I don’t want my husband at my high school reunion

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAY 31, 2006

I’m not ashamed of him, but I think he’ll be bored and make me nervous.


Dear Cary,

Am I a horrible person for hoping my husband doesn’t go with me to my 10-year high school reunion next month?

Since it was first mentioned, he automatically assumed he’s going, and having never been to one of those things, I’m not sure about the protocol. But last night, I was thinking about it and dreading it. I’m not the awkward little girl I was when I started high school, or the insecure young adult I was when I graduated. I was never popular, but I had lots of friends and interests. I earned my degree. I’m in great shape. I write for a newspaper. My husband is wonderfully fun and handsome and interesting. He’s successful, too; he’s a lawyer.

I guess I’m hoping for the satisfying closure you always see in the movies and books about reunions, where classmates finally accept the main character, where she reconciles with the friends she’s wronged and hasn’t spoken to in a decade, where all unrequited loves admit how blind they were never to have seen how amazing she is. I’m living in a fantasy world, I know. But I fear there’s no chance of anything happening with my husband hovering nearby.

Maybe I am still the insecure little girl that I was then, if all that affirmation is so important to me after all these years.

I’m also worried that he’ll be bored while we hang out with my friends the entire weekend in my hometown. Everything will be an inside joke. Or worse, he’ll think we’re lame, or he’ll hear about ex-boyfriends or other unpleasantness in my past that I’d rather avoid. I can’t tell him not to come. No matter what I say, he’ll think I’m ashamed of him, when it’s not that at all.

The reunion is having a strange effect on my entire group of friends. My best friend is refusing to go, and when her husband (another classmate) brings it up, she cries. She has achieved success in the career she always predicted she was going to have. She’s smart and friendly and interesting. She married her high school sweetheart, and she looks great. She had serious issues with weight for a while, but she’s conquered them.

Another friend of mine who moved overseas shortly after college graduation has been planning for two years, before the event was even annoounced, to fly in for it. It’s all she’s been talking about. She was bullied all the way through middle school and she wasn’t well accepted in high school, but she is sure that everyone will be so much more mature and friendly and accepting. I’m afraid that it will be a huge letdown to her. She just went through a divorce. I guess the root of this is: Why are we all making this reunion the end-all, be-all of everything? What can we do to get past all this insanity?

Reuniting and It Feels No Good

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Dear Reuniting,

I think you are making the reunion a big deal because high school was a big deal and there are many powerful emotions still cooking after all those years.

What you can do to get past the insanity is recognize ahead of time what it will actually be like and plan for that.

Make some rules for your husband. Tell him you will want to be just with your old friends for some of the time. But also include him in some big dinner or something. And make some plans ahead of time with the people you really want to see.

What happens when you put a society of adolescents together for a few years, bond them intensely and then suddenly loose them on the world? All those relationships go into the freezer. They don’t keep well. You take them out a decade later and they’ve decayed. It’s not that the people have decayed, but the relationships, which are fed by contact and interaction, have decayed. There are no functioning relationships between these people. So naturally at high school reunions many people feel confusion and sometimes disappointment or sharp letdown. It’s a bunch of strangers who used to know each other. You’re not going to feel the way you used to feel, nor are you going to heal the past. You’re going to be you, today’s you, encountering people that you used to know but don’t really know anymore.

So be prepared for unexpected melancholy. It may help beforehand to take stock of yourself honestly, to admit that a part of you is still only 15 but so is everyone else and admit that you are still afraid of the popular girls but so is everyone else and admit you really dread going to this but so does everyone else and admit that even though it’s going to be scary and awkward you have to go anyway just like they do — because you just have to find out. You have to find out what happened to all these people. That’s all. You just have to find out.

And then you’ll know.

Be prepared for people to be weird and nasty and strange and drunk. Be prepared for people you thought were nice to be mean and people you thought were mean to be nice.

Be prepared to find idiots prospering and geniuses failing, the best and the brightest tarnished and fallen, the mediocre shining and thriving, those you thought you loved and admired suddenly shallow and dull, those you never noticed suddenly effervescent and gleaming and irresistible.

Be prepared for some really bad hair. Be prepared for premature sweater vests and unimaginable slacks.

Be prepared for the spectacle of incompleteness, of a swarm halfway there, no longer brimming with potential yet not accomplished either, beginning again only beginning bigger this time, and a bit clumsy as all beginners are.

Be prepared for the deep-voiced pomposity of the formerly shy in full boorish bloom, the new engineering sales manager heading his division, exceeding his targets. Be prepared for the nervous too-wide smile and the wallet full of pictures: wives standing on beaches and wives pushing baby carriages and wives in uniform. Be prepared for bad breath and insensitive questions.

Be prepared to feel an overwhelming desire to run away.

When necessary, detach. Think of work and what needs doing at home, and how much better you like your new life than your old life.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

Our new friend is a racist — should we dump him?

My husband and he have so much in common — but his beliefs are pernicious and wrong!

