My friend has gone bad

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUL 23, 2008

I hate to lose my best college buddy, but her behavior is beyond the pale.


Dear Cary,

I am having problems with my friend (let’s call her Mary). Mary and I have been friends since college. We are in our early 30s now. Neither of us is married: Mary is completely single and I have a significant other. We have lived, traveled and partied together. Mary has seen me at my best and emotional worst. We have a large group of friends in common whose weddings and baby showers we attend together. In many ways, our lives have paralleled each other’s — we have both moved from coast to coast and, for the third time, we have found ourselves living in the same large metropolitan area.

A year ago, I was laid off from my job. I decided to search for a job in the area where Mary lives. During that time she was very supportive of me — she allowed me to stay with her whenever an interview brought me to her city. I accepted a job near Mary, and she allowed me to stay with her while I searched for an apartment. During that time, despite my lack of income, I made sure to treat her to meals out, bottles of wine, etc.

Six months have passed since I started my new job, and I have settled in to my new life. My friendship with Mary is rapidly deteriorating. She is part of a gaggle of single, professional women who like to have expensive nights on the town during which they “trawl” for men. Mary earns a lot of money and often bankrolls these nights out for certain of these girls who don’t make a lot of money. She even goes so far as to organize and pay for little overnight and weekend trips. As a result, she has collected a group of women friends who really look up to her and will drop anything to spend time with her. In principle, I have a problem with this. Even if Mary would pay for me, I wouldn’t let her. As a government worker, I can’t afford the expensive lifestyle. At first, I went along with these outings, but lately have declined the invitations and suggested alternative daytime activities such as going to museums and on hikes.

Whenever I make plans with Mary, at the last minute, she brings other people along to the activity. For instance, if I invite her to dinner and make a reservation, I find out that at the last minute she has invited other people along and changed the reservation. I once invited her on a hike and to dinner at my house afterward; she invited five people along without asking me first and then wouldn’t let me know whether anyone was coming, even though I called her several times. In the end, I got tired of waiting and made other plans. When Mary called me to let me know they were “on the way,” I explained to her that I had made other plans when I didn’t hear back from her; she got really angry. Another time she invited me on a day trip, and, after I accepted, I received in an e-vite in which she had asked 35 other people to come along; then she told me I would have to find my own transportation to our destination because she had to drive the others who don’t have cars. I canceled.

I feel like it is rude for Mary to always include so many other people without asking me when I am the one who has made the invitation. I feel like it is rude of her to wait until the last minute to let me know when we can meet up. I feel like she is doing this because she has to be in control of the situation. I can’t stand being controlled in this way, so often I cancel when she pulls these stunts. However, it gets worse.

Lately, when I have plans to meet Mary, she is really late. A few weeks ago, she told me to meet her at her house. At the agreed-upon time, she texted to say she was getting a pedicure and would meet me in 10 minutes. She didn’t arrive until 45 minutes later — I had to wait the whole time on the sidewalk in front of her house on a dangerous street populated by hookers and crackheads. Last week, at a party we were co-hosting for our college friend from out of town, she arrived almost three hours late. Then over the weekend, when she was supposed to meet me and my boyfriend for drinks and dinner to celebrate my birthday, she arrived one and a half hours late and we missed the dinner reservation. Each of these times, there was no acknowledgment of the tardiness or apology.

You are probably thinking this is a no-brainer: Cut ties with Mary. But it is not that easy. The truth is that Mary and I have many memories and friends in common. She considers me one of her best friends. We actually do have a good time together.

What should I do? It is hard for me to accept the fact that Mary has to be in control and won’t be happy unless I follow her around like a puppy. My heart tells me that, deep down, Mary is very unhappy about something and is acting out. I feel like I can’t have a heart-to-heart with her because Mary would never admit to having anything less than a perfect life.

Help

FranceAd_2016

Dear Help,

I think you said it very well: It is hard for you to accept the fact that Mary has to be in control and won’t be happy unless you follow her around like a puppy.

So how? How do you “accept” and “move on”?

First you must “fix” this phenomenon. Not repair it, but “fix” it in the traditional sense of the word: See it as permanent. You cannot repair this. But you must fix it, i.e. freeze it in time, see it as a fait accompli. As long as you try to repair this, you will never fix it. You will be swept along in it like flotsam on a wave.

One way is to do as you have done above, only more so. List her transgressions exhaustively. List all her offenses. You do not need to make it in narrative form; it can be simply,

Showed up late for 33rd birthday.

Brought uninvited guest to funeral.

Forgot wedding, etc.

What fascinates me about the inner life, or, if you will, the spirit, is that by “fixing,” or making a pattern of behavior visible (this pattern is “character”), we see the contour of a spirit; likewise, by “fixing” a pattern of behavior we can see the contour of a friendship. Once we can see it then we can let it go.

As kids we made rubbings of pennies and leaves. You place the object under a paper and carefully — or savagely, depending on your temperament and style — rub the flat side of a pencil lead over the paper so the lines of the object appear. (That was such a beautiful thing, to watch an image appear, transferred to a portable medium; also watching a photograph develop in a tray: the same thing! After the image appeared on the Kodak paper, my father would bathe it in fixative, making the image permanent.)

Until we fix the condition we continue to wait for hours on cold steps for our friend. Strangers pass and size us up. We feel powerless and put upon. So we name it. What would you call it? The Incredibly Unavailable Former Friend? The Spectacularly Insensitive Hostess? The Monumentally Uncommunicative, Perpetually Late, Uncaring, Chaotic, Childish Former College Friend?

It matters that you give it a name. But you do not need to be accurate in its diagnosis. You are not going to cure this disease. You just need to name it and fix it in time.

You name it and fix it in time so you can accept it: This is your former friendship. This friendship is lost to you now.

Note the “friendship” is lost to you. The “friend” is still there. That is what is so vexing. The friend is still there but the friendship is gone.

So you say, “this woman I used to be friends with.” You say, “this incredibly selfish person I was close to in college.” Ah. That is hard, no? By fixing it you lose it. Then you have to mourn it.

It’s really, really sad, I know.

You have to feel it. You have to feel it and let it go.

That is what you do. You capture this image; you freeze it, as if taking a photo. Then you develop it and bathe it in the fixative of your own gaze.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

My best friend is marrying a guy who’s nothing but trouble

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, FEB 21, 2006

She says I must either accept the situation 100 percent or forget being maid of honor.


Dear Cary,

I have a very good friend who is getting married soon. She’s smart, funny, talented, beautiful and successful. We’ve been friends for about 12 years (since high school) and we’ve always had the label “best friends” on our relationship, although we’ve definitely had ups and downs. Unfortunately, we seem to be at a crossroads. To make a long story short, a while back I introduced my friend to a group of guys that I used to hang out with sometimes, and she got involved with one of these guys. They moved in together really quickly, got engaged a few months later, and they’ll be getting married in about three weeks. My friend asked me quite some time ago to be her maid of honor, and of course I said yes.

But the more my friend has told me about this relationship, the more worried I’ve become. He’s called her names that I can’t repeat. He lies consistently about where he is and what he’s doing (she catches him and laughs it off). She’s called me sobbing because he says he’s coming home but doesn’t arrive. In most of these cases she’s already called him, found him drunk at a bar, and he’s brushed her off, basically saying that he’ll come home when he wants to (driving home drunk, by the way). He has multiple kids by different women. There are plenty more examples, but you get the idea.

