How many times have I said this to my family, my students and myself? Hundreds. It is one of the themes I teach my students, one of the maxims I gave my children, a point my wife and I discuss and a truthful paradox I laugh about often.
The indictment is not one condemning friendship or relationships. Nor is it one that exclusively places blame for such disappointments. It’s more of a “buyer beware” maxim that calls into question both the seller and the buyer, a warning label that should be heeded but is usually ignored.
If I have a good friend, but one whom I know has a problem keeping a shared secret, it behooves me to keep said secrets to myself. If I know my friend cannot keep a secret, sharing one with them and expecting them to keep it is foolish. If despite this, I share anyway, hoping they will display different behavior, the responsibility for the consequences falls on me.
Does this mean they cannot be my friend? Some might say so. If a person has an ultimate mental canon of perfect friendship in their minds and holds all friends up to, those who fail to measure up might not be considered friends. I think this is flawed thinking, however. Ultimate friendship profiles are usually inspired by media: fiction, music, movies, television, etc; and mirror but darkly a faux reality shadowed by entertainment and profit. Holding real human beings up to such an ideal die is to do friends a disservice and to set oneself up for disappointment. Life is much more fragile and complicated than any friendships or relationships portrayed in the media. Ultimate and unrealistic criteria can leave one quite lonely.
Thus again, does this mean that those who cannot measure up to expectations cannot be friends? I believe they can, but only as long as I embrace their limitations or inabilities and do not expect more from them than they can deliver—and am willing to forgive them when I forget, and they can’t. If I do not expect friend “X” to keep my secrets and do not share my secrets with them, then I do not set both myself and them up for failure, disappointment and drama. We can still go out to pizza or a movie, party on a Friday night, laugh over past experiences or talk about religion, politics and best recipes, but if I need to share a secret, bare my heart or my deepest fears, I know they are not the friends to go to. We’ll both be happier and have more satisfaction from our relationship if I don’t.
This raises the issue of how does one know if a friend is one with whom secrets can be shared? This is the painful part of relationships and life; it’s all about experience, trial and error. Share a secret and find out. If they disclose the secret, it may hurt, but now I know their colors and can adjust my expectations accordingly. I may find myself at a painful crossroads. Was it a slip or a character flaw? If the relationship is one which I hope has depth, I might take a second chance. If my secret is once again shared, my path is then clear.
“Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me; fool me thrice and I’m just a fool.”
I have friends who say and do careless and hurtful things. Despite having such pointed out to them, they just do not understand the discomfort they cause. They are simply incapable of such recognition. Their characters will not allow for it. It would constitute an admission too hard and uncomfortable to acknowledge; one that would beg an adjustment too difficult and (to them) unnecessary to make. Do I discard them as friends? No…not necessarily. Unless what they are doing is harmful in some concrete way toward my reputation, myself, friends or family, I try to adjust my expectations, ignore their foolishness for what it is, and do my best to carry on. I find that nature takes care of the rest as we gradually go our separate ways.
The term “secret” is but a metaphor. Substitutions include: loan of clothes, money or lawn tools; promises or favors; baby, pet or house sitting; kindnesses or considerations; tutoring or lending a hand; moving help or answering calls of distress; sympathy or empathy; truth or honesty—friendships can flounder on many points. Some are more competitions of one-upmanship than anything else…feeling better at the expense of others (others, by the way, who are probably hoping we’ll rise above it and should clear us from their agendas when we don’t!).
Friendships are squishy things. Each has its own shape and tradition. Each must be judged on its own merit. Figuring them out is a skill that demands a different application each time and is something most folk work on all their lives. Half a century later, I’m still honing my skills, still hoping for the best, still being both disappointed and pleasantly surprised.
Along with this maxim, I also teach my students “never [to] place [their] total happiness on the hands of another…unless [they] are prepared to face the consequences.” Flawed we all are, mistakes we all make, but there is such a thing as foolishly placing the heart in harm’s way. This speaks more of personal desires and problems than it does the shortcomings of others.
I love my friends, but I try to keep in mind that my disappointments in our relationships do not necessarily originate with them, but ultimately in my own flawed needs and poor judgment. I cannot control my friends, but I can control myself and attempt to rein in unreasonable expectations and assumptions. It may not mean that all my relationships are carefree or as organic as I might wish, but it truly makes me thankful for those that are and makes me less stressful for that don’t.