Monday, February 24, 2014

The Precariousness of Friendship

Not very long ago, I lost a friend.  She can still be found but she prefers it not to be by me.

The reason she no longer wishes to hear from me seems almost silly, but apparently not to her. After a lunch together that went wrong for a number of reasons (missed communications about time and place, for example), I mentioned in an email to a mutual friend that "she's got to be the most fidgety person I've ever met."  Because the comment was accidentally attached to another email to both of us, my remarks were included in a later response, and she saw them.

My apologies were to no avail.  Stung by my judgement, she offered a few of me.  That they didn't seem true was irrelevant.  I'd hurt her and she managed to hurt me back.

The roots of our friendship did not go very deep.  We met in Bangkok a few years ago and shared our stories, and when she traveled elsewhere we continued an email/Facebook relationship which included playing a long-running internet word game.  It always made me happy to see her, and I liked to think this was reciprocated. I continue to believe I am good friend material and am rarely critical about the traits or opinions of others which might differ from my own.  My intentions, I feel, are always honorable even though they may not always be perceived as so.

So to experience dislike always comes for me as a shock.  It happened a couple of years ago with a friend I'd made at the expat Buddhist group in Bangkok.  We commiserated and appreciated each other's ideas and writing,  and we exchanged biographies and our thoughts about religion. One Christmas season he took me to the Anglican caroling service.  I brought him to the meeting of a Catholic meditation group.  Then something I wrote in a blog about Buddhism and a particular teacher offended him.  He sent me angry emails that impugned my motives and intentions.  The defensive response I offered fell flat.

A few years later we actually rekindled our friendship.  But it didn't last long.  We had a difference of opinion about Muslims.  He thought their religion was little more than institutional terrorism.  My position, that there are fanatics in all religions and that the basic beliefs are benign and can be compatible, was rejected out of hand by him.  For the second time, he blocked me on Facebook and cut off all contact.

I've never been very confrontational.  Some of my oldest friends are extremely conservative in their political views and we walk the tightrope of friendship by steering clear of political imbalance.  Two friends from high school I loved dearly both died last year.  The joint memory of our times together in the past outweighed the fact that I was a communist, or worse, in their eyes. Others from 50 years ago have not cut me so much slack and they have de-friended me over incommensurate political views.

At least three Jewish friends from my days in the music business in the 1970s, have cut off all contact with me because of my support for the Palestinian cause and criticism of Israel.  One had even come to visit me in Bangkok and was a guest in my home.  Her identity was so tied up with Israel that she found it impossible to forgive my view that treatment of the Arab minority was akin to apartheid in South Africa.  I enjoyed her company and her perspective on life but she was unable to appreciate my dissonance.

I can't help wondering if my explanations for the loss of friendships are only justifications I use to bolster my self image as a kind and harmless friend whose tolerance is not matched by others. The friendships that led to two marriages both degenerated in the end to conflicting stories told by angry adults.  The first lasted 10 years, the second 24.  In the beginning love was blind, in the middle it negotiated and compromised, and by the final days it snarled and sputtered out accusations that were more satisfying than true.

Perhaps there is something wrong with me.  I try to interrogate myself as honestly and thoroughly as possible.  There are clues everywhere.  Why have I not been in contact with my two youngest offspring for over a year?  My son wrote a letter strongly critical of my lifestyle which I took in the spirt of "fuck you."  My daughter refused for over five years to explain why she took the loan I co-signed and used it for living expenses rather than the school for which it was intended.  The final straw was her email about a psychic who had told her she was molested by me when she was two, and she wanted to know if it was true.  I de-friended them both on Facebook, petty yes, but the only reaction that made sense at the time.  Social networks have come to define my relationships.

The wife who divorced me after 24 years tried to keep in touch, "for the sake of the children," until she discovered a sizeable debt on her credit report from a card we had taken out together years before but one on which I had unintentionally retained her name.  It wasn't deliberate, but the debt was now too high to be easily paid off.  That displeased her greatly, and she no longer encourages me to stay in touch with our children.  This is clearly my fault and I'm contrite, but not overly so.  She'll be fine until I die and the credit buzzards go after their money.

My oldest son and my brother are Facebook friends and we occasionally comment and like each other's digital offerings.  This family interaction certainly contains none of the warmth or intimacy of an in-person visit, but given my distance from them, it's all I can manage for now.  While I take our relationship for granted, I also know that words and deeds in the past have made it difficult to achieve the kind of closeness of the TV families whose lives we shared when we were young.

At 74, I can't afford to lose many more friends or family members.  Fortunately my Thai wife is loving and considerate, and promises that she will take care of me when I begin to drool and forget.  I wonder if she realizes the extent of her commitment?  When I can no longer teach or move about easily in this big city, we will retire to her village in the north where my Social Security will provide comfort for my entire extended Thai family.  Of course, if the bullets start flying in Bangkok, this move may happen sooner rather than later.

I do have friends.  When I returned to Santa Cruz in 2010 I was astounded to discover how many people were still willing to call me friend and help me at a stressful time.  I continue to correspond by email/Facebook with friends I've known for much of my life.  Here in Thailand, I've met a number of new friends through the Buddhist expat group and at several other discussion groups in which I participate, and I even have a few Thai friends from school.  While not as social as my oldest friend Jerry, I manage to set up a couple of appointments for various events almost every week. Essentially, however, I'm more solitary than social and enjoy the company of myself at home, connected to the world through the internet, and able to sample the cornucopia of entertainment offerings via torrents.

Once I thought that wisdom would come with age, but now I know that time brings more confusion rather than certainty.  When I was a young father I tried to be the sort of guide that I thought parents should be, but I rarely felt successful at it.  I was a late bloomer in school and didn't go to university until midlife when I stayed for over 15 years and three degrees; none of my children emulated me.  My daughter disliked my name so much she picked her own, the maiden name of a maternal grandmother.  Despite recent setbacks, I have always felt more successful as a friend.  Many I've kept for over half my life and the internet enables those without computer phobia to keep in touch.  Some of the friends I'm making now will last the rest of my life.  If only I don't blow it.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post. Differences of political opinion coupled with other incompatibilities are what dissolved our facebook friendship--for me at least. I think both of us had the correct first impression--that the best way to stay in touch was through our blogs. Have a good life, Doctor.

Sam said...

I'll bet this all started because you were using Gmail's goddam conversation view which groups messages together. I have disabled it after it started to drive me mad.