My friend has a history of being in abusive relationships — not bad enough for a movie of the week, but definitely not acceptable either. In the past, I’ve been outspoken about my concerns. In every case, this led to our not talking for some period of time. I now realize that I’m not going to change her mind about any man, so I’ve become resigned to being as supportive as possible but being ready to be truthful if asked. Eventually she asked, and I told. I still tried to focus on the positive (“I just want to make sure that you’re happy for a long, long time,” etc.) so that she would be receptive, but she knows me well enough to have a pretty good idea of how I feel.

I have given this a huge amount of thought and reached the conclusion that the best way I can handle her wedding is to focus on the fact that I’m there to support my friend. I’ve made the decision to be there for her, and she’s made the decision to get married. The getting married part isn’t up to me. The being supportive part is. If I stay focused on that part, I know that I can be positive on her big day, which is of course what she wants. I can feel good about doing so because I know that I’m standing by my friend at a major event in her life. Obviously I will be warm and polite to everyone at the wedding. That’s how I’ve been planning to handle things.

Now for the twist: She recently told me that I need to either “choose to change my feelings” and be 100 percent supportive of the situation, or choose not to be involved. I’ve told her that I am 100 percent supportive of her, and that’s what really matters to me. I can change the way I behave, but I can’t erase my concern. I also can’t “choose” to abandon my longtime best friend during her wedding. I really believe that whether or not to include me is her decision. I think she’s avoiding the decision because she doesn’t want to be responsible for kicking me out. I don’t think she wants me to be there, and at this point it would be much easier to avoid it, but I’m afraid that I’ll regret that for the rest of my life.

I don’t know what to say or do. It’s her wedding and I want to be there for her however she sees fit. I know that if I’m “disinvited” from the wedding, that will be like a nail in the coffin of our friendship. But I also don’t want to cause trouble for her by shoehorning myself in where I’m not welcome. At this point I just want to handle the situation with consideration and class, whatever the outcome is, and I just don’t know how to proceed.

Here Comes the Bride, There Goes the Friend

TuscanAd_March2016

Dear Here Comes the Bride,

It’s understandable that you want to support your friend. But standing up for her at her wedding implies that you approve of what she’s doing when you really don’t. It’s saying to her, Well, I may have had reservations, but now I think everything will turn out OK.

You and I know that’s not true. We don’t think things will turn out OK. We think she’s headed for stinky husband breath faintly redolent of Budweiser and paint thinner, mysterious car dents, implausible explanations for implausible whereabouts at implausible times of the night, sudden empty wallet syndrome, “friends” who are burglars, the phrase “child endangerment” uttered by state employees, oxygen-deprived skin tone exacerbated by severe bar tan, crushed beer can sculptures in the garage, multiple unpaid parking tickets, third-degree threatening demeanor, unorthodox sleeping outside in the grass and eventually a case of extreme indoor burliness.

This last condition, extreme indoor burliness, describes something I can’t otherwise explain, except to say that it arrives late at night with loud, indistinct speech and bad shoes.

Anyway, what I mean is, if she has to drag this guy out of a bar before they’re even married, think how much fun it’ll be after they’re married with three kids. Can you see her showing up to drag him home and he’s sliding his kids down that polished bar surface like so many shot glasses? It’s going to be really fun dragging him out of the bar then — because the kids are having fun with Daddy!

She’s made her choice. She’s given you your options. If you want to be true to yourself, if you want to handle the situation with consideration and class, I think you have to take her at her word. You have to call her bluff. You have to bow out of the wedding.

Does that mean you’re not supporting her? Just what is this “support” we’re always trying to give our friends, anyway? Is it support when we help them drive off a cliff? Nah. I don’t think so. I think what we owe our friends is our influence for the good. And if that conflicts with their knuckleheaded intentions, that’s OK. “In opposition is true friendship,” Blake said (though he meant something quite different at the time, I’m afraid).

The interesting thing about this is that I see redemption down the road. I don’t agree that this is the nail in the coffin for your friendship. It’s more as if, in a classic move by a drama queen, she’s setting up the second act by pushing you out. Once she hits bottom with this guy, you come back onstage as the good friend, the one who never bought into her whole crazy idea of marrying a troublesome dude just to see how troublesome he really can be. You get to be the hero.

Like I say, this is just the curtain on the first act. In fact, before you leave the stage, I think you get to make a little speech here. You get to tell her that you will always be her friend, that you will always be there for her, and if things go great for her you will be happy. But if things don’t go so well, and she needs somebody to talk to, or somebody to bail her out of a tough spot, you’ll be there. You can be there when he drives into a ditch with the children in the car and she decides she can’t take it anymore. You can be there when he calls from the police station to tell her that they’ve booked him. You can be there … whenever it’s time for you to be there.

Trust me, there will come a time. Don’t change your phone number.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

Why did you skip the funeral?

 

Cary’s classic column from Monday, Aug 23, 2010

A tragic death among deeply close friends: Her burial was like a ghost town


Dear Cary,

I want to say, first of all, that I am so happy to hear of your recovery. I always look forward to reading your thoughtful responses to letters.

I have, perhaps, many things I’d like to ask for advice about but for now I will get to the most pressing and troublesome issue:

I hate my friends. Not all of them, just a certain group of my oldest friends — 10 girlfriends, most of whom have known each other since kindergarten, and all of whom went to elementary through high school together. These friends have been neighbors, classmates, teammates and confidantes — we have spent a great deal of time with each other’s families, gone on vacations and to summer camps together, and maintained a very close-knit group for the past 20 years or so (we are all now 24-26 years old).

I never had any reason to doubt that these people would be my core group of lifelong friends up until about a year ago, following the sudden, tragic death of a member of the group, who was also my closest friend within the group. She passed away unexpectedly at the age of 25 under ambiguous circumstances that we will never fully understand as the autopsy results were inconclusive and the acquaintances she was with at the time remain either unable or unwilling to disclose the exact events preceding her death.

I know that often people rave about the departed as though they were saints and eulogies often tend to be excessively laudatory, but for my friend who passed away all of those things would be 100 percent true. She was a beautiful, fun, bright and incredibly loving and open-minded person. It was no surprise when she chose a career as a social worker — she was so warm and generous with her time and her spirit, she was selfless in her work and did not let roadblocks set up by her jerk boss deter her from pursuing a career she loved where she had the opportunity to really make a difference for others. She was a realistic and practical person but also somehow managed to stay optimistic in difficult situations and no matter what was going on in her life she was always there for her friends. If I called her even when she was incredibly busy with something, she would stop everything and talk to me about my problems — she was one of those rare and precious friends who would tell you to call anytime, day or night, and really mean it … and anytime you spoke to her you were in for a good story. She had a gift for storytelling, a propensity for spontaneity and adventure, a great sense of humor and a lighthearted appreciation for all the little silly and absurd moments in life.

Before her death, I thought our group of friends was very structurally sound. We were just beginning, in the years during and after college, to transform our little group from childhood/adolescent friends to adult friends. The 10 of us went to 10 different colleges in eight different states and wound up in similarly far-flung places after college, but we did a very nice job of keeping in touch: made great efforts to spend time with each other whenever possible, often circulated update e-mails or letters, exchanged phone calls and Internet communication, etc. I felt we had strong, irreplaceable bonds to each other that did not seem to dissipate over time or through the distance between us. In many ways she was the leader of our group; she was the one to call when you went home for the holidays because she’d be most likely to know when everyone was getting in and where we would meet. I’ve thought since her death that perhaps she valued and nurtured our friendships more than we did for her in return. When she died, I assumed our other friends would step up and try to fill that caring, nurturing role for each other. I thought in our grief — when most of us were confronting mortality for the first time as adults — we would cling relentlessly to each other for support and kinship, that we would be present for each other and for her family and other friends — to hold each other, to cry together, to show our love to each other and to her, to share our many wonderful memories of her and mourn her death together.

