"You're an asshole," I state into my dear friend's voicemail. I speak with an edge to my voice, an angry edge, because the feeling is all-consuming. I feel disrespected and I'm going to make her feel as badly as I do.
We exchange voicemails frequently. We always end on a good note. "Hang in there, my friend." Or, "you've got this. I know you do." Or, "I'm grateful for you and I'm glad you're my friend." Today, I didn't know how to conclude my message. I was so incredibly angry, I couldn't let the words I intended to say at the end, the words that would indicate to her I know she didn't mean to hurt me but that I felt hurt anyway, out of my mouth. I couldn't even manage to shift my tone from bluster and standoffish to my normal grace. I think I said something like, "okay. Well, I hope you have a good day. I don't know when we'll talk because I am still mad. So, you know. Bye."
I end the call and feel my stomach clench into a knot. My core belief that people are doing the best that they can and deserve a second, fifth, 40th chance, flies out the window as I drive.
Ordinarily, my talk is a good one: I want my heart to be tender and open and raw and vulnerable. I don't want to build an artificial casing and pretend armoring it will keep me safe. If safe means standing back, hiding on the sidelines, hoping no one will notice me so I don't risk being hurt, I don't want anything to do with it. At least in theory.
In reality, resisting the siren song of self-protection is tough. How do we ever really know if we can trust the people we meet in this life?
When I first get to know someone, I tend to let down my guard fairly quickly and often reveal what can later feel like too much. But true connection is a magnificent gift and I never want to let pass an opportunity to identify a kindred spirit. The easiest way to test the water is to include a few of the raw bits of my story and then learn from how the person responds.
Once, as soon as I shared with a well-known leader and connector in the Portland business community that I hadn't yet graduated from college, he spun on his heel and walked away from me. He didn't wait to hear me explain life was more important than a degree all those years ago. He didn't stay to hear me talk about my son and the incredible impact becoming a mom had on me. He didn't let me explain that I was enrolled in school, slowly toiling toward the degree I would earn 15 years, nearly to the day, after my classmates walked across the stage. All that mattered to him was my lack of pedigree.
When I experience a response like his, I'm tempted to redouble my efforts to not let my guard down so easily, to build a big fence to keep myself safe. Huge. I want to swear it won't happen again.
And then I meet another person, I see the infinite possibility of connection, and dip my big toe back into the vulnerability pond, certain one or more of these experiments will pay off.
Navigating the world of friendship as an adult is tough. Finding where I belong in a multitude of social situations—the high school-like Capitol community, hanging out with the parents of the kids on my sons' sports teams, the virtual world of inspiring writers and creators each at various stages on their journey as artists, friends with well-established social groups that I'm not a part of, friends with big jobs and scant time, my broadly defined family, to name a few—is tough. I often feel a little outside, a little different, and a lot afraid of rejection. My method of learning where I belong is to hand over my heart, often with abandon, and expect the person receiving it not to hurt it.
What I haven't contemplated much, however, until now, is what it feels like to receive my heart. I don't always take the time to determine if the person even has room in their hands for one more heart. It is difficult enough to care for our own tender bits, adding the responsibility and weight of holding mine must, at least at times, feel like a lot of responsibility. Maybe even too much.
Back to my friend, the part of our conversation that set fire to a red hot burning rage was when, after I shared how much I enjoy our time together, she responded by explaining what time and space she has for me in her life. Had she stopped there, what she said sounded fine and familiar. It was not new news. But then she continued to say that if what she is working toward happens, the time and space available for me will necessarily be smaller. I snapped into self-protection mode because what I heard her say, instead, was that she will settle for time with me in the meantime, but as soon as something better comes along, I'm out. She said no such thing; she simply defined her boundaries to ensure a mutual understanding.
I let her hold my heart and in her efforts to keep it safe by identifying limits so I would know what to expect, she accidentally made it ache.
Now, I sit in a room lit only by a handful of light bulbs illuminating a heart on the wall and a candle burning next to my computer and think about how much a bruised heart hurts. I wonder if I can be a good friend without putting my whole heart into it.
I read and reread my words in this essay, unsure they make sense outside of my head. I spot notification of a new email and gladly leave my wrestling match with this story. I toggle to read what I received.
The email is a thank you note from another friend. It reads, "Well, I am on the eve of submitting my full dissertation manuscript to my committee prior to the defense. I wanted to share a few pages of the project—the acknowledgements—to say thank you." I open the attachment and read with delight as he lists the supportive people in his tribe. I think about how glad I am he shared this, and how I can't wait to someday have an acknowledgements section to tip my hat to all of the people along the way without whom I would not be the writer I am today. And, then, I read own my name.
My heart understands before my brain does and tears quickly well in my eyes. They spill as I contemplate that his gratitude is a direct result of my wide-open heart, of the fact that I threw my support at him completely, totally, with abandon and with love, not knowing ahead of time if any of it was welcome or necessary. In some small way, my stubborn refusal to armor my heart helped him achieve the step before the final step of his long-time dream.
My wide-open heart matters. But it also matters that I pay attention to the people with whom I'm sharing it. I have to make sure they are in a place where receiving a big dose of heart is helpful and not harmful, to tread more carefully.
I return to thinking about my friend, the accidental asshole. As I sit in the near dark and ruminate about our exchanges, I hope she knows me, believes in me, trusts me enough to understand. My heart is sore but I wouldn't have it any other way. That's what happens when we are all in. And she isn't really an asshole. She's actually an extraordinary friend.
My current read is by Brené Brown, a scientific researcher and a storyteller, one of the most badass women around. Her book sits near me and I notice the quote on the back cover, "The irony is that we attempt to disown our difficult stories to appear more whole or more acceptable, but our wholeness—even our wholeheartedness—actually depends on the integration of all of our experiences, including the falls."
Fine, you're right, universe. You captured my attention. I get it. The falls matter. The moments when we allow the vulnerability that leads to truths being told matter. Getting back up and sharing our stories so maybe, if we're really lucky, we let someone out there feel even a tiny bit less alone, matters.
P.S. To one I called an asshole: I value our friendship beyond measure. What is more important than the content of our conversation is the fact that you didn't run away. You pushed back, we disagreed, and we each retreated a little, but you didn't run away. I could call you right now with a problem and, if I needed you to, you would do anything in your power to help. I look forward to our next opportunity to talk about the meaning of life and, hopefully, to laugh about that time I called you an asshole.