demand as I am today. But in my brain, I wouldn't think "Why the fuck didn't those assholes invite me? They are so mean!" I would think, "I wonder what it is about me that caused them not to want me around."

I say this NOT because I feel it's necessary to conform to anyone's standards or try to please everyone in spite of yourself. I'm just saying that some self-reflection can often be a very useful thing. Sometimes, it's the things that people don't tell you about yourself that are the most truthful. If someone has a bone to pick with you, they will tell you flat-out; if someone doesn't want to hurt your feelings, they will try to tiptoe around you so that you don't get hurt.

Janice, as nice as she is, can be incredibly annoying. She is loud; in fact she's unarguably the loudest person I know. Her voice carries across continents, through lead walls, into the troposphere. And it's not just the volume of her voice, it's that she complains about everything that is happening to her at the loudest possible volume. (Again, saddling everyone else with her own problems.)

And she says the word "fuck" a LOT. And I mean more than any person I've ever met. She doesn't just say it when it's needed, such as for emphasis or out of frustration. She uses "fucking" as an adjective. Like: "All I wanted to do was order a fucking soda." Or: "This fucking guy has no idea what he's talking about." And "They told me it was gonna be a five-minute fucking wait for a table." This is clearly the speech of someone who has lost all perspective of when it's okay to use "fucking" and when you're literally just trying to fill up word-space.

Also, the word coming out of her mouth is like a dagger in the eardrums. There are certain people who are great at swearing, who give it a certain savoir faire. George Carlin was one of them; my uncle Jim was one of them. Janice is not one of them. Every "fuck" or "fucking" that comes out of her word-hole is akin to a window-pane shattering in the other room. It's not soothing, it's not refreshing. It sounds vile, and it sounds like white trash.

So to recap: when your friends feel like they have to appease you and "live with" your more overbearing qualities, it might mean that you are being tolerated and not necessarily "liked." Ironically, it is polite society that often shields us from ourselves, in that no one wants to tell us when we need to tone it down. (I would much prefer someone having "the talk" with me so I can be aware of my shortcomings or perceived shortcomings, rather than obliviously go on repeating them to an increasingly annoyed group.)

If you want to have friends, try and be the person you would like to be around. There are enough people out there like you that will appreciate it. And maybe they'll invite you to parties and shit.