But most of our “friends” were not present.

Not only did only three friends out of the group actually attend the funeral, many didn’t even bother to call or write, save for a text or a quick message on the Internet here and there. Most of our friends were completely emotionally/spiritually and physically absent from the whole terrible situation. It seemed the expectation of those who absented themselves was that we not share with each other the unfamiliar and overwhelming pain we were experiencing, or worse — that they didn’t feel the pain at all or chose to ignore it.

When I expressed to my parents and a few other friends how baffled, hurt and disgusted I was with the lack of support I received from some of those old friends, they assured me things would change with time — no one knew what to do or say right now, our wounds were too fresh, that I couldn’t cast them off yet, they were hurting too. But as time went on and I still didn’t hear from them — as my attempts to call or write either went unanswered or insufficiently answered — I began to sincerely hate them. They weren’t there for me, collectively or — with the exception of two still wonderfully supportive friends — individually. More important, they weren’t there for her family; most important, they weren’t there for her. Almost all of them had managed to make it to her wedding the year before. But weddings don’t require anything similar to the constitution needed to endure a young friend’s funeral. Where were they now? When will they say goodbye? Will they go on thinking and acting as though things are the same and that friend with whom they once shared a life is still here with us now instead of being gone forever?

Despite my hate for them, and it is real and palpable, I still desperately want them to reach out to me, nearly a year after her death (she died in September 2009). I could never forgive them for all the months of abandonment, but I also don’t know that I want to completely cut them out of my life and I think for the sake of our shared histories and the bonds that our families still share back in our hometown, I should make an effort. I still have a certain amount of faith that they will reach out to me on their own and I fear if I say something — even in a very gentle and neutral way — I will lose them completely too, because obviously they’re incredibly uncomfortable with the whole thing. I don’t want to lose them; I’ve lost enough.

One of the other supportive friends from the group and I have talked extensively about how to handle all of this and while we both want the others to know our true feelings we also kind of feel like we shouldn’t have to make that effort because if they cared, they would have reached out to us in some way by now.

So, how do we handle ourselves around them? We all hung out as usual when we were at home over the holidays and I tried to make things as pleasant as I possibly could. We avoided the topic of death. There has been scant communication on the Internet/by phone but still the topic of her death hasn’t been discussed to any considerable degree.

Maybe it’s important that I explain that in other facets of their lives, these old, neglectful friends are very decent people — they hold noble jobs (two whom I consider the worst offenders of grief/consolation avoidance are respectively a child advocate and a youth counselor), are close to their families and are mostly either married or in committed relationships. This is the first time I have ever seen them act in a way that shows they don’t care about others and it has been shocking and all the more distressing to me to see kind, intelligent and sensitive people be so horrible when it comes to dealing with death.

I just don’t know how much longer I can keep my feelings to myself and I know that despite the outcome of whether or not I share my feelings, I could never truly be friends with them again. I want to do something that would have pleased my friend who died. I think she would encourage me to forgive them and would want me to maintain ties with them; maybe she’d even want me to take over her role as the core/leader of the group, but as much as I don’t want to completely lose what were once strong bonds of friendship and as much as I want to do the right thing by our departed friend, I feel like I could explode at them at some point and I have so much anger and hurt, I don’t know how much longer I can act civil, let alone friendly, toward them.

Hurt

TuscanAd_09122015

Dear Hurt,

We assume we will behave well when tested. But we are tested when we least expect it — in the middle of the night, in an unfamiliar area, when we are weak or distracted or afraid. If we could study first, we might perform better. But we are never prepared for life’s biggest tests.

We know the right thing to do. Anybody could tell you: The right thing to do is to make the airline reservation, pack the suitcase and show up at the funeral. But in a crisis, a part of us resists.

In our weakest moments grow seeds of doubt and indecision and avoidance … in subtle ways our best intentions are betrayed; we make grievous errors of omission. We become shameful no-shows. We experience memorable failures of moral nerve.

But through such failures we can learn. We fail to show up and we learn: You don’t let things slide. Not again. Next time you show up. Forever after that, you always show up.

That is, you get to learn from this as long as your friends stick with you through your failures. If your friends give up on you because you fail one test, then you may never learn. You push it out of mind. You say screw this, screw them, whatever.

Because of that, you, my friend, have an opportunity here and I hope you take it.

This is a chance for you to do some good. You can turn this around.
I suggest you do the right thing: Open communication with these people.

Reach out. But how? The conversation needn’t be an accusation or an interrogation. You don’t need to air the dark feelings you’ve had. Rather, think of the other person.

What do you say? Well, what you say is not as important as how you listen. Say as little as possible. But here are some things to avoid saying: Do not say point blank that you are hurt by their failure to appear at the funeral. Rather, say that you are still getting over what happened, and would like to talk a little about it. Then just listen. Keep your mouth shut and listen.

If your friend asks you for your feelings, you might say something like, “I really missed you at the funeral. It was hard knowing that you could not be there.”

She might talk about her decision not to attend the funeral, or she might not. I wouldn’t press her. She may feel guilty and find herself becoming defensive. If anything, just ask open-ended questions — how she felt about not being able to attend the funeral, what she was doing while the funeral was happening, if she was thinking about it, how it felt to miss it. Maybe she was relieved that she didn’t have to go. That would be difficult to hear but courageous to say; truth is often difficult to hear. Whatever she has to say, I would just listen and let it sink in.

In this way, you can perhaps let go of some of your anger toward your friends, and take a step closer to them, and make progress toward living with this terrible loss.

Your departed friend was a social worker. She was in service. Being in service means, strangely enough, overcoming other people’s objections to being helped.

We might be inclined to say, well, shit, if you can’t fill out the paperwork, then maybe you don’t really want the food stamps. If you can’t make it to your appointment on time, then maybe you don’t really want the counseling.

But those are our standards and our assessments. We may be like a jury, eager to convict. But we don’t know what’s in someone else’s heart. We don’t know their fears and demons. We don’t know what barriers they face.

Likewise, it is ironic that the child advocate and the youth counselor did not show; you’d think they would be most likely to rise to the occasion. But perhaps their jobs leave them so emotionally taxed that they have nothing left over for moments such as these.

So your friends did not show up at the funeral. They did not rise to the occasion. Yes, that is bad form. Yes, it reveals some weakness in them. But that is what it is: It is weakness. It is human frailty made palpable.

But this was your group’s first experience of death, and you, collectively, had no tradition for such a thing.

So perhaps you may think of this as your group’s first failure, as a passage out of innocence into experience. It was a defining moment; how each person responded to this death becomes a permanent mark.

Maybe you can now rise to the occasion and make something good come of this.

Listen. Try to heal your relationship with each of these dear friends.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

I’m sleeping with my best friend’s fiancé

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUL 16, 2008

I didn’t like him at first because he was treating her bad, but now I’ve got him under my skin.