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JAN 3, 2008

Dear Cary,

My husband and I live in a small town in the same rural area of northern New England where he grew up. I grew up in a suburban setting in southern New England, but I have lived here my entire adult life — more than three decades now. (I’m 49, my husband is 60, and we’ve been married 18 years.) I always knew this was the only place on earth I wanted to live (I have very strong family/ancestral ties here), and I love everything about living here. I get along well with both “natives” and “transplants,” and I am often mistaken for the former (which, I have to admit, pleases me, as I think it can sometimes be very hard to crack the inner circle in a small town when you’re “from away”).

Politically, I consider myself strongly liberal, particularly on social issues, and my husband, although he was raised in a more conservative family, is also quite liberal. He has a hard time with any sort of label and refuses to register for a particular political party, but years of self-evaluation and introspection — he is a recovering alcoholic, sober for over 25 years now, and went through a good bit of therapy in the early years — have made him very open-minded. So it’s safe to say that our political views make us both liberal-Democrat types.

If there is anything at all that occasionally bothers me about living in our area, it is a tendency toward conservative politics and narrow-mindedness that I’ve observed among some of our neighbors. It saddens me to hear some parents’ racial and ethnic prejudice and homophobia reflected in overheard conversations among our teenage son’s peers at the local high school, but I’m very proud of our son’s ability to think for himself, and I think we’ve done a good job of raising him to be kind, tolerant and open-minded. I’ve had no trouble finding like-minded friends and acquaintances myself, and I’m happy and comfortable with our life here.

My husband and I have a relatively new friend whom we both like a lot. We’ve known him fairly well for about a year now, and he and my husband have really enjoyed spending time together, watching and talking about sports, current events and their past lives. He’s single, about five years older than my husband, and retired here about 10 years ago from Massachusetts. Coincidentally (neither of us knew it when we first met him), he is also a recovering alcoholic (with, I believe, about 20 years of sobriety). Needless to say, this revelation gave him and my husband even more in common, and their friendship has grown until my husband considers him among his closest friends.

Now the problem. My husband and I have both always recognized that this friend is more conservative than we are, but we’ve been able to discuss our differences over politics and social issues with humor, while “agreeing to disagree” — until a few days ago, when we both became suddenly and uncomfortably aware that our friend is, to put it bluntly, a racist. The three of us were having a pleasant conversation about football, when he remarked that he couldn’t stand it when a certain black sports commentator “slipped into jive talk whenever there’s another black guy in the booth.” Successive remarks led us to realize the extent of his prejudice, and finally led me to say, incredulously, “Please don’t tell me you honestly believe that white people are smarter than black people?” I was hoping he was putting us on, and I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach when he said, “Yeah, I do.” He went on to say, “Except for people like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, but, as a rule, yeah.”

My husband and I were both floored, and we continued the discussion in hopes of getting him to — what? I don’t know, retract his statement or change his mind, I suppose. He gave several examples to illustrate his position — rough gangs of black kids he had gone to high school with, the behavior of some of the black men he had served with in the Navy, black men he had known who abandoned their pregnant girlfriends — while we both tried to get him to see that culture, not genetics, was responsible for what he perceived as innate differences between the races. He ended up by assuring us that he always “treated them nicely” — had some black friends in the service, tipped the black server at the doughnut shop, etc. — unlike his father, who was, apparently, a raving racist who talked about “jigaboos and jungle bunnies” when he was growing up.

I’m sure it was obvious that my husband and I were upset by his remarks, and we made it clear that we disagreed with him vehemently. It felt very different from the half-humorous political differences we’ve expressed in the past, and at one point our friend said, “I hope this doesn’t affect our friendship.” We did change the subject before he left, but things were definitely awkward.

My question is: Where do we go from here? Do we continue the friendship as before, skirting the issue of racial prejudice? Do we tell him we’re sorry, but we no longer feel comfortable being his friends? Do we say nothing, stop inviting him for coffee, and let the friendship lapse? I feel sad to think that my husband may lose a friend with whom he has found so much common ground, but how much of a difference in viewpoint can a friendship sustain? And how much of a stand do we need to take to be true to our own values?

It’s a terrible feeling to be disappointed by someone you care about, and right now my husband and I feel sorely disappointed. We both like this guy a lot, but we both feel strongly that racism has no place in this world. While I know our friend’s prejudice comes, in large part, from the family in which he was raised, I can’t help thinking that if my husband has been able, as an adult, to learn to think for himself and become more open-minded, our friend could have done the same. But if he hasn’t done so by this age, it seems unlikely that anything we say is going to have much of an effect on his views.

Cary, I’d love to hear what you, and other readers, think.

Disappointed

LastChanceTuscany

Dear Disappointed,

It is indeed a terrible feeling to be disappointed by someone you care about. People fail you, they do.

