Appearing here Wednesdays, Turning The Screw provides existential crisis counseling for the faint of heart. “Stone soup for your dark night of the soul!”
When do you know it’s time to pull the plug on a longstanding friendship that is messed up? My spouse and I have been friends with another couple, I’ll call them Ann and Ned, for 25 years. They were smart and loyal and generous. They seemed to us, at the time, to have it all figured out. What we brought to the party was a sort of easygoingness and flexibility and a sense of fun. They gave us solidity and we loosened them up. It was good.
Eventually they had a kid and moved from the city to the burbs. They were anxious parents who didn’t get a sitter until the kid was almost four. We didn’t see much of them during that time and only in kid-friendly places when we did. Did I mention we don’t have kids? It was okay; we were flexible and let them call the shots. We vacationed together and had good times. We were added to family parties because neither of them got along with their families and we did our best to be social lube even though it wasn’t exactly fun for us. When it came time for us to buy a house we ended up looking all over and buying a house in the same town as them. So it was easier than ever to hang with us whenever they wanted to.
As the years passed there was a shift. The two of them were from upper-middle to upper-class families and they’ve lived like they were in that tax bracket, even though they don’t have that income. Ned has a longstanding chronic illness. He needs to work less but he can’t afford to because of the money they waste. The WASTE drives me crazy—toys the kids never opened, a particular antique collection that Ned has, food bought from high-end catering shops even though Ann is a stay-at-home mom who is a great cook. Though it wouldn’t drive me crazy if I didn’t have to hear, simultaneously, how they’re in financial straits.
I guess the split really started to open when, in the months after 9/11, we took a course on Christianity that seemed life changing at the time. Our friends are non-religious and they seemed threatened by any aspect of spirituality transforming our lives. They repeatedly asked us if we were in a cult! They couldn’t understand why anyone would want to explore their relationship to a higher being. We realized then that they were pretty much hollow at the core and trying to fill the hole all the time with stuff they bought. We made some new friends in town and started doing fun things with them. That’s when the situation started to get weird. Ann would make plans with me and forget about them and imply that I got it wrong. I let it go a couple times until finally, after passing on an event I really wanted to go to, and getting stood up by her, I confronted her. She didn’t like it, but she apologized and invited us for dinner a couple weeks away. She was to call me to let me know the date and time. The two weeks passed without a word and on the Friday of that weekend we came home from dinner out to a series of freaked-out phone messages, starting with “Hi, it’s 6:00 and we’re wondering when you’re going to get here.” It was as if she needed to even the score, by making it seem like I was standing HER up. Yes, she’s in therapy. No, it’s not helping. Anyway, they made an utterly lame excuse to not come to a picnic that I threw for my husband’s fiftieth birthday. I mean, I know they don’t like parties with more than four people but how many times did I chat up their mothers at their parties when I would have rather been doing ANYTHING else.
I feel like that by being easygoing all those years and never calling her out on her shit I kind of created a monster. I know that one of the big changes that happened is not just their shit but me not wanting to be passive anymore. And that it’s too late to start doing that now. But what’s weird is she wants to act like we’re still friends and make plans to make plans, that sort of thing, but without any follow through. Ned was very sick earlier this year and we had this very touching and tearful conversation with her at the hospital. Then, nothing. It feels strange not to be friends with them, especially because we once were and we still live in the same town. They missed my fiftieth birthday this summer (out of town, supposedly, a more plausible excuse at least) and promised to go out for dinner when they got back—three months ago now. It’s over, right? Do we just treat them like acquaintances if we meet by chance?
Dear Over It,
Wow, I’m not surprised you have such a good relationship with God. You guys have so much in common! You both give and give and give and give and do things you don’t feel like doing for centuries on end. Since you haven’t spoken up since the days of Moses, people step on your toes and take your name in vain and desecrate your likeness and you put up with it. Until one day, when there’s a tsunami or an earthquake or a landslide and then? Everybody finds out you were mad at them that whole time! Who the fuck knew?
Maybe Ann is nuts and maybe she isn’t. Maybe she should be cooking more often. Maybe she shouldn’t waste so much money. Maybe she’s a hollow shell of a human being who can only fill the void with high-end food from tasty catering shops. Now you’ve just described everyone I know, except for my brother, who spends more time and energy securing free frequent flyer miles than most people spend at their day jobs. Everyone in the world is half-nuts, doesn’t cook enough, wastes too much money, and is looking to fill one void or another, either by seeking a personal relationship with our Lord and Savior or by memorizing the lyrics to every Pavement song ever written or by collecting antiques or by hoarding frequent flyer miles. These aren’t legitimate reasons for resenting your friends.
But who needs legitimate reasons? Obviously we all become allergic to certain people for good and bad reasons over the years. That part is forgivable. What busts my buttons is that you seem to want to make sure Ann recognizes that you’ve rejected her. You want her to know that those strange waves offshore are actually a tsunami of retribution for the nutjob shit she’s pulled over the past two decades. Meanwhile, you describe this strange stuff she does, but it’s impossible to tell if it’s all a misunderstanding or not, because you made no effort to get to the bottom of it, you just cringed and rolled your eyes and added it to your list of trespasses against you.
This is why you ask, “Do we just treat them as acquaintances if we see them on the street?” No, that would be wrathful, like your good buddy in the sky. (Yes, I’m unfairly assuming you’re pals with the Judeo-Christian Lord, instead of a slightly groovier incarnation.) This is what people do when they stop being friends: They skip your husband’s 50th birthday party, but they’re still touching and tearful when you see them, i.e. they honor the history between you in spite of the distance between you. But you want a little fire and brimstone, don’t you?
