Years back, I posted a reminiscence — “Saltines” — in which the object of a childhood hurt became my one-word term for the consequences of naive, misplaced trust.*
My takeaway from that event (back then, takeaway was not yet a corporate buzzword) was that other people are uncontrollable agents harboring unknowable motives; many of them, indifferent to your humanity, can arbitrarily decide to do damage to you.
The experience of having rocks thrown at you — one did hit its target, missing my eye by a rock-width or so — by boys you thought were your friends while you were doing something nice for them (or, as I mistakenly thought, for all of us boys) … in any event, the incident rewired me and, as I now belatedly recognize, hardened me.
I built internal defenses against future betrayals. I grew to not automatically trust people. I started withdrawing, ever on the lookout for some signal of caring from the other person before I ventured an emotion myself. Self-protectively (and probably encouraged by my parents), I distanced myself from classmates who were different from me, which I am sure many sensed and so responded likewise. (On the other hand, many didn’t sense anything and didn’t care, and so reinforced my detachment from them, there you go.)
As a young man, I came to adopt a bad news slant on life: self-preservation lay in avoiding people who are bad news, those who would trigger your defenses and drain your energies. “Spare me from people with problems!” was an oft-quoted song lyric (penned by a friend) that became my mantra.
I developed a kind of litmus test for other people’s otherness — I would keep track of the number of times (if any) a person asked a question or expressed interest in me, divided by the number of times I asked a question of them. This ratio was often so embarrassingly close to zero that it made me wonder what I was doing wrong and how it was that I could be the dullest person on Earth.
In the end, I have protected the hell out of myself for decades, but at what cost? Let’s take stock. I’ve lived in this city 16 years and 98% of my interactions are either with my spouse or supermarket cashiers. The people I count as my friends (the ones you share everything and nothing important with) remain the people I met in college. The sad part, they all live travel-distances away and we don’t interact nearly enough anymore.
It has been my habit to suggest to my spouse, or to anyone who takes personal offense at a random harm or slight, to just get on with it, that the offensive person is just someone who happened to cross your path and wasn’t out to target you. I often invoked the metaphor of a dog across the street barking at you — the dog doesn’t know you or even care about you, it is just doing what stupid angry dogs do. So the logical thing to do is just avoid them and don’t take their barking personally.
Well, I thought all that until recently, when I reflected that, given how things have turned out for me, I’m in no position to be giving advice about how to manage expectations and disappointments in human relationships. In fact, I’m probably a poster child for how to mismanage them.
I’ve been taking things impersonally, while others around me have been living richer and yes more risky but in the end more emotionally-full lives. There’s a reason I have few friends and the reason is, in fact, me. Not the dog across the street. It may be too late but I finally know better, for whatever it’s now worth.