The other day I was working with a friend who I hadn't seen in a long time but had for years admired. She spoke to me about the usual things, and as the hours passed, lunch came and went, then the last hours of the day lay before us, just a little time till we'd be done.
Such moments are peculiar with friends. Sometimes you tire of one another, or one of you does. Usually, I suppose, it is the better listener who feels used, and finally decides they've had enough. "I love this person, but only in small doses." So while I would usually categorize myself as more of a talker than listener, for some reason, that afternoon, I found myself listening intently to a friend who had a lot on her mind.
Like I said, for years I have admired this person, and for years enjoyed what time we have had together. Only now and again do we work together, she's a designer, and I am a carpenter for crying out loud.
"I'm good at squares and triangles already," I tease her.
"I hate squares and triangles," she tells me.
"Don't say that," I reply, wounded by such Euclidean heresy. "Streets are named after Euclid in many, many towns: who ever named a street after a designer?"
"Jesus was a Carpenter, he ate organic foods," she replied. "He believes in love and peace, and Andy, I hope they kill you too."
So we go around and around at times. It isn't philosophy exactly.
Near the end of the day we found ourselves lolligagging, intent on convincing passerby that we were those sort of slothful ass crack workers, enjoying our unearned pay even while pretending to go into the homestretch, approaching the five o' clock blues. She began to take a fairly earnest tone, and I found myself staring into my old friends eyes, while they teared up a little and she recounted the disappointment of a relationship that had ended last May. In recounting her experiences, I noticed that I had never realized she had been experiencing the slightest trouble in that relationship other than the usual sort: things just weren't so great, she merely wanted better. Whereas the truth had been that for years she had felt enormous desire for the relationship to improve, and even cloaked a secret, almost hopeless desire that her boyfriend would ask her hand in marriage. Then after a long while it ended.
The amazing thing about my conversation with my friend was not that she had romantic troubles, or had experienced misery. Those are things most of us can expect from time to time. The amazing thing for me was how I looked at her due to these issues she had experienced. Whereas before she was this upwardly mobile, free spirited, woman of the world without a care in the manner of old world expectations of domestic contentment. Now she appeared just another fragile person, lost in the oldest lyrics of unrequited love. I had experienced her always on a pedestal, soaring somehow with the high flyers of the world. And all this while she had merely (even if in flight) wanted a nest, a place to abide, someone to share the deeper patterns of life than sight of the sun dappled earth on the wing. It was startling, really, the difference between what I imagined, and what she experienced. And it was startling the difference between her and myself. I had for so long imagined her as living in emotional realms somewhat more exciting than me. I had imagined her as having a security I couldn't really expect at this stage in my life. I had imagined, in short, her a happy person that she was not. And somehow I had imagined myself as less secure and (frankly) happy than I am.
Well... we finished the job, and knew we'd have a little more work together in the near future, then went to dinner to continue the conversation. I could tell this wasn't a subject she particularly wanted to bring up routinely (and really, that's a mercy). I might of learned something about listening that day. All the regular stuff about actively listening, and repeating what you hear back, sure. All the regular stuff about talking in the same ratio as your two ears to your one mouth, sure. But what about the gifts of recognition that the narrative of another brings to you. You read about the power of narratives in our lives to deceive us, to cause us to imagine our world as a predictable and recognizable place, whereas in matter of fact it is anything but. You read (or hear, or believe) that the world is inexplicable, unknowable, has no end and no beginning. You maybe start to believe that all stories we tell each other are a little foolish. We a bunch of ants, crawling in alarm at the overturned logs of the bigger more real world. Mice and men and all that Jazz. And then, you get washed up in the story of your suffering friend. Someone you admire for all the right reasons. Someone you have always felt gave promise to a world that the purist cynic and pessimist could not afford to believe in. Someone who now told you of the darkness that they had been in even while you believed them happy.
I can see how her story might confuse me. Turns out I can't count on people being as happy as they act. Can you see, however, how she moves me? How the failure of her narrative to account for her behavior only speaks to the host of things that makes us human beings so much more than life forms, or animals, or risk averse actors in a web of self vs. social interest. Sometimes the personhood of another reaches out and rearranges the letters that spell your bonds of friendship out. And you realize that those old words look foreign now, but your selves are lit anew.