This friend of yours appears to have mistaken beliefs. It is difficult for those of us with all the correct beliefs to extend courtesy, love and understanding to those with mistaken beliefs. But it is an affliction of your time to believe your own beliefs — to believe your own beliefs are the only ones that matter and are correct and represent the pinnacle of social progress. If you take an imaginative leap to the 12th century, or the 18th century, or the 1930s, you will notice how radically beliefs change. We who are now alive think we know what is right and correct, as did the Spanish in the Inquisition and the Protestants in the Reformation and the Maoists in the Cultural Revolution; it is the privilege of those on top to think they know what is right and correct. It is a nice privilege indeed. Doubting ourselves is hard.

Even if we are correct in believing that those of us with the correct beliefs represent the pinnacle of social progress, we must also recognize that, as in elementary school where some kids are slower than others to learn multiplication and geography, and some are slower to learn not to eat dirt and push each other down in the mud, some are slow to accept cultural progress and scientific knowledge.

You can call them names if you like. You can call them racists and bigots. You can exclude them from your company even though you really like them as people. You can argue with them like a Protestant arguing with a Catholic or a communist arguing with a capitalist or a criminal arguing with a law-and-order type. You can attempt to show that his life experience runs counter to what all science shows.

I just think the flaws in human nature go deeper than we know, and that while it is right and just to fight and struggle for social justice in law and institutions, we ought to honor at the same time even the reprobates and racists among us, even the assholes, the sexists and the religiously intolerant, the ones who say the bad words and express the bad opinions, who fail to grasp how shocking is their lack of enlightenment, who fail to grasp how uncomfortable it makes the rest of us to hear their unenlightened comments about skin color and nation of origin, the clumsy parallels they draw between income and genetics, between school performance and parenting styles, between neighborhood orderliness and native language, between color preference and speech style, between church affiliation and a great-great-grandmother’s husband’s cousins, between voting preference and educational advancement. We ought not let them rule our nation, of course. But we ought not exclude them from friendship.

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I just think lots of us are pretty dumb, and we’re not all that virtuous either, and big deal. I’m not so impressed with our own assumed air of virtue, we liberal coastal elites. I don’t think we’re all that morally superior to the racists and sexists we can so easily pick out of the crowd and condemn. I think in fact that our frequent presumption of moral superiority is a deep character flaw that blinds us both to the vast virtue around us and to our vast capacity for growth. And more than that: Our air of superiority bores me. It bores me how we talk. It bores me how seriously we take the liberal taboos, how easily we are stopped at the borders of good taste.
In fact, I am rather drawn to the bad man, the racist, the reprobate, the criminal, the idiot, the one who doesn’t get how he is supposed to behave. He unwittingly shines a light on the dark side — and even that is condescending, isn’t it, to assume that the only virtue we can find in those of a lower caste is one they are not even aware that they are expressing?

I know the drill. I stand for social progress and equality. I’m a leftist intellectual ex-hippie who lives in San Francisco. But people have junk in their heads. We all have junk in our heads.

Most of us don’t think all that clearly or all that deeply. How can we? We have jobs to do that tire us out and we work with people who have junk in their heads and we were raised by people who had junk in their heads. All our lives people tell us stupid things and put junk in our heads. They put junk in our heads and once it’s there it’s hard to get it out. Me, I get to sit here all day and try to figure out what is the junk and what is the good stuff, and even with all that time to sit here and try to sort it out I’m pretty hopeless. So what about a guy who works hard every day for 45 years with people putting junk in his head and telling him things that are groundless and wrong? How’s he supposed to rearrange his head once he turns 65? How’s he supposed to change his beliefs?

We should all do something about it, of course, all of us, of course we should, of course. Yes, we should. We should be kinder, smarter and more on time. The racists among us, the sexists, the unkind, the selfish, the mean, the crude, the hateful, the spiteful, the bitter, the unenlightened and the just plain average should all get to work right now to try to get better, to be more on time, kinder, less racist, more socially active, calmer and more meditative, and more careful in their choice of words; I myself should try harder to be concise and not to string people along with my own self-involved speculations. I myself should try to not think the uncharitable thoughts I think when I see certain drivers in certain cars making certain kinds of turns, when I speculate about their age and their beliefs, their gender and country of origin and how each correlates with their peculiar driving habits and who in their family might have taught them such peculiar methods; I myself ought to be more orderly in my work habits and I ought to do more service work in the community; I ought to pick a presidential candidate and work for his election, and volunteer at a food bank three times a week. I ought to cleanse my mind of all the dirty, oppressive, angry, unenlightened thoughts that crowd out my virtuous thoughts like crows crowding out the sparrows of springtime — which will not be far off now, by the way, springtime that is, with its annual tease.

Can you love someone who is deeply flawed? Do you have the courage to do that? Can your love be tinged with disapproval and still be love? Can you heatedly dispute on matters of social beliefs and still remain friends? I hope so. I hope you can do that. I also hope you can find persuasive materials to show that the beliefs of your friend are groundless and pernicious, for that is today’s correct belief, and it is the one true belief, and it is the belief that everyone should have.

