Thursday, February 16, 2012

On Expectations and Friendship

I expect too much from people. I expect one friend to be more open-minded, I expect my high-school girlfriend not to settle for an ordinary life, and I expect my best friend to become more productive, to be stronger and more assertive, to make the necessary sacrifices for his success. I am not exempt from this anticipation. But I am continually disappointed by everyone around me, most of all myself.

My own perceived failures are a subject for another day. But why do others continually disappoint us? Must we continually compromise in our hopes? I have had many close friends in this lifetime, and one by one they failed my hopes for them: geniuses flattened by the conventions of society, actors transformed into salesmen, writers stymied by hang-ups, smart people settling into to ordinary lives. That has always been something to transcend for me. In his mid-twenties, my best friend seemed to be satisfied with his ordinary life. But I saw in him the potential to become a great writer, hidden under insecurities and bad habit.

This filled me with frustration and I kept trying to hand him magic keys, to hit him with a Zen stick like the monks do when one falls asleep. "I don’t want or need your Zen stick.," he told me once. So, why did I continue to push him? Why did I find it necessary for my friend to become this supposed best self? Was it my own weakness that I was talking to? I can’t say, but it could have destroyed our friendship.

Finally, I did give him a key, the book Iron John by Robert Bly, and it changed his life. He is not only artistically productive now, he has taken charge of his existence and values in a way that exceeds mine. I can pat myself on the back and tell my ego that I had something to do with his apotheosis. But no doubt this sort of thinking only feeds my imaginary quest, especially since this rare success is the only one in my entire life that I can hesitantly point to. In every other case, my friends most likely sensed my disappointment and withdrew. I can definitively point to three or four cases of that process and they are not pleasant to examine. What was I doing wrong? I merely saw their magnificent potential and wanted them to develop it.

There are two things wrong with this attitude, which I share with any number of people, especially parents who expect too much from their children. First, one cannot be both friend and teacher without risking that friendship. Parents have a step up here, because their job for the first two decades or so is indeed as a mentor. But if they want to keep a relationship with their children after adulthood, then this point is something to keep in mind. Friendship is its own mode, and although no friendship is ever completely equal, trying to "fix" people’s faults is a sure way to tip the seesaw until someone falls off. And if we do give people magic keys, we must turn away and not suppose them to find the lock.

Second, people will always disappoint us if we harbor our own expectations for them. This amounts to having fantasies about other people’s lives, which they can never properly fulfill. Their shortcomings are in our projected, perfect image of them, not in their real self. Does this mean that we should accept whatever vices and horrors that our friends perpetrate? No, of course not. We must stop them from self-destruction and from hurting others or we are not being true friends. But being a true friend also means acceptance. Let’s say that in our projections we are actually correct about our friends’ failures and weaknesses. Accepting these weaknesses, both real and imagined, is the first step in acknowledging that they are human, not perfect beings of unlimited potential.

In that perfect, fantasy world, my friends won’t fail, I won’t fail, and we will stand at the top of a mountain as old comrades, with no dream left unrealized. But I cannot push them to achieve that if I want them to remain my companions. I must have no expectations, must live my own life to its potential and let them live theirs in whatever way they choose. And then, instead of trying to be the key-giver, I will be a friend, with no expectation except for the maintenance of our frail, too-human connections.

First published at Hackwriters.

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