Dear Cary,

My best friend got engaged to the father of her kids about four months ago. I didn’t like him because in the beginning of their relationship he used to cheat on her and just treat her terrible. I’ve known my best friend a little over 14 years now and I hold a grudge toward him because of this. I really didn’t like him until he confessed to me that he liked me and had feelings for me the first time he met me.

At first I wanted to tell my best friend, but I didn’t want to get involved in that so I just decided to keep it to myself. Ever since that day he’s been texting me telling me that he wants to make me happy and just wants me to fill a void that he’s missing. He says that he loves my best friend but he feels incomplete. But now I caught feelings for him because I got to know him more than what I knew before. I understood why my friend was still with him even after all the cheating and lies because underneath it all he is a good person.

So I finally gave in and slept with him and now his feelings for me have been getting deeper. Now I feel the same way. I know what I’m doing is wrong but I can’t seem to shake off these feelings for him. I’m stuck and don’t know what to do.

Stuck

TuscanAd_09122015

Dear Stuck,

You need to end this relationship. If you don’t, you will get hurt. If it is too difficult to end it while you are still living where you are living then consider moving away for three months to a year. If you have relatives, say, in California, or somewhere like that, ask them if you can come and stay with them for a while.

If you cannot get away, then you are just going to have to break up with him in a direct, straightforward way and stick to your decision. Tell him that this relationship is wrong and it is over and that is that.

After you have broken up with him, here are the rules: You cannot see this man. You cannot have coffee with him or talk with him on the phone. You cannot accept texts from him. You have to cut off all contact with him. You have to end this thing.

You may continue to feel a strong desire for him. That is OK to feel. You can feel it. It won’t kill you. You can live with desire. You can also redirect the desire. If the desire is mostly sexual, find somebody who turns you on to have sex with. If it is also that he gives you a warm feeling, a feeling of being liked and cared for and understood, then seek this feeling too, with friends or family. Find someone — not your best friend! — that you can confide in about this. Give yourself what you need. But end this relationship.

For some readers, the question of whether you confess to your friend that you slept with her fiancé will be the big issue. I’m sidestepping that, OK? She may find out. She may not. You may feel compelled to tell her. You may not. He may tell her. I am focusing on what you must do now and in the long term to build a good life, given what has happened.

And I’m thinking about your best friend. I feel for her too. What is she going to do? Do you want her to marry this guy? Really? Will she be better off with him or without him? What is he going to do for her? How is he going to help her live a good and happy life?

I am really concerned about your friend. She has children to support and a fiancé who cannot be trusted. The two people closest to her are deceiving her. She is a single mom who must support her children.

Plus, I must say, you owe this friend of yours. You have deceived her. You owe her. So after you have broken up with this man and severed all contact with him, I would like you to turn your attention to your friend. Ask yourself what you can do for her. Wouldn’t it be great if you were to settle down and get married and have kids, and your kids and her kids could grow up together? That would be a pretty good way for this to end up.

There are many reasons why she needs your presence. Given the situation she is in, she may be in for a hard few years and could use a friend nearby. This man, her fiancé, may cause her all kinds of heartache if she marries him. And if she does not marry him, she will be a single mother trying to make ends meet. So either way, she is going to have her hands full. And you are in a position to act in a new way, a way that will make you feel good about yourself.

What if you could find a good man and fall in love with him and marry him and have kids with him and live near her? I know you’ve been deceiving her but you can change. Or maybe you don’t have kids. Maybe you stay single. But you put together some kind of stable life. If you can put together a stable life and live near her and remain her friend throughout the next 20 years or so, while her kids are growing up, you can do a very good thing in this world.

People don’t tell you these things. We see families grow up around us but people don’t really tell us why some families and friends remain happy and others drift apart and end up lonely and bitter. Part of it is that some people are just situated near the ones they love. Sometimes it’s geography. So think about it at least. You obviously care for this person even though you’ve been deceiving her.

Twenty years may seem far in the future. But before you know it, 20 years will have gone by. It is in your power to decide where you are going to be while those years go by.

So that is what I would do. I would break off this relationship firmly and permanently. I would try to settle down and live near this friend. I would try to live a good life and maybe get married and have some kids and be there for her, so that whatever happens, whether she marries the fiancé or decides that he cannot be trusted, whether she finds another man or stays single, you can be a stable, ongoing presence in her life and in the lives of her kids. And you can continue to enjoy her presence as a lifelong friend.

It can be done. It would be a good thing.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

I’m an insecure saboteur

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAY 14, 2004

I have a habit of destroying all of my relationships after they’re about a year old.

 


Dear Cary,

I have a problem with keeping friends more than about a year, mostly due to my insecurities, but I have no clue why I act the way I do or what to do about it.

I’m definitely not a people-person; I can easily put on a facade and be social when I need to, but it’s a facade, so I feel that hardly anyone I meet gets a clear picture of who I am. The few souls who do, the ones I feel I can identify with to the point of being myself while in their presence, invariably are new to the city, or have just broken up with a longtime significant other, so they’re rather alone and adrift and we quickly become best friends. After a few months, their social structure grows, either through meeting new people by themselves or through me, and I feel jealous and hurt, taking it personally that my new best friend feels the need to have a social life that doesn’t involve me.

So I start testing the friendship, acting petty and spiteful. With the current best friend (she’s a girl, I’m a guy), I find myself putting distance between us, being cold and unresponsive to her, all because she had the nerve to find a girl she loves hanging out with. Likewise, I hold this new friend in contempt, and when either or both of them want to get together with me, I feel like they’re just pitying me or humoring me, and that I’m an afterthought, never a first option.

I’m 28 and, looking back, I can see a clear pattern of this over the last 12 or 13 years. I’ve lost several great friends because of my selfishness, and I really don’t want to lose this current one. How can I just be happy that she, or anyone, is my friend? Why do we have to be exclusive best friends or simple acquaintances, without something in between being a possibility? I’m tired of ditching my friends simply because I’m not No. 1 in their lives, but I don’t know why I do this or how to stop my childish behavior.

Saboteur

TuscanAd_09122015

Dear Saboteur,

There is a passage in “The Remains of the Day,” the wonderful novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, in which Stevens, the butler attached to Darlington Hall, is asked by one Mrs. Wakefield about his past association with Lord Darlington. She has been touring the estate with an air that if not exactly contemptuous is not exactly respectful either. Standing to admire the stone arch that frames the doorway into the dining room, she wonders aloud if the arch is “mock” or not. Then, lowering her voice, Mrs. Wakefield says to Stevens, “But tell me, Stevens, what was this Lord Darlington like? Presumably you must have worked for him.”

“I didn’t, madam, no.”

“Oh, I thought you did,” she replies. “I wonder why I thought that.”
Stevens has told a lie that later embarrasses his current employer, and when he tries to explain it, he tells his employer, “I’m very sorry, sir. But it is to do with the ways of this country.”

“What are you talking about, man?”

“I mean to say, sir, that it is not customary in England for an employee to discuss his past employers.”

“OK, Stevens, so you don’t wish to divulge past confidences. But does that extend to you actually denying having worked for anyone other than me?”

“It does seem a little extreme when you put it that way, sir. But it has often been considered desirable for employees to give such an impression. If I may put it this way, sir, it is a little akin to the custom as regards marriages. If a divorced lady were present in the company of her second husband, it is often thought desirable not to allude to the original marriage at all. There is a similar custom as regards our profession, sir.”