Meanwhile, in my heart of hearts, I’d like it if even the best of us and the purest could get the hell over ourselves. There is much work to be done every single day. There are sick people to be cared for and children to be taught. I myself have got a book to sell, a column to write and a writing workshop to lead.

While I try to do my best, I’m going to have the worst thoughts you can imagine. I’m going to assume that you will too. We’ll see each other on the street and we’ll nod to each other, each of us having the worst thoughts you can imagine, each of us knowing it’s just our condition.

So I say give your husband’s friend a break. Racism is stupid, and worse than stupid it’s pernicious and cruel and stupid. But he’ll be dead in 30 years and social progress will continue none the worse for his presence on this earth. The groups that were on top will soon be on the bottom and it will serve everybody right.

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My terrific online friend is terrible in person!

 

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Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Oct 12, 2005

How can someone so special on the Internet be such a drag in real life?


Dear Cary,

I have this friend. Let’s call her Susan. Susan and I became friends online several years ago, through mutual (in person) friends. For several years, we had a deep and magical friendship, what I might call a “life of the mind” friendship. We wrote letters and e-mails and had long phone calls. We supported each other through difficult times. Occasionally we met in one city or another for the weekend, but mostly her day-to-day life was something I heard about but didn’t participate in.

Now Susan is getting married, and I am involved in the wedding. Steadily I am being drawn into her “real life,” meeting her friends and family, and hearing endless wedding details.

At first I was happy to be part of the reality of her world. After all, she is my friend, right? But I’ve been discovering that my “life of the mind” friend is a very different person in, well, person. At a distance, she is thoughtful and philosophical. In person, she needs constant attention and tending. My husband and I have discovered that we really don’t like her husband-to-be, and we’re not looking forward to spending more time with him.

I’m worried that my disenchantment with her wedding is becoming more apparent, and that I will sadden her day by not being the happy spaniel she expects me to be.

But here’s the nub of my problem: I miss my friend. Can I go back to being a “life of the mind” friend? Should I try to explain all the things she does that drive me batty, and try to grow the in-person friendship into being more like the virtual one? Or should I just give it up for a bad job and fade out of her life after the wedding?

Disillusioned Friend

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Dear Disillusioned,

One of the wonderful things about the Internet is that it acts as a space into which we can project an imaginary or secondary self, one more congruent with our own values, more thoughtful, more articulate, more honest.

There are many reasons for this — the relative newness of the medium (we have not been conditioned since birth to cloak our identities there, to adopt a narrow mode of discourse suited to the demands of the classroom and the corporation); the privacy it affords us (we sit alone at a keyboard; our faces are hidden); and the positive feedback loop it engenders (the personas we project are greeted as actual beings). For many of us, conduct on the Internet retains an element of idealistic play; we are not there strictly for profit, but in order to be who we are, or who we would be if we could be who we dream ourselves to be — the Internet acts as a vast stage upon which we strut like eager children, free of the constant gravity of circumstance, free to be, for a short time, the people we feel we were meant to be.

Of course, offline we remain the same shoddy, unkempt, short-tempered, disorganized persons we always were, living in close, overheated rooms that smell of cat litter and rancid butter, shuffling about looking for the toenail clippers, muttering about Karl Rove and steroids in baseball.

In meeting her family and friends, it’s almost as if you have seen something you weren’t supposed to see — look in that window there, that’s your friend, isn’t it, sitting at that cluttered kitchen table, picking at a zit, eating mayonnaise straight out of the jar?

We are so cruel. Our first thought is not, Is it not ever thus? but … You are such a disappointment in real life! We take it almost as a betrayal, forgetting that quite the opposite is true: Here is a person who has made something finer of herself than what her crude circle requires; she has gone as far beyond it as she can go — in her mind, with her wits, with her soul. We might admire what a Herculean task it was in the first place to rise above all that dull and heavy circumstance of town and family and school.

This goes deeper. Inwardly we are so much richer and better, we are capable of so much more; we are princesses abandoned at birth; we are supermen concealing our powers behind mild-mannered anonymity. It might be said that what some people project onto the Internet is not only a heightened, idealized self but in fact a kind of divine self. I do not think anyone ever lives up to such ideals; most people never even reveal them. It is in fact a tribute to the Internet that it allows so many people to reveal so much.

So my advice to you is to make the best of the situation with the wedding; do not attempt to reconcile the contradictions you are seeing. Do your best to be a cheerful and helpful member of the wedding party. If you need an outlet, a way to process the strange feeling of disconnect between your online friend and your embodied friend, I suggest you keep a journal of this experience. It is, after all, a fascinating thing. But I don’t mean an online journal. I mean a personal journal.

For certain relationships — chiefly ones destined to become romantic — the Internet acts simply as a gateway; the “real” relationship only matures after two people begin meeting in person. But other relationships, friendships, the “life of the mind,” are perhaps better if they live out their entire lives in the Internet space. Your friendship may be one of those.

