“People, like all animals, were best when you treated them with quiet patience. You couldn’t go throwing around your own hopes, your own worries, your own confusion. It was better not to push, not to grab, not to run. It wasn’t that you had to bottle yourself up, exactly, but you did have to keep…still.”
-Ted Sanders, The Harp and the Ravenvine
Like lots of us, I made some of my closest friends in college. (My closest friends so far, anyway; some people act as though friend-making ends by your late twenties, but if someone wants to meet because we’re floating leaf boats down the same gutter, make faces at each other, climb a plum tree and eat ourselves sleepy, I’m in). I also failed, spectacularly, to make some friends. And I think it was because I was running.
One person in particular comes to mind. Let’s call him Josh. If I’ve ever been part of a bromantic comedy, he was probably my co-star: we met through mutual friends in the dining hall, and then for a month or so, we talked about almost everything, we walked and walked, we were inspired and curious and drawn by related thoughts. And then something happened: a meaningless little ripple I can’t even remember. An argument, almost over nothing. But as quickly as we were friends, we weren’t. I haven’t really talked to him since.
In talking about “interventions” with troubled adolescents, Dr. Gordon Neufeld says something like this: ‘Don’t expect them to work.’ Don’t expect one conversation, one brilliant piece of advice, one pointed punishment to change the course of how someone’s growing. We change very slowly, day by day. The impact we have on each other happens like that: not in one brilliant burst, but in the slow, soaking sunlight that helps trees grow new leaves.
It’s strange, because I’ve also had connections (I think?) that went like Josh’s story, except went well: we fell into conversation like falling into a lake, and dove down, exploring. We laughed. We wondered. Except now that I think back through these, all of the stories that went well had something that Josh and I never managed: work. The work of paying attention to each other, of noting and respecting differences, of making room inside our closeness for disagreement distance. Not just work we did side by side, but work together so we worked together. The connection that started easy grew, sometimes, thoughtful and attentive.
Perhaps getting to know someone always means getting to know their complexities and their contradictions. Perhaps sharing yourself with someone always means getting in touch with your own hurt and hurtfulness, as well as your joy. If we go running in, then we’re not ready for the new world we’ll be finding. If we go throwing around our hopes, we plaster them with our expectations before we can see who they are, what they’re trying to share.
Maybe we’re all flocks of blackbirds. If you don’t go out to the park, you won’t find one of us. But if you go running and waving your arms, we’ll scatter before you get too close. Maybe the clearest way to get a little closer is to let yourself be still.