“Well, I only wish I’d known about your custom before, Stevens,” his employer says. “It certainly made me look like a chump.”

Of course, it isn’t only custom that motivates Stevens, but protectiveness toward the estate and the life and era that it represents, as well as umbrage at Mrs. Wakefield’s suggestion that the arch might be “mock.”

As I read that passage last week, I found myself thinking about your letter. There was something of fierce protectiveness and attachment both in your letter and in Stevens’ behavior, something touching and noble and utterly nutty all at once.

This is something I understand from personal experience. I, too, sometimes act cold and distant with friends who seem to have strayed; and I sometimes feel compelled to lie or withhold information about my association with, or attachment to, things I hold dear. For instance, I sometimes studiously avoid telling inquisitive strangers that I am a writer or that I work for Salon, as though to divulge such facts were to open myself to possible harm. I am not always sure why I do this. It is a point of pride that I am a writer and I work for Salon; but it is a personal pride, a private thing, not something you wear on your chest like a medal from a war.

What impresses me in your letter is the bright and helpless clarity with which you observe your own behavior, much as though you were observing yourself through a soundproof pane of glass — much as Ishiguro has his narrator, Stevens, describe his actions with painful exactitude while pretending serene unconsciousness of the powerful emotions behind them.

A central theme of the book is dignity — the quality that allows Stevens to function flawlessly on the surface while events unfold that might reduce another man to tears.

At any rate, I wish to say that I understand what you are going through, and I think you can make some adjustments that will lessen your torment. There is nothing wrong with being a person who quickly forms deep attachments to others. In fact, it is a wonderful quality. But you must manage it. It is like a powerful gift. You do not want to use it indiscriminately.

Since you are not a very social person, you should find it relatively easy to be alone. There you have an advantage over extreme extroverts. If you do not need to be with people all the time, you can take the time to choose more wisely, and I think you need to do so.

Since you say that you tend to befriend newcomers who quickly establish a social network that draws them away from you, I suggest that if someone is new to your area, you stand back and let them become acquainted on their own before you offer your friendship. As regards your current troubling friendship, I think you owe your friend an explanation. Simply tell her that you seem to have formed a powerful attachment to her, all out of proportion to what has actually transpired between you. If you feel embarrassed or troubled by this, simply tell her what you feel. Do not put this in the form of a demand or ultimatum. Just stick to the facts. Tell her that you want to remain her friend, but that you wish you could spend more time together. And concentrate on spending time with her alone — not with her and her friend.

You may find that she is more extroverted than you realized, that she needs a certain hubbub of people about her, that she doesn’t have the ability to concentrate on one person for long enough to develop a deep and lasting bond. If so, take a lesson from this episode: If you want to develop a close and lasting friendship, choose more carefully; take more time; go more slowly. And if possible, choose someone who is not radically more outgoing than yourself.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

 

My former best friend became a stripper

 

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from December 10, 2010

Wow. We were so close in high school, and now she’s doing drugs and hanging out with gangs


Dear Cary,

“Jenny” and I were the best of friends in high school. We did everything together and were more like sisters than friends. After high school, I went away to college. She never went to college, but moved to a larger city about an hour away. Although we kept in touch for the first few years, our contact dwindled. It was both of our faults. She didn’t call me much, and I didn’t call her much. There was no falling out. At this point, I haven’t seen or spoken to Jenny in four years.

I was shocked recently to find out that Jenny got her 2-year-old son taken away from her. The reason was failing drug tests and suspected gang affiliations. I also found out she is working as an exotic dancer. This is all wildly out of character for the Jenny I knew. I’m extremely concerned about her health, safety and well-being. I don’t have her current contact information, but I think with minimal effort I could get it.

My dilemma is this. I am now 29 years old and married. My husband and I own a home, and I have a steady public sector job. We are currently expecting our first child. In other words, we have a lot to lose. I am worried about making contact with a person who is a drug user and (suspected) gang member. I don’t know what type of people she associates with now. I’m worried about putting my family or my job at risk by reaching out and associating myself with her. On the other hand, I’m terrified that I’m going to pick up the newspaper one of these days and read that her body was found in a gutter. I would feel so guilty for not having tried to help.

Should I sacrifice my family’s safety to reach out and try to help a friend who was once like a sister?

Guilty BFF

Dear Guilty BFF,

It must be upsetting to hear this news about your friend. You obviously care about her and do not want to see her hurt. However, this is her life.

Her life is not an emergency. Her house is not on fire. She is not hanging from a cliff yelling for help. She is living her life, such as it is.
She probably does not have a nice clean kitchen where the two of you could sit and chat. It may be hard to make an appointment with her if she is busy getting a fix or getting bail or dealing with child protective services or managing her complex social life.

So if you want to see her, I suggest you drop in where she dances. It will give you a chance to see her without making an appointment. You might find, after seeing her dance, that you’re not really ready to call her or see her privately. It will give you a chance to feel what it’s like to be in her world, without making yourself known.

You might not like the environment. But it will help you understand what her life is like.

Her dancing may well be the high point of her life.
To you, it may seem like a pretty disgusting way to live. But this is a life your friend has chosen. It’s not a prison in which she is being held against her will.

I know that kind of life. And one thing I know about that kind of life is that when you are living that kind of life, you do not look out at all the shiny, clean people going about their orderly lives and wish your life could be like that. You have your problems, but you do not envy the straight people. You look down on them.

Such a life is not an unremitting horror. It has its ups and downs. She may occasionally be beaten and taken advantage of. She is probably exploited financially and occasionally robbed and threatened. But it’s her life and it has its rewards and its logic.

Whether by choice or not, your friend’s life is a life that many, many people in this country lead — a life of minimal income, frequent scrapes with the law, battles with social institutions, sporadic nightclub employment, frequent drug use and drinking, and association with people who have done time and are likely to do more time. In this world, violence happens with some regularity and usually has some logic to it. It arises out of personality conflicts or disputes over money or property or intimate relationships. It is something to be avoided if possible but not something that would in and of itself cause a person to flee the environment altogether. It is just something that happens, and you learn to live with it.

Think about what your friend was like when you knew her. What was her personality like? Did she have a lot of pride? Was she a passionate person? Did she like to drink when you knew her? Was she a thrill-seeker? Did she seem moody? Was she honest? Did she steal? Was she more interested in sex than you were? What kind of family did she come from? Try to connect that person you remember with the person who is dancing naked in a bar for money, who cannot pass a drug test even to keep her baby.

What do you come up with?

The most interesting thing to me in this is to ask what do you have in common? What traits do you have that might have led you into a similar life? Are there things about your friend that you used to admire, things that now you see have led her this way? Was she, for instance, a great dancer? Was she tough and stubborn and fun-loving. Were you?

If you approach her, approach her as a friend. If you can stay in touch with her, there is a chance that sometime down the road, if she reaches a true crisis, she will reach out to you for help, and you will be there. But until she asks for your help, do not assume you are there to rescue her.

Demanding the big rock

Write for Advice

 She wants her fiance to spend three months’ salary on her engagement ring. Is that fair to the man?

 Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JAN 28, 2005

Dear Cary,

About a year and a half ago, my husband’s and my best friends broke up. She was unhappy and disappointed with him; he was rejecting and cheating on her. We all got together and got married at the same time, and they had been together over 12 years. They have a son (whom the husband never wanted) who is now 3. Since then, he has been through a couple of new girls, and she has recently moved in with her boyfriend of about a year. He is the complete opposite of her ex-husband, and is a very good man. I thought he would be her rebound man, since he was the first one after the split and is not really her type, physically or culturally. She has said right from the beginning that she’s not really attracted to him or passionately in love. She has been honest with him about that, but he hung in there. She now says that she loves him, but not like the way she loved her ex. He is good to her, and is trying hard with her son, who is a willful boy, to say the least.

My concern is that she may be in this relationship for the wrong reasons, but maybe I think that because I was raised very differently from her. I never expected a man to take care of me or that I would be dependent upon anyone. My friend sees this man as a way out of a financial hole. While my husband and I were progressing in our careers, our friends were working low-wage, dead-end jobs, despite high levels of education and potential. My friend has had severe financial difficulty, particularly since the baby and the split. Her job is better now, but she still couldn’t support herself alone. Her boyfriend’s company pays their living expenses, and he has always saved his money — he doesn’t believe in living in debt. This support is enabling my friend to get back on her feet financially. Her boyfriend is very generous, and she takes good care of him.

They have a conflict, though — they have been talking about getting married and she is adamant that she wants an expensive engagement ring — worth three months of his salary. She says that she doesn’t want to be greedy, but after the split she told herself that her next guy would be fairly well-off and the ring is an important symbol of that to her. I tried to tell her that’s a lot of B.S. put out by the diamond industry, but her upbringing was more traditional and she wants this. She’s also starting to lobby for a new, more expensive house, which he would pay for. He doesn’t believe in spending money on rings, he would rather spend it on something more worthwhile — like a vacation or furniture or a house. He has also depleted his savings setting up their current home for her, and needs some time to recuperate, but my friend is working herself into a tiz over the ring.

My question — is this a normal expectation that women have? It seems very antiquated and unfair to me. Is it right for my friend to expect an expensive ring? I see a lot of women wearing them — am I the weird one for thinking it’s ridiculous? Actually, I think part of the problem I have with this situation is that I see her as selling her soul for material goods. She loves this man, but does she love him enough? I don’t know.

Feminist Friend

FranceAd_2015

Dear Feminist Friend,

My first thought is that your friend feels so strongly about the ring because it represents restitution, the righting of a wrong. “Wow,” she may have said to herself, “I was royally mistreated by my first husband, but I learned a valuable lesson. I’m going to make sure the next man treats me right.” I don’t just mean that the first husband didn’t give her enough jewelry, either. It’s about more than that. As women have achieved greater economic independence, some of the exchanging of goods between men and women has acquired an air of quaint antiqueness. So it’s important to remember that the exchanging of goods is about more than just the goods.

Social progress in private behavior is full of paradox, because as we become more “progressive” and “fair,” the remnants of feudalism and patriarchy retain a deep psychic pull, sometimes erotic, sometimes infantile and sometimes poetic. The magic of a ring, for instance, can work on many different levels. It can, for instance, convert to purposes of erotic narrative the politically objectionable facts of economic inequality between men and women. By sacrificing so much of his cargo for this ring, he is demonstrating his willingness to go to great lengths to satisfy her desires — which, you must admit, can be quite an attractive trait in a man. He is also performing a sort of quest, or contest: She sets for him this task, which he must complete to win her. He undertakes it willingly because he understands what the act represents: not that a woman is an object to be bought, but that, in an era of continuing economic inequality between the sexes, he is willing to sacrifice some of his goods on the altar of post-feminist reality. (Am I stretching it? Have I had too much coffee?)

We all know that in spite of social progress men still make more money than women and thus wield more power. So requesting that he buy this ring, although it sounds old-fashioned, may also be her way of asking that he recognize this continuing social and economic inequality; the act of buying the ring is a symbolic giving up of his unfairly derived power, a laying himself bare. It is also a symbolic sacrifice, much as one might spill wine or burn the flesh of sheep or goats. It makes ethereal beauty of a gross material good, as it were, much as the pressure of the earth itself over millions of years makes diamond of coal. It is a kind of alchemy, if you will: The man willingly transforms some of his economic power into a thing of beauty to adorn the woman. This could be a deeply satisfying ritual. It doesn’t have to be seen as a brazen and crass gold-digging.

On the other hand, such rituals can be practiced without any understanding of their underlying psychological significance. He may think that he’s buying her. She may think he’s just paying what she’s worth. Who knows? Once the man renders himself vulnerable in this way, it may be tempting for a woman who is still smarting from her former mistreatment to take advantage of his vulnerability, to enact her revenge on him as representative of men in general. He is piling his goods up for her, displaying them, hoping to win her. She may be tempted to take the stuff and run. So he is testing her as well: Can she resist the temptation? Can she accept what he offers and not become greedy? Can she absorb the meaning of his generosity and be satisfied by it, or has she some moral flaw, some bottomless hunger, some insatiable need?

Let’s hope not. Let’s hope they are both capable of understanding the rituals they are performing. (Or at least that they respect their mystery. Part of a ritual’s power is that we don’t fully understand it in a literal sense; it retains a mysterious power over us, whence comes its peculiar satisfaction.)

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

The bride fired her bridesmaid — me!

Write for Advice

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, DEC 10, 2009

I guess I’m guilty of conduct unbecoming a bridesmaid — but I thought she chose me for who I am


Dear Cary,

I was asked by a dear friend to be her maid of honor. I was immediately a little worried. I’m not into traditional wedding fanfare. I’m kind of like the stereotypical guy in that respect: Tell me where to go and what to do, and I’ll do it. Plus, the wedding has been on a rushed schedule at a time when I have a lot going on in my life too. Add to that the fact that the bride and I have been drifting ever since she met her fiancé, about a year ago. The two are inseparable and not that social; I’ve just naturally spent more time with other company. Maybe my biggest mistake was not expressing my concerns when I was first asked. But I’ve been a maid of honor before and it’s gone fine, and I imagined this would be the same.

You can see the train wreck coming. Fast-forward to a month before the wedding: I get a scathing e-mail from the groom without the knowledge of my friend (I’m certain she did not know), stating that it’s time to “talk to me about my role as maid of honor” and maligning me for my many failures in the role. The e-mail was snide and contemptuous, questioned my values, and accused me of being “irresponsible,” “unaccountable,” “selfish,” of “not caring” and not being true to my “compassionate progressive values.” He said I misunderstood or underestimated the role, and that he couldn’t understand my lack of involvement or inquiries about the wedding planning. He ended by saying he had no faith that I’d show up for rehearsal and that he didn’t care anyway.

It felt like having the wind knocked out of me. So, I responded immediately, cc’ing my friend, basically saying “WTF?” (probably should have waited until I had a cooler head, admittedly). A few more e-mails ensue, I try to defend myself and point out that the groom’s e-mail was totally inappropriate and graceless, and my albeit defensive response is construed as a statement that I feel like the wedding is a burden, or that it’s all about me, and my friend’s whole family and the rest of the wedding party are royally pissed at me because of my response to the groom’s e-mail. So, my friend boots me from the wedding party because “others” don’t want me in the wedding anymore but says I can still come as a guest. I tried after my initial defensive response to be as apologetic and deferential as possible just to try to salvage things (trying to take the high road), but to no avail.

If the bride and groom’s actions sound irrational and extreme, it’s because that’s exactly how I experienced them.