So once the wedding is over, I suggest you resume your online relationship as if nothing had ever happened.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

My best friend is now my mom’s best friend

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Cary’s classic column from

What is she doing at my parents’ house when I’m not there?


Dear Cary,

I’ve known my best friend for 22 years, since we were 10. We grew up right across the street from each other. It has been one of those great friendships that weather the seasons in people’s lives when you can’t keep in touch very well: We can always hook right back up as if no time has gone by. She has always been considered a member of the family, and my parents often refer to her as their adopted daughter.

This sounds pretty good, yes? Well, I’ve slowly come to discover that having your best friend unofficially adopted by your parents is a drag.

I think the first incident that ruffled my feathers was when we were in college. We were both going to go on a camping trip with my folks, but her finals were over before mine, so she decided to go ahead and meet up with my folks where they were picking up their new R.V. There are all of these pictures of her “in my place” with my parents and their new R.V. I didn’t say anything about this, though, because I thought it was petty to be a little hurt, and what good would speaking up do anyway?

The next incident revolved around my wedding. As often happens around big events such as weddings, many of our family members lost their minds, so we moved the wedding offshore and the only guests were my best friend and four supportive family members. Not surprisingly, when we returned home I was not on speaking terms with my folks (as they were not among the four). However, my BF continued a relationship with them, stating that she wasn’t the one who was mad at them and that they were also her friends.

I have long since made up with all familial relations and have had a more or less good relationship with the BF I was frustrated that her version of making time for me was to swing by my house for 15 minutes on her way home from work, but on the other hand she was there when my sister “came out” when she was a teenager and all hell broke loose and she came to live with us. And my BF was there the whole 12 hours I was in labor with my second son.

Before I get to the weird BF/mom triangle, I need to add one more angle to the back story: My BF is more like my folks than I will ever be. She is financially conservative and a saver. I buy $50 shoes for no good reason. She finished her undergrad degree in three years and then got a master’s. I took five years to get my B.S. and don’t have a job remotely related to my degree. Her house is always spotless. My house looks like you would expect if two adults, two toddlers, three cats and a dog all lived in 1,400 square feet. She always writes thank-you notes. I haven’t written one for anything received by either of my kids. In other words, she is just like my totally “perfect” parents, and I’m so not.

So, to the Mom + BF = BFF part: My BF was married a year ago July. My mom really stepped up and into the MOTB role on the wedding day because my BF’s mom was too busy getting sloshed. This seemed to create a bond between them. When my BF moved across the state (to be closer to her folks, ironically) she and my mom kept in touch. They e-mail back and forth every couple of weeks, and my BF and her hubby (whom my mom adores, natch) occasionally stay a day or two with my folks when they are on their way out of state — without even calling me to let me know they will be in town. When something significant happens with my BF (like a new job or something bad like an illness) she calls or e-mails my mom. I hear about it secondhand.

I approached my mom about this, and she said that I was being silly and that it is my own fault for not “keeping the conversation going” with my BF like she does. Did I mention that in addition to two toddlers I have two jobs and my husband is in school? Just taking the time to write you is a major luxury.

I can’t seem to get any advice on this because it is the weirdest thing any of my other friends or family have ever heard of. I can’t make the two stop being friends, and at this point I’m uncontrollably jealous at how my folks seem to respect her so much and how they seem to wish that I were more like her. It isn’t her fault that my folks dump this baggage on me, but does she have to condone it by being BFF with my mom? Honestly, I feel like “breaking up” with her. Then again, you can’t just find another 20-year friend on Craigslist.

Third Wheel

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Third Wheel,

This is about patterns. It’s about the patterns of what you want. It’s about the pattern formed by what you have always wanted and what you will never get and what you will always crave and strive for until you recognize what you are doing. It is about how you will never get what you have always wanted but other people will. Other people will get what you have always wanted, and they hardly even want it at all; they don’t even notice when they’re getting it; they don’t see how desperately you want it and need it. But you do. Or do you? Do you know how desperately you need your parents’ exclusive love? Do you know how desperately you needed them to be there for you when you were a little kid? Do you know how angry you still are at them for not giving you what you needed? Do you know how angry you have to be to exclude your parents from your own wedding, to move it offshore to exclude them? Do you know that you cannot patch this up just on the surface? You have to admit to yourself how hurt you are. This maddening jealousy is about how hurt you are, still, about your friend’s sitting in your seat in the R.V.

It’s about your best friend taking your place. And yet it’s not about that at all. That is, it’s not about who fills the void, it’s about the void itself. There is a void there where you are supposed to be in your parents’ esteem and affection and love and support. There’s an empty seat in the R.V. It’s about the empty seat itself. It’s not about who finally comes along to sit in it. Anyone could sit in it and you would feel the same. You would feel, “That’s my seat!”

