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Classic column from Tuesday, March 14, 2006
During the blizzard, I refused to shelter my friend
There were other places he could go, and I wanted to be alone with my boyfriend.
At 8 a.m. on Sunday, during the height of the recent snowstorm, my significant other and I were lying in bed when I received a text message from a friend who lives a half-hour away, asking if I had power. Yes, I unthinkingly replied, and went back to sleep. An hour later he called, asking if he could come over to my apartment because he had no power in his and it was starting to get cold. I hemmed and hawed, but eventually refused, because I had not seen my significant other since Wednesday and was looking forward to spending the day with just him; he works from 7 to 7 on Saturdays, so Sundays are our only unrestricted time together. I figured at 9 a.m., it couldn’t possibly be that cold given that most power outages had happened some time during the night, and I knew my friend had other options, some of which were much closer than I was. I also considered the fact that once he arrived at around 10, he would likely stay most of the day. He hung up in a huff and, although he found shelter by noon at someone else’s apartment (I called him to check), he has since refused to talk to me unless I first sincerely apologize to him.
Of course, he has been asking all of our common friends (and my roommate) what they think, because it is quite easy to frame the situation in un-nuanced, obvious terms (I asked her if I could come over because I had no power and she said no). I think I am looking at it more accurately: not as a visceral “Callous bitch, you didn’t let your friend in when he had no power in his apartment?” but as a scenario in which he had other options and his coming to my place would have ruined my day. It is true that I placed my own comfort above his, but it was not anything close to an emergency, and he could have gone back to sleep or found some other way to pass the time until a more civil hour of the day. I also think that for him to be so angry with me is akin to him thinking we can enter each other’s homes at any time, without invitation. I like to feel secure in my solitude and that my privacy is respected by my friends. What do you think?
Warm and Cozy in the Lifeboat
Dear Warm and Cozy,
First off, I should admit my bias. I would have let the friend come over. My significant other might have been mad at me for doing so, but that’s the way I am.
I’m not saying you were wrong. I think you acted in accordance with your views of friendship and hospitality and what they entail. But those norms differ widely.
I’m trying to see it from your point of view. What kind of a person, you may be asking yourself, makes such a pest of himself and then blames others when they object? What kind of a person obtrudes on another’s privacy like that?
Well, perhaps where he grew up it was normal to expect friends to take you in at the drop of a hat; perhaps his family always took in people and he was taught that that’s what good people do: They put their own comfort aside for the comfort of others. So for him it might be inconceivable, and the height of incivility, to refuse your hospitality to someone during a storm.
There is a corresponding notion that says people living in a city leave each other alone so they can live their lives the way they see fit, and that in a city we naturally place our comfort above the comfort of others because to do otherwise is to invite others to invade our privacy and take up our time. If everybody understands one or the other of the norms, then harmony reigns.
But you and he seem to have competing notions of what is proper and right. So let’s get away from right or wrong for a moment and look at what the situation may mean psychologically or emotionally. Warmth. Electricity. Fire. A blackout. A blizzard. Cold. The snow. Sunday morning. Alone. There you are, you’re warm, you’re with your lover, and this friend is far away, alone in the cold. He’s reaching out to you — not just for your apartment and your electricity but for you; it’s you he wants to spend the day with.
Possibly also he is a person who is a little needy and childish, perhaps overly emotional by some standards — but who was never taught that that was such a bad thing to be a little needy. In fact, he might have learned that such neediness is what holds communities together, that if everyone was perfectly self-sufficient, a culture of cold isolation would result. He may have jumped at the chance, in this mild little pseudo-emergency, to feel as though his community was going to come together over it!
Ha ha. Welcome to the real world, right? You’ve got plans for the day. What’s a little chilly indoor air, for heaven’s sake, right? Buck up! I am guessing that what he was really asking for was not just warmth in Fahrenheit degrees, but human warmth, and reassurance of his place in your world. By declining his request, you redefined your friendship as one with very specific boundaries and limitations. You perhaps also, in a sense, put him in his place, or shamed him. So what he is demanding is to get his respect back.
To regain his friendship and respect, if you want to regain it, you might not have to apologize, exactly, but to somehow reassure him that he holds an important place in your world. For someone who believes that friendship and community mean not having to call first and make an appointment, it can be tough to realize that for others, distance itself provides a foundation for closeness. To do what he did, in a way, indicates that he considers you like family. You might have to get across that you did not know he felt this way about you. You might tell him that you are honored that he considered you like family, and you just did not know that, and to you, even family keep their distance.
While trying to understand his view of hospitality and friendship, you also want to try to get him to understand your view. Maybe you need to use the Jell-o metaphor: To you, members of your family and community are like fruit pieces and grapes suspended in Jell-o. For it to be good, each piece has to be in its own place; it has to have some room around it; if they were all jammed together in the center, then there’d be all that Jell-o with no fruit, and then all the fruit with no Jell-o. So everybody has to keep the right distance or you’re all like a badly made Jell-o dessert.
And the other thing is this: What can you take away from this incident that will be useful to you in the future? You are likely to encounter other people who have different conceptions of friendship, hospitality and personal boundaries. Some of these people may have power over your life; they may be bosses or competitors or clients, whose behavior, although not up to your standards, nevertheless must be dealt with as it is, not as it should be. So I think it would be useful for you to think of ways you can be flexible with your boundaries when necessary, without letting people walk all over you. Otherwise, as you are finding out, there may be hell to pay.
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