A few months ago I wrote a little bit about trying to "get out there" and make friends. This is an enduring process and I can't say I've done much good at it so far. I've started being able to talk more to some people at karaoke; I'm still connected to some people from the play. This is all good. As the New York Times editorial says (embedded above), I find I "'take an extremely efficient approach and seek out like-minded folks to fill very specific needs.'" And I'd like to think that's OK.
For example, I find myself seeking musicians to play with. When I was younger, I basically gravitated towards other musicians and they gravitated towards me. It was astoundingly easy to find other musicians to play with. Today, however, i find myself far more picky; I play with musicians with high hopes, but don't seem to have the patience I once had with musicians who might not blend so well with me. But here I go, still seeking out some people to fill the "musician need" in my life.
Out of all this, I've grown far more aware of the importance of old friends, of those friendships I developed long before I got so picky. I've found myself reconnecting with them in the old ways: by telephone, by dropping in when I'm in the area. This has been good. I've been grateful for this because these people who've known me for the longest amount of time tend to know me best, because they can saw the good in me before I may have jaded them.
I still maintain connections with plenty of people I knew from University, church, summer camp, and high school. Facebook has helped me keep in touch with a few of them, even though I don't see them often. This is good too, I guess. I used to be cynical about the way Facebook seemed such a shallow gathering place, and I still am, but more importantly I use Messenger to say "Hello" to people when I'm in the area, when I feel like I might have the opportunity to drop by. This is good.
There's an irony in this: I used to feel pretty critical about how my parents seemed to maintain their friendships. Most of their friendships were based around church or my dad's old car club. However, now I find that I'm in the same boat, even though my activities are different. The greatest joy of doing those community theatre productions was their church-like atmosphere, the way adults from different corners of the community came together to put on a project that mattered to them. My parents' friendships, which seemed oft-fleeting and organization-based, are now part of my normal everyday interactions.
I'd still love to meet a really good friend nearby, but I feel like at this point they might not be close to my age. They might be a decade older or younger than me, 'cuz adults don't need those delineations.
And it's crazy how work can get in the way. This term, all of my socializing centred on the play. Beyond that, I simply didn't have the time to do anything but try to rest and get things done at home. When the semester turns over in a couple weeks, I hope to feel like I can hang out with people in the evenings again.
Adult friendships are hard. But I'd like to think I'm getting used to it.
When coping, we all project to some degree or another. When we empathize, we project a little bit upon others and assume that we can get into their shoes and see things from their perspective. We need to project a little bit because, ultimately, we're all alone. We do our best to make community, but ultimately we're very alone.
A few months ago I came across this infographic while navigating Pinterest. It really bothered me to discover it. However, I've learned to do my best to pay special attention to things that seem to irk me, so here it is:
My issue is that I really don't want to be the manipulator. But I read through those "red flags" and can't help but feel like I've taken part in a good portion of those.
But I've gotten to a point where I second-guess my intentions so much that I can't help but feel like I must be a manipulator, that I must be a desperate, terrible person to have the desires that I do, to have said the things I have. And then I spiral downwards, unable to even fully come to grips with my own sense of reality. And I wonder if I'm just some projection machine, blasting everyone around me with my own ego.
That's the thing about being in relationship with people: friends, intimate partners, spouses, children, etc.: context really does make a difference. All. The. Time. And we hope that our relationships can share a common reality.
And when they don't seem to share that common reality, our shared projection gets blurry and out of focus. And then we realize just how alone we can be.
So I'm astoundingly grateful for those relationships with whom I seem to be able to share a common projection, with whom it seems like we can look at the same screen and perceive a clear image. I cherish shared a clear images of the world, even if the image itself is a little unseemly.
A few months ago, while I was reading Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence, I came across his summary of John Gottman's marriage studies. In response, I posted the following to Twitter:
I believe I was referring to this general section of Emotional Intelligence:
This was a rather frustrating section of the book to read. I saw my own experience written so clearly that it really hit home how predictable the pattern was in my own marital breakdown. Although I had originally thought I was experiencing something unique, in reality I was experiencing what millions of couples have experienced over the years. I didn't have the energy to do much more with it at the time, but I felt a little less alone.
Two days ago, I had a meeting with a Family Justice Counsellor. It was a good meeting that helped give me a little more direction in this separation process. The counsellor recommended John Gottman's work, saying that it might be useful to read it even though my marriage itself is over. She said, "You're still a family, even if you're living in different places. The ideas in Gottman's work might be useful for communication even when you're separated."
So I meandered down to Nugget's Used Books and bought a copy of Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: and how you can make yours last.
It's got 231 pages. I'm currently at 119.
And blammity-blammity, wowee-zowee, this is some convicting shit.
I have often been accused of being defensive and been very frustrated with feeling like I can't defend myself without digging myself into a hole. Although I'd recently seen a clear explanation of defensiveness's destruction a few weeks ago, this section from Gottman hit hard about just how my I-think-I'm-doing-the-right-thing behaviour was actually something that dug me deeper and deeper into a hole. Gottman writes,
And then, a few pages later, there was this description of "stonewalling." And my heart sank.
Because I did it. I flooded, I stonewalled. I chose to stonewall and decided that I was doing the right thing, trying to be "neutral," trying to put off the discussion until things had calmed down, until I could think clearly. Instead, it was the final nail in my marriage, the act that shut it down more than anything else, the act that solidified the negative thoughts that bounced back and forth for the months that followed.