This is not about the friendship between your friend and your mom, although that is a subject that could be taken up on its own. If your friend wrote to me about this, I would ask her about her own mother’s alcoholism. There is a story there too. But that is not your story. Your story is about your own unhappiness. If you were not unhappy, what would it matter that your best friend is also close to your parents? That would be a lovely thing, would it not? Would it not, in the most perfect of worlds, be just a warm and loving extension of human friendship to family, a beautiful melding of the familial and the personal? But no, you want something from her that you did not get from your parents, and now instead of giving it to you she’s giving it to them, so it is deeply painful to witness their closeness. You are in competition. You are competing with her for your parents’ love and moreover now you are competing with your parents for her love! You are the odd one out in the triangle. It shouldn’t be that way. If you’d gotten the love you needed originally it wouldn’t be that way.

But you never got what you needed, so it will always be this way. It’s always going to be this way for you until you face this awful, wrenching childhood thing: You are a little empty and will always be a little empty.

It’s not your fault. You didn’t get what you needed when you needed it. So face it and cry it out and scream about it and beat your fists against the wall and then toughen up and be who you are. You are messy and unorganized and impulsive. So fucking what? Who cares? You have the right to be who you are. You don’t have to be like your mom. And being like your mom would never get you what you wanted anyway. Because it’s too late now. You’re not going to get it. That chance is gone. Your chance to get that wonderful, enveloping, loving feeling of being completely the center of some strong, loving mother’s attention, to be the stable center of your parents’ stable lives, to live in the center of their undivided attention just long enough to be given the inner confidence and peace and stability that you see all around you but are not able to attain — that chance is gone. You’re not going to get that. You are who you are now. You have hurts. You have hungers. You need attention and warmth. This need you have is like the need for food. You need it every day.

I’m guessing that this crops up in other areas — in your marriage, with your kids. So here is what you can do. You can recognize that this gnawing hunger is the work of generations. Families send not just their genes but their hungers through the generations. This happens sometimes because of economic and social conditions, illness and poverty, overwork, racism, alcoholism, wars, scarlet fever, malaria, exodus and displacement, survival responses that are appropriate under dire circumstances but otherwise neurotic; it happens because of trauma and abuse, too many children to feed, violence, fear, infant mortality, crippling depression, the myriad devils of the human. And it gets transmitted silently through looks and blows for centuries, through tales and attitudes, through habit and practice, through sheer ineluctable personality.

So when you contemplate this hunger you must see that this hunger is the hunger of generation after generation. You may also recognize that this hunger is in part a spiritual hunger. That is, though it may be rooted in material circumstances, it will not be cured by material circumstances. You just have a need that can’t be filled. You are suffering, that’s all.

So here is what you do: You take your revenge by giving your children what your mother did not give you. You get some therapy and you strengthen yourself. You say to yourself, I am going to get stronger within myself. I am going to identify those hungers that I live with day to day and find ways to fill them day to day. You parent yourself. You give yourself the things you need that others did not and will not give you. You say to yourself, I recognize that every day I wake up and I need more. I will never get enough. I need to be fed every day. That’s just the way it is.

And you recognize that if you do not find a way to take care of yourself in this way, you cannot be of use to others. You do not do this for selfish reasons. You do this for your children.

It is possible that this is not true about you. If it is not true about you, that’s OK. It will be true about someone. That is the way this works. I am speaking from my heart. It is true about me. And it is true about many people I know. So if this is not true about you, it is true about somebody, somebody who is overhearing this and thinking, yes, he is like me, I recognize this hunger.

And if this is not true about you, then surely something like this is true about you. There is something true about your suffering and you must find what it is. You must find the pattern that is true about you, the pattern of your being, the things that you crave and cannot get. That is the pattern that will drive you to keep doing things that make you unhappy. That pattern is what you need to confront. It is your strength if you face it. It is your weakness if you run from it. It is your footprint, your mark, your signature. It is what you are and cannot escape. It is the only thing that matters.

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Inherited money turned my friends into idiots

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Cary’s classic column from

Since they got suddenly rich, all they talk about is how hard it is to get good help


Hi, Cary –

In a nutshell, the problem is that my three best friends have all inherited substantial money in the past two years. My husband and I have no hope of ever again being their financial equals.

And I’m jealous as hell. So jealous, I don’t really want to talk to them. Their conversations seem to be all about their new houses, their trips, their toys, and things I can never hope to have.

These three are all my best friends — friends of over 30 years whom I went to school with. We danced at each other’s weddings and laughed through college and adulthood together. They have been dear friends and a source of comfort and joy. But I just can’t relate to their new problems (how hard it is to find a good cleaning lady, the price of a designer handbag, yada yada).

We’re not “working poor” — we’re probably in the middle of the middle class — but suddenly they’ve leapt up several notches in net worth, and it depresses me to know I’ll never be there.

I can’t really afford to lose three good friends, but I hate the jealousy I feel every time we visit any of them or they visit us. What’s my solution? Is there one? They are not rubbing my nose in it — I am.

Jealous of the Newly Rich

Cary Tennis' Finishing School

Dear Jealous,

If we’re just fine, if we’re just as good as the next person, then why should we care if someone has something we don’t have?

