Yesterday I went to a lunch for a beloved old friend; he is one of the most important people in my life. I knew his birthday was nearing--83 years old! He had invited three women, all of us in our forties or fifties; each of us adores and worships him and he loves us dearly.
One didn’t show up. I arrived a bit early, only to find my friend looking a bit glum and nonplussed. “She’s not coming,” he said, pointing to an empty chair. “She always does this. Cancels at the last minute.” I made soothing noises, and he smiled wanly. “That’s okay. I haven’t given up on her yet.” However, I noticed he was vexed, and he glanced at the empty chair from time to time throughout the lunch.
(Her behavior, I might add, violates a basic tenant of the Slow Love Life: SHOW UP. I know I have been the one to fail to do so, from time to time, and I realize how important it is to try and do better.)
We went on to a discussion about friends who drop you, and friends you drop because you have given up on them. My friend referred to a line in an Auden poem, to the effect that it was better to be left than to leave. Is that true? I haven’t stopped thinking about it.
One of the more upsetting things about the mid life crisis I write about in my new book, Slow Love, was the realization that people I had thought were loving friends were anything but. This subject has come up again and again in Q&A sessions during my readings. It resonates. Many of us have had the experience of having friends disappear while we were ill, or going through a divorce, or lost in mourning. It is as if people were afraid we might be contagious. Our troubles might spill into their lives. Or, they don’t know what to say, so they avert their eyes, little realizing that a simple line, a quick email, a kind gesture--anything--is better than nothing.
The cases in which friends disappoint are the easy ones: either you discuss, forgive and forget, or you strike a line through the relationship. The calculus--when to let go, when to work through it--is complicated and fraught. The durability of friendship has something to do with how long it has existed, the strength of each person involved, and the quality of the relationship when it was good. You have to make a judgment about balance: was there more bad than good, in the end? And, a frank assessment of the nature of its core. What is the emotional bedrock of the relationship? For instance, in the case of some work friends, I had to face up to the fact that once I no longer had an editorial budget I was no longer important. Hard cheese, as they say. (I love that expression.)
Sometimes you have to get divorced from friends, just like you have to get divorced from spouses. Sometimes that is the more loving thing to do--it means you are protecting yourself, and removing toxic energy from your life. Sometimes you just need a separation, while each person cools, and grows. Some friendships evolve as your life changes; others hit the wall. It is a painful rupture, not entered into lightly. It doesn’t mean the friendship was wrong to begin with--it means it has reached an impasse, or died. It certainly feels like a death; there is an empty space where there once was someone sitting in a chair, chatting and laughing. So be it. We become more cautious about giving our hearts wing, as we get older, because we are aware of the potential for loss, and anticipate its heavy burden.
But then again, we recover. We find new friends. Miraculously, even, we pick up lost, or dormant, friendships--I have recently connected with people who were my closest friends in elementary school, and in high school! What surprising joy--just to be in touch, however sporadically! And we learn not to place impossible demands. We learn to accept what it is our friends can give us, and not expect what they cannot give us. We practice resilience, forbearance, forgiveness--all the qualities that, in their very roots, indicate gifts for other people. We move on. Lovingly, hopefully, treading lightly.
I found the Auden poem I think my birthday friend was referring to--"The More Loving One"; it is beautiful and thought-provoking. My friend clearly interpreted the thought in the last sentence below to mean that it is better to be the one to be left behind, than to have to do the leaving, which to him is a torment. (I read it as more about unrequited love....) As he said, he is not ready to drop his errant guest--he loves her, knows she has a tendency to overcommit, and know that he will bask in her company some other time. But when the weighing up of options begins, one has entered the danger zone.
I’m not sure: sometimes I think it is better to do the leaving. I have read the poem hundreds of times, wondering if I agree, or not. But I am always moved and intrigued. I think I stayed in a painful relationship of unequal affection way too long because I was the more loving one, and it cost me health, happiness and peace. (But that’s another Slow Love story.)
Another couple I know has copied Auden's poem onto a wall of their house, to remind themselves of a necessary quality of cherishment in their relationship--if each of them wants to be the more loving one, there is a chance to overcome any strife. That makes perfect sense to me. Here is the first half:
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.
How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.