Do you ever wonder about all of the lives out there? As in outside your very own singular life? Which is the only life you actually know. And I don’t mean in an ‘of course I wonder about others’ lives, so I read and watch documentaries and travel and ask good questions and buy foreign foods’ kind of way.
I mean. What do I mean?
I mean do you ever just sit down and, I don’t know, try to think about each one of the eight billion other people alive in the world? Individually. One at a time kind of. And wonder, ‘what is this person in, say, Dunedin feeling as they open their eyes after too short a night’ maybe? Or ‘what is the six-year-old in Qaanaaq feeling about going to a new school today’? Or ‘what is the Yahgan man feeling as he holds his first born? Or ‘what part of my neighbour’s body hurts her most as she goes off to sleep each afternoon’? Or ‘what exactly is the priest in Rome saying to the little boy he will soon, ever so cunningly, rape’? Or what is the person thinking in Kaesong as they give a data stick to their friend’? Or ‘how is the woman at the check-out counter checking out the 200th grocery shopper in Whistler feeling about her job’? Or ‘what is the surgeon in New York City considering as she poises the scalpel'?
I’m not talking about holding people in your thoughts to help or heal them or keeping them in your prayers, important as that is. There is nothing to accomplish here. It is just thinking about them. About lives. Each one.
And then, after thinking as concretely about as many individuals as you can in the little bit of time you have for this admittedly unusual practice, have you ever tried to ‘see’ all eight billion lives as if each had just come alive for a second on the screen of your life?
I was just wondering because it’s really hard even to try. I mean, you can only try, and when you do try, something kind of magical happens inside you. But you haven’t, of course, actually come even an itty-bitty bit close to doing it. Obviously.
Yet it is a lovely thing to do. To try, I mean. Even for five minutes. Or one.
Because maybe it is true that connection happens even when we only think about each other. Even when we don’t know each other at all, or ever will. Even when we are guessing like maniacs, trying to imagine each other.
Maybe it all matters, even a little.
The Bit That Works
“I love him,” Jake said “We’ve been best friends since we were kids. That’s special. But when we’re together, I want to kill him about ⅔ of the time.”
“And I wonder whether getting together regularly is worth the criticalness I always feel. The drain of it. It’s no fun.
“My therapist asked me why I meet with him at all.”
“Why do you?” I asked Jake.
“Because I love the 30% that works.”
“Well,” I said, trying to lighten things, “is there a way for you to get together and experience only the 30%?”
He looked puzzled.
“Gosh,” he said, as if that had been a really good question, “I don’t know. I’d have to think about that. I’d first have to figure out what that 30% is, I guess.”
“Right,” I said as you do when you have no idea what to say.
“Okay,” he said, “Thanks. I think.” He smiled. I did, too.
He went back to work. I went back to the question.
Is there a way for you to get together and experience only the 30%?
I had been kidding, but Jake had heard this: Maybe we can structure our friendships so that we experience only the bit that works.
And I wondered. Is that true? Is it even possible?
Certainly not always. But sometimes? Is it legitimate, okay, allowed, never mind kind, to find ways to be together so that the bit that doesn’t work doesn’t feature? Is that real friendship? Shouldn’t we accept everything about our friends and put up with experiencing the bits that drive us nuts? Can we be a true friend and limit our interactions only to what delights us?
That avalanche of assumptions exhausted me.
So I went back to thinking about Jake. I could see he was right about one thing: he would first have to figure out what the 30% is that works. I wondered how he would do that and what it would turn out to be. I felt inspired.
Then I thought about a friendship of mine that fell apart after many years. And I wondered whether the problem had been that I had spent too much time navigating the bit that didn’t work, and that in the end that bit killed even the bit that did work.
I felt kind of sick. Then exhilarated.
I resolved to examine my friendships: to articulate the bit that works, and then to imagine building our time together on that. What would have to change? Would we do only certain things and not others? Would we meet for less time? Or more time? Less often? More often? Would we meet in different places? Would we discuss different things? Would we ask different questions? Would we be alone? Would be be with others?
A week later I shared all of this with a colleague. She said she already does exactly that. Fed up with times of conflict, of boredom, of resentment, of competition, of one-way listening, she changed how she “structured” her time with friends so that she could enjoy all of their time together. She thanked me for this new way of expressing it. But the concept was nothing new.
So clearly it can work.
I hope it will for Jake.
And for me.
Maybe you, too?