And if we’re not fine, what’s wrong? What do we need to be content in our own lives?

You probably can’t force the heavens to rain money on you. But you can use this opportunity to look at your own life and ask what you can do to make your own life so satisfying that you don’t care about other people and their inherited wealth.

So what do you need? What is missing in your own life? Really. I mean, sure, maybe it’s the Audi sports car that you think is missing. But what is that about? Is it about excitement and fun? Is it about the feeling of being admired? Do you crave the sensual feel of luxury upholstery?

Once you can identify the actual cravings, you can find those things in experience. You don’t need to own an expensive luxury sports car to enjoy some of its qualities. If your friends have acquired expensive luxury sports cars, you can ask them to drive you around. They probably would be happy to do that. Then you can feel the expensively sure and quiet click of the glove compartment and know that you are in the presence of the world’s finest engineering — unless the glove compartment is locked, perhaps because it contains diamonds, or a gun, or both. Then you can enjoy the thought of what is hidden in the glove compartment of the expensive luxury sports car belonging to your old friend who has just inherited quite a bit of money.

Or maybe what is missing is a sense of security. Maybe it grinds you down to have to work so hard, not knowing where the next rent check will come from, wondering how you will maintain your own comfortable existence into old age.

These are real concerns. They are what our lives are made of. They are worth thinking about.

In this way you can allow your friends’ good fortune to enrich your own life, without having to pay the insurance premiums or the inheritance taxes.

Your desires are real and legitimate. You would be wise to pursue their satisfaction. But your jealousy is a perversion of those desires, based in a belief that you can’t have what you want, and that the world is unfair, and you are unloved.

Jealousy is different from desire. Desires can be satisfied. Jealousy involves a painful, grinding feeling of unworthiness. When I’m jealous and it leads to depression, that’s because I feel things are hopeless: I’ll never have what they have, hence I’ll never be happy or loved.

In jealousy we sense injustice: Why should that jerk have a boat? He doesn’t deserve it! If a person worked hard all his life and finally bought a boat, would we be jealous? Probably not. But if his rich mother bought him a boat and he appeared on deck in his captain’s hat and blazer, knowing nothing about maintenance or navigation, we might feel a murderous twinge.

We have no control over who inherits what. But we do have some control over our own lives, and how we treat our own psyches.

The cure is to know that we are loved, and to forgive ourselves for our shortcomings. Not having wealth is not a shortcoming. But obsessing over it is. So we forgive ourselves, and we remind ourselves of our own worth.

If I told you to write, “I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!” on your bathroom mirror like that “Saturday Night Live” character Stuart Smalley, it might send you into a real suicidal depression. We have to maintain some dignity! But if you are honest about the things you enjoy, and if you pursue them, and if you give yourself the pleasures you deserve, and if you allow yourself to plot secretly to acquire the pleasures that only you know you want, then you can live a fairly happy life without inheriting millions of dollars.

Self-esteem does not mean self-satisfaction. It isn’t egotism. It is love. And it must come with humility. That means loving ourselves as we are, with our shortcomings.

So my wish for you would be that you change your attitude to one of grateful amazement that your friends could have such good fortune.

Well, maybe that’s a tall order.

OK, how about this:

My wish for you would be that you can continue to love your friends and forgive them for their newfound and boring interest in the challenges of maintaining mundane comforts, and that you would get to the point where can say to them, “Enough talk about the perils and misfortunes of inherited wealth; now let’s grill some ribs.”

Preserve the friendship by being open but lighthearted about this. It’s a touchy subject, and it may happen that at times your true feelings show a little. But that’s OK. As long as you don’t belabor it. Like, don’t get into a long self-justifying drunken spiel about how your friends have become insufferable since they got a little dough. Just rib them about it and maintain your own dignity.

In other words, stop rubbing your own nose in it.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

 

WhatHappenedNextCall

My boyfriend’s climbing partner let him fall

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Cary’s classic column from Apr 20, 2007

Accidents happen. He was inexperienced. But he’s not owning up. In fact he’s sort of acting like a dick!


Cary,

My longtime boyfriend and I went on a holiday in Colorado with a bunch of others, which included ice-climbing practice. My boyfriend was tied as a safety measure to his friend, attached by a fail-safe machine, which requires that you put your hand away from the apparatus to lock the person in place. The apparatus is foolproof according to physics and has become popular among climbers of all sorts. In any case, when my boyfriend was showing the friend, let’s call him Joe, how the apparatus worked, Joe was joking and looked relatively comfortable. When my boyfriend was climbing on an easy wall, because it is not as high and children learn on it, he came down faster than Joe had expected. Then suddenly I saw my boyfriend falling and soon thereafter he was on the ground, bloody and barely conscious.