After all the drama, honestly, my first reaction to being ousted was relief. A couple weeks have gone by, and now I feel totally pissed off. The truth is, I tried. I participated in planning and throwing a shower, and a bachelorette party, I got gifts, tried on dresses, etc., rearranged work responsibilities to make all the events … by no stretch was I the model maid of honor, but frankly I can’t imagine treating anyone close to me the way I’m being treated, especially someone who’d been doing things for me all summer — even if I found those efforts disappointing. And maybe this sounds like a lame excuse, but she never once expressed any hopes or expectations for what I would do. The missive from the groom was the first word ever uttered to me. I feel totally hung out to dry.

I was gracious when she dumped me, and we both tried to spin this as not an indictment of our friendship, but more and more it feels like one. Neither of us have reached out to the other since the “break,” and yesterday I reaffirmed my commitment to go to the wedding in an e-mail to see if I’m still welcome (still trying to take the high road) and received no response. It took her three days to write a tepid response that I can still come.

Our mutual friends agree I’ve been treated badly but think I should suck it up, and for the sake of the friendship put on a smile and go to the wedding. They think she’s stressed and under the influence of an overzealous fiancé and family, and that I’ll earn respect by showing up for her.

I have valued this friend. But the more I reflect on this situation I feel so angry and misunderstood. I feel I am owed an apology. It deeply offends me that my friend hasn’t stuck up for me, hasn’t acknowledged anything I actually did do for her, and doesn’t empathize with my point of view at all. Even though she blames the discord on the feelings of her family, I believe that they take their cues from her, and she could have stuck up for me as her friend.

How do I go to the wedding in these circumstances? But how do I not go, if I want to preserve a chance to salvage the friendship? Is there anything worth salvaging?

Maid of Honor Never Again

OnlineWorkshopMay42015

Dear Never Again,

I have long labored under the illusion that when a bride chooses a maid of honor she is expressing her esteem and love for that person, declaring her to be part of her intimate circle of friends and family and pledging, symbolically, to include her in the new life that begins with the ceremony and will continue for years afterward.

I did not realize that choosing a maid of honor was equivalent to hiring an unpaid event planner on a probationary period, pending her demonstrated competency and loyalty to the company, lacking which she could be fired like a janitor from Manpower.

I guess I was wrong, and so were you. You thought you were chosen for who you were, for how she holds you in esteem. It turned out that you were hired provisionally on a trial basis and dismissed when your performance was judged subpar.

Knowing that weddings are pageants of power and status rather than declarations of loyalty and love can perhaps dull the blow. You can say to yourself it’s just another bullshit social competition. Also, some of the pain we find in adult friendships and social conflicts can be traced back to childhood. But that does not make the pain go away.

So just exactly what happened here? What was it about this friend that you liked so much? Did she make you feel special in some way? Did you feel when you were with her that you were the most important person in the world to her? Did her loyalty indeed shift suddenly and completely to her husband? Certain people make us feel wonderful when we are the subject of their attention but leave us devastated when, with a guiltless, frictionless, sociopathic cool, their attention shifts to a new object of reflection. Such people do not form deep bonds and cannot empathize; their relations with others are reflections of themselves. When you are giving such a person what she needs, that is, reflecting back to her a suitable image of herself, then you are her favorite and she loves you as she loves herself (ha ha). When you express yourself, however, or deviate from the image of herself she sees in you, then she turns away to find a more suitable reflection of herself.

Perhaps that is what happened. Perhaps you were the victim of a person with narcissistic tendencies. After all, a modern American wedding is a narcissist’s dream. Such a wedding ignores the great fact of all rites of passage: that while something is gained, something is lost. It only celebrates and does not mourn.

FranceAd2015

Rather than accept the reality that not all of her friends are perfect reflections of herself, and not all of her friends exist solely to support her narrow view of who she is, which would have been an adult approach, your friend retreated from reality. The loss she might have accepted she instead transferred to you. She made you lose, rather than face reality.

It is ironic that the one ritual that is supposed to usher us into adulthood is so festooned with pastel fantasies of preadolescence. It is also an indictment of our culture. Covering ourselves in the rituals and symbols of childhood, we blind ourselves to our coldest and most bloody conquering, muttering silly platitudes about God and country while blithely marauding across the planet, conquering and destroying all that is not Disney.

By acting in such a way, the bride turned away from maturity. You, on the other hand, can use this event to grow stronger and wiser.

Painful as this is personally, I hope you will examine in detail what friendship means to you. What traits do you look for in friends? What do you value? Who among your friends is truly your ally? Who would come to your aid in a crisis? Who values you for your uniqueness and cares about your feelings? And who seems to be hanging around you only for what they can get? Who steps forward and offers help when you are in a jam or feeling bad? And who seems to be around only during the good times? Did any of your friends tell the bride what they thought of this action?

As for your own character: Each of us must know our strengths and weaknesses. Next time someone asks you something like this, you have a chance to say, Sorry, I’m not sure that’s for me. There’s no shame in that.

Lesson: Beware the narcissistic bride. If you displease her, she will inscribe the scarlet F for Fired on your forehead.

Since it’s been a few weeks since you wrote me, I include your addendum here:

TuscanAd_Jun13-22_2015

UPDATE: Dear Cary — So, I did go to the wedding, sat with our mutual friends, and was basically ignored. This was a few weeks ago, and she and I have had no contact since. I have mulled whether there is anything else I can do, but I think now the ball is in her court, and I fear that this friendship is over.

My friend and her husband are decent, reasonable people. I honestly do not know how they justify between themselves this sustained anger at me. My only suspicion is that the groom is very possessive, and as my friend’s closest girlfriend, I wonder if that was threatening to him (subconsciously, as he would never admit that to himself). He does not like her doing things without him. She accommodates this, realizing it’s an insecurity but also flattered by the depth of his love and need. I feel that he set this whole thing in motion with his explosive e-mail, and that my friend lacks the perspective right now to look objectively at what he did. I believe she sees his letter as an act of loyalty and love.

I have two rival impulses at this point: I still want to express to my friend my point of view, which I never did for fear of “ruining” her wedding. It also makes me sad to lose her as a friend. But I think this is out of my hands. I actually think the person who holds our fate in his hands at this point is the husband. And that pisses me off and makes me want to walk away. I don’t know that anything good would come of trying to talk honestly with my friend. But it feels bad, too, to walk away without an honest conversation.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

9/11: “You weren’t there so you don’t know”

My friend saw the second plane hit. Does that give him a superior view of global politics?

Cary’s classic column  Monday, Sep 20, 2010


Dear Cary,

A good friend of mine, let’s call him Joe, witnessed the second plane hit the building on Sept. 11. He shares his stories about huddling in a building lobby with others as the debris and dust came down around them and shared stories of people crying and praying aloud. Although I consider him a fairly progressive and open-minded person, whenever we discuss terrorism and what I perceive as U.S. international policy that contributes in part to hatred of Americans, he has both an emotional and physical reaction, stiffening up and adamantly claiming that he “understands the issue better than I do because he was there” (although he no longer lives in New York).

He doesn’t want to hear anything about extreme poverty, history of war and religious brainwashing in some countries, he seems to shut down all other perspectives on this matter. He is THE authority.

Once, after what I thought was an interesting, albeit opinionated discussion, he went outside and we heard what can be described as primal screaming. My husband later told me it was Joe letting out his anger of the memory of that day. I felt bad about this for awhile, considering that he might be justified, but I’ll never legitimize my own feelings if I constantly feel one-upped in the “bad stuff that has happened to me” department.

