I’ve been sitting in the breakdown lane this weekend, watching traffic pass me by, (all their cars work!) and wondering why my car, which has been just fine, has suddenly stopped functioning.
We’ve probably all done this at least once, literally speaking. Metaphorically speaking, we’ve all done it many times. We go along in our small world, and as far as we know everything is status quo and just what we expect, and then, suddenly, it isn’t. Things go off the rails and all we can think is WTF?
Sometimes I’m the one who has suddenly gone off the rails. Except, looking back, I realize it wasn’t sudden at all. Sometimes the breakdown was years in the making, but I wasn’t present enough with myself and my feelings to notice the gradual fraying and come up with a plan. Grimly, I hung on, hoping, waiting, hurting myself, arguing with what was, denying my experience, trying harder, drowning in shame, crippled by fear, until I absolutely could not hang on any longer and my last fingernail tore out.
Then I let go, after it was far too late to problem solve or help myself or anyone else involved.
I still regret I have not always had the support or resources to make different choices. I hurt myself, and I hurt others. I take responsibility for my behavior and clean up what I can, but some things just can’t be fixed — and perhaps shouldn’t be in any case.
I think a lot about these sudden moments where things fall apart, either within us or between us. The breakdown lane is like a time out, an enforced pause. In a moment or two, the whole aspect of the day, the future, and my plans have changed. I realize I’m not in control. All I have is an unpleasant snarl of disappointed expectations, thwarted intentions, frustration, anger and a need to blame someone or something, including myself.
A broken car or piece of equipment is one thing. An interpersonal breakdown is another.
Few things are more painful than feeling unloved, unwanted or rejected by someone we care about. Hell, it’s painful when we feel those things from someone we don’t care about. Imagine being an immigrant in this country right now.
I have felt unloved, unwanted and rejected. I’ve also had loved ones tell me they feel unloved, unwanted or rejected by me. As I know that’s not how I feel about them, I question my certainty that others feel that way about me. If they’re misinterpreting my actions, words and choices, perhaps I’m doing the same thing.
Our feelings are real. The stories we make up about them may not be. In other words, I might feel rejected when the person I’m interacting with has no intention of sending that message. The way I express love and affection may be so different from someone else’s idea of how to express it that it’s lost in translation.
That doesn’t mean it’s not present.
I focus a great deal on language in this blog. I do that because words matter. They have layers of meaning. It seems to me nearly every interpersonal breakdown can be traced to a misunderstanding over a definition of terms. Getting at the bottom-line meaning of a word is as easy as looking it up:
Friend: “A person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of sexual or family relations.” (Oxford online dictionary)
Pretty simple, right? We all know what it means to be a friend and have a friend.
Except we don’t. We might agree on that basic definition, but I suspect we each assign a whole world of additional personal meaning to the word friend, and that world contains longings, memories, hopes and fears, expectations, deep needs, beliefs, and old scars and wounds.
I’ve been thinking about that. When I talk about, think about and participate in friendship, what does that mean to me? What is a friend, besides someone I know and with whom I have a bond of mutual affection?
It’s a great question. I wish I could ask everyone I know. I won’t, because for some reason this kind of question seems to make most people uncomfortable, but feel free to volunteer an answer!
At this point in my life, I’m not interested in constructing relationships out of expectations and an attachment to outcomes. I’ve always operated in a framework of both of those in my relationships, and it’s never worked. In the last four years I’ve taken a clear, cold look at my previously unconscious expectations of self and others and the myriad ways in which I’ve sabotaged myself and others with attachment to certain agendas and outcomes.
What I do instead (and a joyous, fascinating, loving process it is) is observe with curiosity and interest as relationships form and change. Viewed from this perspective, it’s like nurturing a child, a garden where we’ve planted seeds, an animal, or a piece of land. Freed from my extremely limited and limiting expectations and agenda, I can watch and appreciate all the unexpected, magnificent ways we are — and life is.
It’s the difference between saying: “This is who I (or the other) must or must not be,” and “Who are you?” or, even better, “I want everything you are and nothing you’re not.” Say that (and mean it) to yourself or someone you love every day and I guarantee your relationships will change for the better.
So, now, what do I mean by a friend?
A friend is someone with whom I can laugh, explore new information and ideas, excavate less-than-useful beliefs and patterns, learn and unlearn. A friend is someone with whom I engage in a contest of generosity. I want to ask questions, pull things out from under the bed and let the cat sniff at them, be wrong, problem solve, consider options. I want to practice boundaries, tolerance, respect and being real. I want to allow and be allowed. I want relationships that make my life bigger. I want to share reading, movies, music, memories, silence, work, nature, my truths. I want someone who says, “make yourself big!” while pursuing that same goal themselves.
(Not coincidentally, this is the kind of friend I strive to be to others.)
When I consider the above paragraph, and imagine each of us could write an equally long but different paragraph, the concept of friend goes rapidly from a simple one-sentence definition to something much more complicated and personal. This wouldn’t be so problematic if we were aware of it, but we’re not. We say friend, knowing exactly what we mean, and never considering the person we’re talking to, who’s also using the word, means something different.
Then, one day, these two invisible sets of definitions, expectations and desired outcomes collide and we experience hurt, outrage, betrayal, anger, disappointment, rejection, fear, and disconnection.
I admit I have no fix for this ubiquitous problem. Even being aware of how differently we define terms doesn’t save me from ending up sitting in the breakdown lane. It would be good if the problematic words in any given relationship had a tag warning us of problems ahead if we aren’t careful to understand one another from the beginning.
On the other hand, that would take out the part where we sit in the breakdown lane trying to understand what just happened, how and if to fix it, and how our choices led to it. Uncomfortable as it is, I value that opportunity.
Sitting in the breakdown lane with my heartbeat and breath. Feeling my feelings. Curious about what will happen next. Confident that when it’s time to move on I’ll know it and do so. Considering what I might learn in this space. Getting bigger. Getting bigger. Getting bigger.
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