An old friend stopped contacting me recently. We were close a decade ago, when our children were small. There was no real reason to ignore me, especially since I was responding – in a timely manner – to a long email of hers asking for help. After my response, nothing. And I’ve followed up since. Silence. It’s been three months.
We went through the expected friendship milestones in rapid succession, accelerated by having children the same age and sharing similar joys and struggles. We cooked together, walked for hours, exchanged emotional intimacies, swapped books and clothes, cried and laughed. We commiserated over our changed bodies and altered capacities and goals. We spent some years growing closer than others, as relationship and financial difficulties changed her personal landscape. There were days she accepted my help, others when she felt she could do it all on her own.
Now, nothing. At first, I was put out. Yet even in that acute moment I knew it was my old mate ego talking, those hidden wounds rearing up, uninvited. Since then, I’ve made a conscious effort to sit with my feelings and name them - a skill at the core of mindfulness. Hello, resentment. Hey, affronted pride. Here we go again, abandonment. Welcome, sadness. The more I acknowledge and stay with them – sometimes without judgement if I’m lucky, other times with a fair helping – the more I understand their origins and can let them go. With this acceptance comes profound healing. With this healing comes an openness to truly caring for someone regardless of their actions. In other words, unconditional love - something once only reserved for my husband, child and parents.
I’ve made a conscious effort to sit with my feelings and name them - a skill at the core of mindfulness. Hello, resentment. Hey, affronted pride. Here we go again, abandonment. Welcome, sadness.
It’s basic politeness to respond to anyone’s email – even a one-liner about how busy you are. I realise we all need to be more forgiving during the uncertainty of COVID. I understand executives, editors and entrepreneurs face a tsunami of emails and there are simply not enough hours in the day. But I’m talking about the phenomenon of sudden withdrawal, whether those friendships are new or old. We tend to think people who ignore others are rude or passive-aggressive, but mindfulness reminds us nothing is ever that simple. But even knowing that, it hurts.
So why do people take the easy way out? Do they get cold feet? Are they non-confrontational by nature, or just plain cowardly? Sometimes the hardest thing is living the rest of your life not knowing what you did – or failed to do – to give rise to this reaction. Do friends disregard us out of indifference, de-sensitisation, because everyone else is? Is the vulnerability and intimacy too confronting to continue? The sudden end of a close friendship can sometimes be as confusing and painful as the end of a sexual relationship. And there’s no real process of social acknowledgement or mourning for this kind of grief in our culture.
The sudden end of a close friendship can sometimes be as confusing and painful as the end of a sexual relationship. And there’s no real process of social acknowledgement or mourning for this kind of grief in our culture.
I snubbed someone years ago. Actually, I ran away from many potential lovers, but that didn’t count in my reckoning at the time. It was only when I turned my back on a female friend that the guilt ate me up and continued to do so. Obviously, I didn’t care enough about our friendship to have the tough conversation we needed. I was in my early 20s and the exclusive affinity we built up so fast felt suffocating, unsustainable. I didn’t want someone to need me that much. I didn’t know how to be a good friend without giving her my all. I soon burnt out, as I had no clue how to maintain boundaries. I bled into her life and dreams and hopes until it was too much, when I abruptly staunched the flow. Now I can acknowledge I was selfish and wrong. I didn’t want to put in the hard yards. I didn’t return her phone calls. I hung up as soon as I heard her voice. I walked the other way if I saw her. Back then, cutting someone out of your life was more intense than it is today. Now it’s become easier, more insidious and arguably more common.
Is my friend’s non-answer an answer in itself? I know she’s often overwhelmed and could leave things until the last minute. Maybe I need to be patient. Write again. Call. Give her the benefit of the doubt. Remember her kindness, sweetness and basic goodness. In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether or not I find out why this happened. There are no easy answers. Mindfulness has helped me realise that life, like friendships, is messy, unpredictable and often unresolved. Nothing is personal, much as we long to perceive it as so. Nothing is a direct attack on me. There’s more to a story than we will ever know.