Try a Little Tenderness

We had known each other for a long time.  I’m not sure we were ever friends – certainly not very good ones.  If I was feeling sad or lonely or depressed and needed a little compassion, she usually refused to give any.

The final straw came when I expressed my dissatisfaction with our situation, that I was looking forward to spending some quality time with a friend over dinner, and that an unwanted third wheel kind of soured the occasion.  I was disappointed, sure – but she was immediately on the defensive, first by saying it wasn’t her fault (I never said it was), and then by asking me if I was depressed.

That question was unnecessary.  Whenever she asked me this question, it was her way of saying, “hey, I don’t really want to talk to you when you’re like this.”  This time, though, it sounded more like, “hey, I don’t really want to talk to you at all – this kind of thing upsets me and I don’t want or need to be upset.”

Was it so much to ask for a bit of kindness?  Maybe she could have pretended to care about me at that moment, and maybe be uncomfortable for all of what, ten seconds?

Too many people in my life seem to like me only if I keep to myself – as long as I don’t ask anything of them, they’re more than happy to know me.  I’m not doing that anymore.  I’m done being invisible.  I don’t think it’s unreasonable for friends, at least once in a while, to put their friend’s needs before their own, especially when that friend is hurting.

Whenever I wrote her anything like this, she was dismissive – a wave of the hand, as if she couldn’t care less.  Friends don’t act like that.

I sent flowers to acknowledge the good times we had had.  I was struck by the florist’s recommended note:  “The more I know the people I love, the more I love the people I know.”

She didn’t really want me to know her, so … I’ll accept her as she is, not as I want her to be.

What All Human Beings Want

Some years ago I enrolled in a comedy sketch writing program.  I had long suspected (and, of course, everyone else already knew) that comedy was intimately, intrinsically connected with some sort of “higher” way of living.  Like court jesters and Zen masters, comedians saw things the rest of us didn’t – and they wanted to let us in on the joke.  The writing program confirmed that suspicion.

The program instructors reminded me of those Zen masters.  One of them told us that, at bottom, there are four things all human beings want:  to be seen (acknowledged, recognized); to be heard (making one’s “voice” or point of view known); to be touched (that emotional connection); and to be loved (what children look for from their parents, why we have friends, spouses, that sort of thing).

I’m not sure anyone saw me or heard me until seminary high school.  In my sophomore year I got my first indication that I might be good at writing.  I wrote some essay for an English class, maybe five hundred words about how alone I felt, how angry and frustrated I would get, how I never felt like I mattered anything to anyone.  My teacher was a teacher in the best sense – he taught me how to write, but he also cared enough about the person writing it.  He made me feel like I was worth a damn.

About six years ago, a few months shy of his 70th birthday, this wonderful teacher passed away.  I cried when I got the news; I hadn’t spoken with him for at least twenty plus years.  But I’ll never forget the kindness and generosity he gave to a kid who, back then, didn’t think he had a friend in the world.

I’ve wanted to do for curious minds what Fr. Hawk did for me so many years ago:  bringing what I love to the classroom and helping people learn how to think (NOT “what” to think).  With any luck, my students might come to see in themselves a passion they can’t live without, something that shows them they matter, as well as know that they are more than good enough to enjoy everything this world has to offer.

One of Teaching’s Greatest Joys

It was the fall of 2008, and I was teaching logic for maybe, oh, the twelfth time in as many years.  In one class meeting, one of my twelve students was on the verge of tears – the homework wasn’t making any sense, she wasn’t getting it, she was afraid she wasn’t ever going to get it.  I was really lucky:  I was able to use the moment with the whole class, saying something like, “It’s okay:  everything you’re feeling right now, I’m willing to bet everyone in here is more or less feeling as well.  That’s good – we’re here to learn.  And I promise all of you, you’re going to learn this stuff – not right away, not all that easily, but it will happen.”  That seemed to calm her, as well as the other students.

One of the joys of teaching – maybe its greatest joy – is to be able to let a student know that you will respect them and protect them.  If your teachers aren’t doing that for you, they’re dicks, pure and simple.  I’m amazed (and humbled) by just how much people will trust you, once you are able to convince them that you want only what’s best for them, that you won’t take them for granted, that you’ll honor their confidence, that you won’t abuse their trust.  I take this part of the job very, very seriously.  I think it’s one of the best things one human being can ever do for another – and all the Nietzsche, Sartre and Heidegger expertise combined is no substitute.

Oh, occasionally you’ll have a sociopath who doesn’t get that, who can’t get that, who will try to take advantage of you.  You know they’re sociopaths because they see trust as a means for manipulating the love and compassion of others for their own interests.  If I even get a whiff of that nonsense, that person is dead to me.  I don’t really care about them, because I can’t care about them.  I’ve had to learn it’s not possible for them to ever be anything other than self-centered egomaniacs, and the best thing I can hope for is for them to die soon.