You say you’re less passive now. So maybe you’ll tell your fun new friends what’s important to you. When major transgressions occur, you’ll clue them in, in a forgiving way. Maybe you’ll give your new friend’s husband the benefit of the doubt when, stricken by Crohn’s or MS or whatever, with a shorter balance of days than the rest of us, he indulges in the miso-marinated black cod from the high-end catering joint a little more often than he technically should. But you know what? I don’t think so. I think you trick yourself into thinking that you’re a kind and forgiving soul, but you still stew over this shit. People should do things the way you do them.
I suggest you explore a relationship with some different sorts of higher beings—the less passive, less wrathful varieties of gods who don’t mind speaking up when you’re being a pious fuckwinder. “You’re just jealous!” Zora, the fast-talking goddess of interpersonal generosity will snap at you when you start casting aspersions on other people’s spending habits. “If you don’t want to go to the fucking family gathering, don’t go!” Peter, the surly god of healthy boundaries will snort in your ear. “So they hate picnics and can barely digest your cooking,” Margaret, the outspoken god of acceptance will murmur. “Cut them some slack, you have a long history together.”
I’ve said enough, but I still feel like I should state the obvious: You’re haunted by this friendship because, crazy or not, you love those two. Sensing a shift between you, they rather healthily stopped going out of their way to see you, but Ann still signals her interest, unfocused as it is, to continue a friendship. I would decide to accept them for who they are, and set up the occasional crystal clear, agreed-upon plan via email so no one is confused. Then lean into the shared history and love between you, and ignore all of these manufactured bad vibes, which don’t add up to a hill of beans. The level of crazy you’re describing isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker—or you should hope it’s not, since you’re just as crazy as she is.
So life is short. And life is precious. And life is for the livin’. I understand that. I even work in a hospital where people are frequently recovering from amputations and strokes and things of that nature, and so I really, really appreciate all that.
My problem is this: I can’t seem to forget how short life is, and that’s making me freak out a little more every time I think about it.
Everything I am doing in my life right now is for the future. I am working full-time to pay for full-time school, and I have several years of grad school yet to go ahead of me. I’m studying to be a physical therapist. I have a wonderful partner who is loving and supportive and who has been through hellfire and back with me. I have a place to live, a healthy family, and no health problems of my own. So I feel a bit silly even worrying about anything like this.
But every time I start thinking about the finiteness of it all, every time I go to the hospital and see these people who are dying or will never walk again, I suddenly have this uncontrollable urge to uproot everything I hold dear and move to Thailand or Istanbul or Sicily. Either that or leave my wonderful loving stable affectionate good-looking boyfriend and start sleeping with sweaty chain-smoking hipster boys who wear pants that are too big for them. And I know this is a bad idea. I know it would not make me happy, in part because I’ve done it before—both the moving to foreign lands and the sweaty hipsters. But the feeling is just so powerful… it’s like I’m cheating myself of real life by living this happy but fairly banal existence. If I’m not hiking up mountains in Bhutan or being a fire-breather with a traveling carnival, am I really making the most of this short life?
What’s this about? Is it midlife stuff? I’m 30, and I think that is freaking me out just ever-so-slightly, but 30 certainly ain’t midlife. All I know is, when I hear that life is short, I feel a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I fear that I am not living well enough.
Dear Ms. X,
Our culture tends to froth over anyone who hikes up mountains or meditates in a cave or drops everything and moves to Costa Rica or joins a traveling carnival, but have you ever met the sorts of people who do this shit? Yes, some of them are truly incredible. They’ll tell you stories about hopping freight trains in Nevada while the robot they built brings you a drink from the mini-fridge in their warehouse loft. They’ll even listen when you tell them about your boring life, and they’ll act like it’s not boring at all.
But others of them can be found talking in circles while riding bicycles in circles at Burning Man. Or tossing back beers in Prague, regaling strangers with the intestinal troubles they encountered in Nepal. You know that guy who chopped his arm off in Zion National Park, and even Danny Boyle couldn’t make him seem like a mildly interesting person with a single original thought floating around in his dank cave of a head? That guy believes in taking life by the horns, he believes in taking the road less traveled, he believes in seizing the day, and I bet he’ll describe his beliefs in exactly those sorts of recycled clichés until you want to cut your own arm off just to be free of him.
(Yes, I unfairly assume this based on the movie. I know that guy about as well as I know the Judeo-Christian god. In fact, Darla, the goddess of shutting the fuck up, is telling me to shut the fuck up about that guy. The man has half an arm, for Christsakes.)
The point is, we celebrate these people, many of whom are crapping into holes in Third World countries precisely because they can’t stand ordinary first-world peoples and can’t envision themselves living in any kind of non-exotic society. We all get it, we can relate, sure, but we stay the course and try not to confuse cultural mediocrity or laziness with malevolence or inferiority, and we try to cultivate wellsprings of generosity and creativity and wildness inside whatever thoroughly mundane environment we inhabit. Have you read The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles? It’s a nightmarish, exquisitely well-crafted fable about the self-involvement and incommunicative pathology and overarching avoidance of these types. They’re cool, sure, but you wouldn’t want to count on one to load the dishwasher at night.
The real question for you isn’t whether to drop everything and hop a plane to Zimbabwe. The question is, are you dissatisfied with your boyfriend? Do you really want to be a physical therapist? There’s some aspect of your life that isn’t serving your soul, imaginary or not. Instead of fixating on the redemptive nature of distant places, you have to be honest about where you are right now. Which proves that some recycled clichés are worth recycling.
You have big, heavy questions and nagging doubts to share with Polly. Go ahead and write to her: firstname.lastname@example.org. You know you need to.
Previously: Ask Polly: I’m About To Have A Baby And I’m Freaking Out
Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is our new existential advice columnist. She’s also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Photo by Jim Sher.