What makes people tick? That question has intrigued me throughout my life, and the longer I ask, the more layered become the answers.
Along the way, I have asked, for example, how can people survive and thrive in spite of very difficult living conditions? How and why do people make the choices they do? Why do people stay in abusive, unhealthy or even extremely stagnant, boring relationships? Why do some people give themselves generously in friendship and others hold back, carefully, and perhaps fearfully?
As children, we are constantly learning more about the perplexing world around us, developing strategies to get what we need to be safe, happy and successful while attempting to avoid disapproval, failure or pain. Since we are relatively powerless compared to the older, taller people around us, by necessity we need to figure out how they function and how they fit in our matrix and we fit in theirs. Up until a certain age or level of maturity, children think they are the center of the universe with the orbiting others there solely to serve them. I saw a young girl with a T-shirt boasting the giant words, “IT’S ALL ABOUT ME.” Some people never outgrow that notion.
As a sensitive, shy, perceptive child, I think I was uncomfortable being the center of attention, except authentically loving attention. I became a watcher, an observer gathering information about the world and the people around me, trying to figure out how they did what they did…and at some point, probably wondering why. I became a reader…not just of books, but of the people and situations around me, reading between the lines, trying to understand what was being said without words, with the tone, with their faces, the angle of their bodies and their actions. And I became a writer, recording my feelings and wonderings about the perplexing world around me.
I had only one sibling, an older brother who, we only recently came to understand, has Asperger’s, so he was not skilled in figuring out people or having the kind of close, big brother relationship I was seeking. Our family was a model middle class family, looking good on the outside while keeping unpleasantness under lock and key, operational but neither visible nor audible. When there was difficulty, it was an emotional atmosphere of “cold anger”, where everyone may be civil but distant, with clenched teeth and clipped words…as compared to “hot anger” where people might be yelling, swearing and throwing plates. Either one is hard to be around, but I think sometimes hot anger is more honest, easier to understand, with fewer mixed messages. However, that is just conjecture, as I haven’t lived with that heat and found it scary when I did encounter it.
My father was a charming, handsome man who was easygoing when things were pleasant, but didn’t deal well with the full range of emotions, so his style was to walk away, leaving a undetonated bomb of anger behind him. Indeed, he walked out on his marriage after 26 years, leaving mom a note, refusing to discuss it with her. Certainly not given to processing, that man; just dusted off his hands and moved on. My brother told me in later years that he had learned from Dad that the best way to deal with a disagreement was to walk away, leave the discussion, leave the room, leave the house…which, in my way of seeing things, means to mentally leave the relationship, or at least to shy away from the depths of intimacy and understanding that might be possible, letting fear dominate instead.
The shutting down by the two males in my family left me feeling confused and fearful: “What just happened? What did I do wrong to cause this? What could I have done to influence a different outcome?” My legacy from living in that atmosphere was to distrust the facades and silence, uneasy with what wasn’t being said, antsy to know what people were really thinking and caring about below the surface, and a great fan of processing. Stealing a line from Vivi in The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, I could chew on a problem ’til all the flavor’s gone. Still can. A friend of mine said I always wanted to get people “in my pocket” and he was right. I was a good questioner and a good listener; I could get people to tell me their life stories on a bus ride. It not only felt safer to share some trusting exchanges, it was more interesting to get to know the many-layered depths of people.
I have learned not to expect or desire instant trust or intimacy, but I have remained a fascinated student of human nature, particularly in the context of friendship. Since I did not have family nearby and not much extended family anywhere, when I moved to new communities where I knew only one or two people, I set out to create new families of choice with friends.
When I moved to Minneapolis, I banged into Minnesota Nice: people were friendly but reserved and not very inclined to be social or welcoming. The single people I knew elsewhere were more likely to get together for coffee or lunch or reach out to go to a movie or take a walk. Around my fourth year there, I saw an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about that very phenomenon. One couple moved frequently due to work and their previous home was on Long Island, New York. The first Sunday they went to church, a man invited them to come by for a barbecue after church to get acquainted. They had lived several years in Minneapolis without receiving a similar invitation and people were stand-offish when they reached out. They felt isolated, missing the richness of a circle of friends.
The article explained the Minnesota culture: 75% of the people in Minnesota were born here and had stayed or moved away and returned. They had built-in connections with their families, their school friends from elementary through high school, and often college friends, since a high percentage of residents go to Minnesota public and private colleges. They had no pressing need to seek out new friendships, nor possibly much time to do so, if they were spending time with family and established friends. It does take energy to develop new friendships, so one must be motivated and willing to extend the effort to get to know another person, with the possible outcome that there isn't much ground for friendship. As a single person and a newcomer, I was motivated and had the time.
It was boyfriends who initially introduced me to Chicago and Minneapolis, but women who taught me about the depths of friendship. I had the good fortune to be invited into a small group of eight women in the Twin Cities who were committed to getting to know each other and being in each others’ lives, giving me the chance to experience close female friendships and a sense of sisterhood. One member’s daughter nicknamed us the Fembods and the quirky name fit. I was with them for 14 years and carry with me the gift of understanding about authenticity in friendships, and you’ll probably hear more about them in the future. I received a card once that said, “Friends are God’s way of apologizing for our families.” I love my family, but Amen. Elbert Hubbard said, “A friend is someone who knows all about you and still loves you.” Amen again.