Before I left for the hospital with the ambulance, I saw that Joe was in the side, packing up things. I knew that he must have felt a tremendous sense of guilt because we had no idea of the extent of my boyfriend’s injuries. I looked at him in the eye and said that no one blamed him. Accidents happen, even when we don’t want them to. Joe did all the right things at first. He helped us. I was very conscious of not wanting to blame him, because it was a systemic failure at multiple levels. Yes, he held the rope (you can see the burn marks on his hand) and he pulled the machine open when he should have put his hands away (which was why the rope went through). But he was a newbie and newbies need more supervision than what he received. But he also failed to register any discomfort about taking on that role. So it was a systemic failure.

Then three things happened. Before Joe and I were to go visit the boyfriend at the hospital, he confided in me that he did not remember what he did wrong, subtly implying that the machine might have failed. And he talked about how everything else contributed to the accident. He is right, of course, but it seems almost unseemly to shirk responsibility in such a quick fashion when someone’s life was almost taken. Second, Joe never apologized to the boyfriend, even as much as “I am so sorry that I panicked,” creating an opportunity for the boyfriend to say, “I am sorry too, for not providing enough supervision.” Third, Joe sent us a bill for the trip, which included gasoline for the car: We rode back in the ambulance, but he took our things. (Our original intention was to share costs.)

Now I am very angry, not about the accident but about Joe’s refusal to acknowledge his part in the accident. I don’t care about the money, but I am surprised by the ferociousness of my response. I do not want this man in my life, for refusing to acknowledge that something serious happened. He wants to pretend that nothing happened, but something did. Things change when we do not acknowledge our part. The boyfriend is mostly OK. He had a severe concussion and that may cause some unforeseen problems. He has other problems from the accident, but ones that time will most likely heal. However, what is happening here? Am I being a mean person, or is this behavior wrong? I am having a hard time digesting this behavior.

I want to be fair and kind. Yet, I find this behavior unacceptable. I know that we react to accidents in various ways. I also know that Joe is not entirely responsible for what happened. But he is partly responsible. I will not pretend that I am not angry, although I usually am a people-pleasing magnet. They are old school friends. What is the right thing to do here?

Troubled With Ethical Responses

Connecticut_PatCary1

Dear Troubled,

I’m not going to get into trying to resolve the ethical matter, which if examined in detail may be a little complicated. But I will tell you as simply one person to another that I don’t like this guy! He’s not giving you what you need, and he’s not giving me what I need either! I want him to say that while he maybe doesn’t know precisely how his failings contributed to your boyfriend’s injuries, he knows that he contributed and that he feels deeply sorry for his part and takes complete responsibility for his part. I want him not just to say that but to show that, too, by picking up the tab, by taking care of stuff, by making other people’s lives easier, rather than thinking of himself and his own convenience. I want this guy to not send you a bill. Sure, life goes on. But take the high road! I wish he had thought about it and said to himself, They’ve been through a lot, I can afford to let the bill slide.

A guy nearly died here. You want a person, when something like that happens, when he has played a part in it, to be generous and helpful, to be humble and self-effacing. That would mean paying for stuff. That would mean showing up and being there and trying to help out. That would mean not acting like a weasel.

To say he should have been given better training and supervision sounds weaselly. Climbing is a dangerous sport. Whose responsibility is it? It’s his! No matter how much supervision we are given, the final responsibility rests with us; we must accept responsibility for assessing the danger we face and the risks we take. He chose to climb the wall. He had a responsibility for his friend’s well-being. Something went wrong and everyone around him is being gracious in not blaming him outright. The least he could do is show humility and respect. It galls me to think that he would even hint at placing any blame on others, any blame at all.

You are uncertain on what logical or ethical basis you feel this anger. Well, what you feel is what you feel. I think you sense in your heart that he’s being a weasel. He’s not rising to the occasion. He’s not even doing the minimum. We feel it when people aren’t pulling their weight. We feel the extra weight on our backs.

What we love in people is when they do more than the minimum, when they rise to the occasion and shoulder more of the load than they have to. That is when things work best, when every person shoulders more than he or she has to and does more than is necessary. That gives everyone strength in a bad situation.

It is also a practical necessity for everyone to do more than their share because, as a practical matter, “your share” is never enough. There is always more to do than you think. If we all think only of our own share, certain people will always end up doing more. We must all do more than our share.

So when even one person does less, it’s really annoying!

So his behavior sounds selfish and immature. We could let him off the hook and say he’s acting like a dick because of how he was raised, because he’s spoiled and afraid of a lawsuit. We could say that. But we don’t want to.

We like people who own up. We like people who shoulder the load. That’s the kind of behavior that we like.

This guy’s behavior isn’t even close to that.

So what’s the right thing to do? You could try telling him. But something tells me he’s not going to get it. We don’t get this stuff by being told. We get it when experience teaches us, or because discomfort teaches us, or because a desire for genuine understanding leads us to it. We don’t get it because people tell us we’re acting like dicks.

So you can tell him whatever you want. I’d just write him off.

Don’t let him hold your purse. Don’t let him hold your baby.

Don’t fly with him. Don’t drive with him. Don’t even walk with him.

And don’t ever, ever go climbing with him!

WhatHappenedNextCall

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