I can never know exactly what Joe experienced that day, but how can I be sympathetic to him and his very real trauma, but also help him understand that we all experienced loss and vulnerability that day? Or am I not justified to think that I have just as much to say and feel than he does? Should I defer to his “superior” judgment and experience? Right now, to keep the peace, I try to avoid the subject. But I can’t help thinking, with the anniversary approaching, there has to be a way to understand each other a little better. After all, isn’t failure to accept other’s beliefs and opinions as perfectly justifiable one of the main reasons we struggle with Mideast relations in the first place?

Justified or Mystified?

 

Dear Justified or Mystified,

Some of us are still raw and will remain raw from the events of 9/11.

Still feeling crushed, traumatized, frightened, we learn to say, Well, you weren’t there, so you can’t possibly know.

When faced with experiences too large to make peace with, we come to partial accommodation the best way we know how.

Let’s let people say what they have to say and let it be as it is.

There are all these people walking around with burdens they need to share, and it’s hard to find someone to talk to about how you feel if the way you feel doesn’t make any sense to you. You find yourself justifying why you feel the way you feel.

So here is an idea. Try going one day without understanding anything. Just let yourself not understand. Don’t bother to understand what you are feeling, or what others are feeling. Just listen and pay attention.

You may find that if you stop trying to understand, the “what” that comes before the “why” becomes more vivid and alive.

This person experienced some things. He may not be skilled in expressing what he experienced. That’s OK.

 

What is real is that something big and traumatic happened, and this person still feels it. It isn’t necessary for us to completely understand it, or “reach a balanced view.” It’s not our problem. It’s what happened to him. You don’t need to try to convince him of this, either. Just let him feel it. He doesn’t need to be told he’s wrong or he’s right. He just needs to be heard.

It’s not for us to quantify and rate the authenticity of each other’s experiences. None of us had any control over where we were on 9/11.

In the writing workshops I lead, we keep what is written in first draft confidential. But I can say that since my birthday is on 9/11, and since 9/11 was a Saturday, and since we have workshops on Saturdays, we had a workshop on Saturday, 9/11, my birthday, and we wrote about 9/11, and I embarrassed myself by what I wrote because I felt that what I wrote was ignoble compared to what others wrote.

The thing about having confidentiality and a “safe space” to write in is that you can give voice to your own ignoble voices. Being able to give voice to ignoble voices is important if you write drama, because you must get inside the heads of the unprepossessing and ignoble souls who often function as villains in dramatic writing. So this is useful. Still, one is not immune from personal embarrassment. So without getting into detail, I can say that I let my ignoble self rant on about 9/11 while others wrote with great depth, passion and balance, and afterward, for a moment there, I felt as though I had trampled on something sacred.

This was a real feeling.

I also feel, perhaps sacrilegiously, that it is a good thing to trample on sacred things every now and then, just to stay in practice, and that letting others trample on what I consider sacred reminds me that what I consider sacred is just an idea. It reminds me that symbols are not truths. It reminds me that you do not have to understand my thoughts. They are just my thoughts. That is a good thing to remember.

Having ignoble thoughts does not make an individual ignoble. We all have a multitude of voices and attitudes. Some are noble and some are not.

I cherish the workshops, where we give voice to unapproved emotions without apology. We learn to hear. We learn to sit and hear. We hear others and we hear ourselves.

It takes sophistication to feel intensely but remain detached. We sometimes mistake intensity of feeling for soundness of opinion. They are not the same thing.

We just want people to acknowledge what we feel. We want people to acknowledge the deep, smoking and ruinous hole 9/11 left in our spirits.

It is like a holy experience.

I wonder if I am not now on shaky ground, thinking of it as holy.

I am always on shaky ground. Shaky ground is the only kind of ground there is.

We were affected in ways we do not control or understand.

We look for ways to appear in control. We don’t want to appear weak: You weren’t there so you can’t possibly know.

That’s true. We can’t possibly know. We can’t know what it’s like to be somebody else. We can’t feel what he feels. We can only listen.

 

How to eulogize the dad no one likes?

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JAN 31, 2007

My friend’s father is just one more reason feminism exists — but can we say that?


Dear Cary,

I have been friends with my best friend since we were 15 years old; we united because we both had crazy-ass parents. Hers was an abusive alcoholic dad, mine was an undiagnosed borderline personality disordered mother who wreaked havoc on my life by playing constant mind games.

They’ve both aged. My mom has mellowed, and until recently, so had my friend’s dad. But now he’s had a few mild strokes, seems to be slipping into dementia or possibly Alzheimer’s, and is back to drinking and attempting to be the big, tough guy he always thought he was. He’s driving everyone insane. Conversations between us often turn to talking about his funeral (which I think many in the family are hoping will happen sooner rather than later), and recently we came upon an interesting dilemma: Who will deliver his eulogy? And is there an obligation to be nice?

I’m a writer by trade, so I think there’s hope I’ll come up with something good. A nice compromise, if there’s one to be had. There probably won’t be many people at said funeral, but still, we were brainstorming ideas of what to say and came up with pathetically little:

He always tried to tell a good joke.

He is the reason why his daughters are such strong feminists today.

He didn’t ruin any of his daughters’ weddings.

He liked to be involved in the community.

We got some good black humor belly laughs out of the conversation, but now I think we could really use some advice. Should the eulogy be avoided? If someone in the family insists on one, should it say only nice things? I know it would be totally inappropriate to say, “Good riddance,” but that’s about the only thing I can think to say.

Blocked Writer

TuscanAd_Jan2015Dear Blocked Writer,

The dead, however monstrous in life, are finally defenseless in death. This seems to inspire a certain mild scruple in the rest of us.
It is safe to say that not all his survivors despised the deceased. So however much you may wish to take a last backhanded swipe at the man, or deliver a devastating closing argument, I would not advise it, not in the eulogy at least.

In a eulogy for a man whose life you did not admire and can only weakly celebrate, a recitation of the facts and accomplishments would suffice. He was employed. He supported his family financially. He graduated from some kind of school. He did things for the community. He liked to tell a joke. He was a father. That’s enough. Or at least it’s something.

I have recently had occasion to observe that when someone dies, events are set in motion that are unexpected in certain ways and beyond our control. We really do not know all that we will feel and do. So things come up that you did not expect. And people step in. Someone other than his daughter or you may rise to say a few good and surprising words. Everyone may learn some things about him they did not know.

It is a time to remember the good in a life.

That does not mean that in private you cannot exorcise your demons. Death, in fact, does offer an occasion for the living to settle accounts — in private. So if you must — and it sounds like your razor wit is being sharpened on his withering torso even as we speak — go ahead and deliver those few choice words you’ve been saving up for him. But do it while alone with the corpse.

Being alone with the dead levels the playing field. It is easy to heap scorn, like clods of dirt, while we all stand around together, powerful and united in our vitality. But get alone with the dead and see what happens.

Even in death those who were tyrants in life hold surprising power over us. And they sometimes manage to best us even from the grave: They leave odious instructions we feel honor-bound to follow. Oh, the dead are clever beyond measure!

Preferable to all this ghoulishness, of course, is a settling of accounts with the living. You know better than I how things stand. It may not be possible to talk to him openly. But if it is, if you see a chance, if there is something you need to say to him while he can still hear you, I hope you will say it.

FranceAd2015

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up