"One only understands what one tames. People no longer have the time to understand anything. They buy everything ready-made from the shops. But there is no shop where friends can be bought, so people no longer have friends. If you want a friend, tame me!"
So said the fox to the eponymous little prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupery's classic.
I have a friend I have known for a long time. Let’s call her Jinny. Jinny and I went to high school together and that’s about all we have in common. Jinny and I catch up once or twice a year, partly because she works shifts and I work days and we’re both part time and we both have little 'uns and few of our free days coincide. And partly because all we have in common is that we grew up in the same dull suburb and went to high school together.
In high school we were best friends, for reasons that are still unbeknownst to me. One weekend she invited herself over, armed with a packet of crinkle-cut salt and vinegar crisps. At first I thought it was because it was a hot day and my family had a swimming pool. But she kept coming over. Even in Winter. Even after my Dad gave us sweetcorn as an afternoon snack and it all got stuck in her brand new braces (and that must have hurt). We would write each other notes in class, hang out during breaks, call each other when we got home and spoke for hours. What was left to say, I really can’t remember.
She was super smart at sciences, me at arts and humanities. She was super sporty, I was a dancer and hammy school play actress. She worked a part time job and was otherwise a horsey girl, where I spent what spare time I had after ballet classes and play rehearsals reading and dreaming and pining for university and wishing I lead a more bohemian and independent life.
We always seemed to be in competition, something never occurred to me until after the fact, when I was subtly informed that I had lost. Jinny often reminds me of these times, of things I said and things I did: mostly things I can't remember and can't see the value of dwelling on.
But the thing that really makes me not want to see Jinny that often is that, more often than not, she will preface a reply to anything I say with “No” or "Not really" or "Yeah, but". To be honest, I feel so stupid and deflated and misunderstood after some of our catch-ups, that my impulse is to avoid them.
But I also have to step up and acknowledge a number of things. The first is that she is actually a kind-hearted and genuine person, who has supported me without question over many many years. She has been generous with her time and her knowledge, resources, as well as hand-me-downs from her little 'un (who is a year older than mine) and thoughtful gifts since I have become a mother. She would be an excellent person to turn to in a crisis, as she is level-headed, rational and trustworthy.
The thing is, I would have trouble turning to her or even admitting to her that I needed help, because of my pride.
This is partly because I don't want to open myself up to shame and ridicule or misunderstanding. After being told in no uncertain terms, time after time after time, that my conversational empathy is misguided, my confidence in the reciprocity of our friendship has been eroded.
But there's something else. I see myself writing this in such a way that highlights my victimhood whereas, in fact, I am the one to blame. I have known this girl for the best part of twenty years and do you think I have ever shared my concerns with her? Occasionally, I have tried to practice compassion towards her attitude, imagining it to be a manifestation of deep insecurity and a punishing need to be in control and to be right all the time. I have also questioned my own motivations, wondering why I am sensitive to disagreement and the possibility that I might just be wrong about something every now and again.
If I am committed to growing as a person, as a creative soul, as a mother, why do I avoid people who are going to challenge my world view? Is it possible to invest in these relationships in such a way that encourages growth and mutual understanding?
I wrote the above this morning then went for a walk with my little 'un, to an appointment. All the way along the journey, I pondered what I'd written, wondering how I'd wrap it up. I thought of Jinny, described in detail, and all the other people who have been in my life over the past few years (friends, partners, family, colleagues) who have tended to interact with me in a similar way.
I found myself thinking, "I am glad this is not where I spend the majority of my time anymore". Over the years, I have filtered these people and situations out of my life and I am highly sensitive to the signs in new friendships and professional relationships.
My thoughts then went to my husband, my immediate family, my closest friends, my favourite colleagues and I saw with sudden clarity why I continue to choose their company over all others. They love me the way I need to be loved. They treasure me for who I am and they know that I am coming from a good place, even if I don't always get it right. They are not threatened by who I am and heartily celebrate my achievements with me. They share their own stumblings and fears, and find ways of letting me know if they need more from me.
Together we are not perfect or happy or always in seamless communication. But we are real, we are ourselves, and we are in it for the long haul, without question or requirement.
I think it was Brene Brown who once said, "You can't shame someone into changing". Personally, I am not keen to try and change anyone, although I can see that there is room for greater honesty and authenticity in sharing my needs and preferences with those dearest to me. But I see now that it is possible for me to grow into my best self through spending time with people who really get me, to the extent that if they need to share something a bit difficult, they'll do it in such a way that doesn't make me feel small or ashamed.
So maybe, Mr Fox, by choosing the friendships that help me flourish, I will develop greater understanding of how to tame feelings of unworthiness?