I'm still amazed that I can pick up a published book and read my own experiences in it. It seems so... petty. I feel, I should be better than that, or I should have known better. It's humbling to see just how normal it is because it means that if I'd made different decisions, different choices, and maintained things better, there's a good chance that I could have cut a lot of this off a long time ago and maybe continued to have a positive relationship with my ex-wife. But I didn't. And we're done.
I'm a really average, normal guy.
Normalcy is the stepping-off point for my new life.
While my partner and I go through our separate separation processes, we're both travelling parallel paths to self-knowledge a little. We're both learning about re-establishing our boundaries; we've both recognised some of our recurring relationship patterns that don't work in our favour; we've both tried to come to terms with our baggage. Simply put, we're following the classic long-term relationship breakup process:
The heartbreaking thing about all self-improvement is that it couldn't have happened earlier. A few weeks ago, she asked me if there was some moment in the past that I would go back to, some singular, particular moment where I could have made a different choice and had everything go differently, something that could have saved us from our current mutual heartbreaks.
But I couldn't think of one. I've made a lot of mistakes, and I can think of some ways that I could have set up better boundaries, but I can't think of anything I'd change. Life doesn't give us the option to just go back and fix the past, so I do my best not to dwell on those types of hypotheticals. Perhaps that's one of the reasons I've avoided science fiction over the years; I'd rather deal with those sorts of hypotheticals outside of narrative.
As I've said before, I'm doing my best to avoid the act of blame in my life. Right now, blame is growth's nemesis. I have no interest in blaming my partner, my upbringing, or myself for the way my marriage and relationship have gone. I will take responsibility for the careless words I've said and the ways I've given in to self-created pressures, but I need to keep blame out of it. It's been a difficult tension to maintain, but a good one to practice. I find it much easier to sympathize with people and see their hearts clearly when I try to frame their behaviour without blaming them for my own pain.
Over the last few weeks, I've tried to think about how I would go back and change things, to make it all better, to fix things, but there's no way to go back, no matter what Jay Gatsby (embedded above) thinks. I tried to contort my brain to imagine such a moment, but my efforts fell short. Instead, I have to admit to myself that our personalities smashed up against one another and over the years we grew apart, little choice by little choice. It's heartbreaking, of course, to lose a friend this way, but that's just how it's gone. And I can't blame anybody for it.
Because that's the nature of personal growth, of the experiences that make us who we are. We learn where our boundaries are and move them around over time; we discover needs we never knew; we learn that our upbringings can only take us so far.
And there's no one to blame for that.
For years, I've tried to see opinions from the opinionator's perspective. When I was religious, for example, I felt it important to understand how non-religious people saw the world and deliberately sought to understand my faith from "their" perspective; now, as a secularist/humanist/whatever, I think it's important to understand and remember how religious thinking frames one's overall mindset and do my best not to dismiss religious ideas. I think I'm fairly good at maintaining two separate truths in situations like this; empathy is something I'm generally at peace with, and it tends to work for me.
However, the social media echo chamber is a legitimate concern. On Twitter, etc., it takes effort and dedication to "follow" people who piss you off. I recently came face to face with this when I unfollowed a Twitter user whose raison d'etre had morphed into an anti-feminist MRA mouthpiece. I followed them for a long time despite my differing perspectives on things, but I could no longer handle (what I saw as) their closed-minded vitriol. It's perfectly OK to close out toxic people and perspectives; it's my right to do that. Right?
However, when I unfollowed them I simultaneously closed one more door to an alternate opinion and way-of-seeing-the-world, and I'm not fully at peace with that. I hate vitriol, but I want to understand the different ways our society disenfranchises different people. As much as I tend to see Men's Rights Activists as inconceivable, misguided, entitled whiners, I still want to keep myself open to perceived injustices. That's part of their angle on the world and the more clarity I have about their perspective, the more I'd hope that I won't fall into similar entitlement traps.
I think of this a bit when I see those articles about "Who are these Trump supporters," where writers try to make sense of Donald Trump's popularity in a population of people with whom they themselves likely have very little crossover. On reflection, I realized that I do not "follow" any Trump supporters that I know of in any of my social media feeds. I have "othered" that portion of the population and chosen to view them through my chosen people. In the case of Trump, just like with MRAs, I've justified closing my feed to their perspectives because I perceive them as misguided and intellectually and empathetically shortsighted. But I don't know if that's really the right thing to do.
As somebody who values empathy, I'm also aware of its weaknesses. Empathy doesn't help in every situation, and sometimes we can mis-aim it in careless directions, or people might aim it at us when we don't need or deserve it. Empathy is important in all relationships, but it's a skill we need to hone and practice every single day.
The following quotation, embedded below, describes a situation when empathy might be a little misplaced, since people might use your empathy as a tool for injustice.
In this case, it's important to remember that even if we can see something from somebody else's perspective, it doesn't mean they can see it from your perspective. The ability to empathize could be a rather narcissistic, assumptive skill; we assume we can do it and that our perception is accurate, and this very much might not be the case. Just because we feel that we're empathizing doesn't mean we are. Empathy is a sort of essential relational delusion that brings us together under seemingly common feelings and perceptions. We need it, but it's not necessarily accurate.
I guess what I'm struggling with right now is the fact that I feel as if I empathize with numerous different people and peoples, but I could very well just be narcissistically assuming something completely off-base.
I may empathize, but there's no way to prove that I can do it.
That means I have to trust myself. If I feel like I'm working hard at it, and if I'm trying to learn and practice empathy more, I also need to develop the self-confidence to trust my perception. And trusting myself has always been a very hard thing for me.
My empathy depends on my own self-trust.
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