Who Am I? Who Are We? Friendship, Relationships, and the Roles We Play

Michelle (skippingstones) recently posted an essay on honesty and openness.  Her post got me thinking about how my relationships with friends differ so much, why some friends know some things about me while others know entirely different things, and why I don’t feel like the same me all the time.  Then it occurred to me: it happens organically.  When I first meet a person, of course I’m consciously making some decisions about what to share with them and what to conceal, but mostly I’m going on autopilot.  My habits are making decisions for me.  Past experience is determining my present interactions with people who are at first strangers.  All of the subtle cues I get from them about who they are also influence how I behave around them.  I think carefully about some of these things, but most of my behavior arises from somewhere deeper, beneath my intellect.  Emotions drive much of what I do.

Then, one day, I pause, and I wonder why I feel like either a slightly or a wholly different person depending on whom I’m with and my relationship with them.  At first I’m inclined to think that over time I’ve chosen to hide certain things from certain people and reveal other things to other people and that these were rational choices, made so methodically that if I had perfect memory I might follow them one by one back to my first encounter with each person I know, as if it were a question of Newtonian physics: reconstruct the entire chain of causes and effects and I might arrive at the creation event itself, the beginning, moment one.

But then I see the truth: It just happened.  At first we were strangers, then, over time, we became friends.  We grew together and we changed together.  None of us knew what was happening until it had already happened.  We didn’t choose to be one way or another with each other.  We didn’t choose to hide this and reveal that.  It just happened.  Our identities and lives became entangled, and out of the complexity of this entanglement relationships formed, all of them different, all of them special, none of them perfect.  Only in hindsight does it seem that I chose to be open with this friend and a little more reserved around that friend.  The fact is that each of these relationships is different because the people involved are different.  I can’t be the same me around everyone I know because everyone I know is different, which means that my relationship, my entanglement, with each of them must also be different.

Dishonesty, openness, concealment certainly have a place in the formation of relationships.  I concede that.  But now I see that what I thought of as “roles” I was playing depending on whom I was with were actually manifestations of mutual relationships that were all unique.  I’m not the same around everyone, but I’m still me.  WE, however, are different when we’re around each other.  Together we’re something more, though we can’t be everything to each other.  And that’s OK.

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Moments Stolen From Time

My eyes welled up with tears as I watched my friends feed their son carrot purée for the first time in his life or theirs.  We were in their kitchen.  The baby, some six months old, sat in his high chair near the glass kitchen table.  Short blond hair curled about his head.  He gazed out at the world through blue eyes, and slobber dripped from his moistened lips.  His mother sat in a chair beside him while his father stood watching them both from three feet away.  The father grabbed the digital camera and snapped photos as the mother raised tiny spoonfuls of orange purée to their son’s mouth.  He licked his lips and frowned, then stared into space, lost in contemplation of this new texture, this new taste on his tongue that we call “carrot”, but that to him had never existed until that moment.  Mother and father alternated; one fed, one took pictures.  Both smiled.  Both laughed.  Eventually the baby smiled, too, though whether in reaction to the food or to his parents’ laugher, I didn’t know. 

I held back tears because I realized that I was watching a moment that is repeated thousands of times each day all over the world.  But here, in my friends’ kitchen, mother, father, and baby were experiencing it for the first time.  It didn’t matter that for millennia parents had fed their children and laughed with them.  For these two parents and for this family, it was all happening as if for the first time in history.

In my mind there flashed images of the times I had spent with my two good friends, chatting for hours in bars about subjects heavy and light, singing karaoke, and drinking our first margaritas together, days after we first met.  I remembered my friends as just a happy couple.  Now, before me, I saw the image of a happy family: a cute blond-haired kid and two parents who loved him as I may never love anyone, unless I have kids of my own.  And I saw their son ten, fifteen, twenty years in the future.  I saw him kicking soccer balls and chasing lizards, snatching spiders from sidewalks and thrusting them in the face of his terrified mother.  I saw him throwing a frisbee with the family Labrador, dressing up for prom, and driving off to college to find himself and his passions.  And I saw his parents accompanying him through it all, still laughing, sometimes scolding, always loving him. 

In that moment, while the father took pictures of his wife feeding their son tiny spoonfuls of carrot purée, I imagined both of them, some day in the distant future, flipping through a photo album—paper or digital, it doesn’t matter—and resting their eyes on the photos they took in the far-off past, when for the first time they fed their son puréed carrots.  And I imagined them tearing up the way I did when I saw them take those photos, when they stole from the clutches of time a moment I’ll always remember.    

Now, my friends have a new son, with thick brown hair and eyes that open as slits, perhaps pondering this new world of radiant light.  How is the baby to know whether he or the whole world itself was born just days ago?   A new story begins, with new photos and first moments to fill its pages.  I may never have kids, but I feel fortunate to have shared in these sacred moments and the happiness that flows out of them.