People pop in and out of our lives, and their mere presence or absence can carry a message.
Last week, I was on a work break, browsing in one of Berkeley’s remaining bookstores, a half block from my office. The sun was streaming in through the front door. As I was leaving, I spotted a friend from the past.
“Hey, W, is that you?”
The last time I’d seen him was at my house warming party five years ago. He looked older, as we all do.
“What’s new?” I asked. He told me about his recent and upcoming travels, what’s going on at his job, the death of his parents, that he’d been thinking of calling me about making a Will. Lots of news on his end.
Then, finally, he asked: “What have you been up to?”
“Oh, well, let’s see. I made it through cancer treatment three years ago.”
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “You must really hate me, and you may not even want me to hire you.”
“What?” I asked.
He mumbled something about how he never got back to me, wasn’t there. “I apologize,” he said. “I’m really sorry.”
After I was diagnosed with cancer in 2011, and during the first few months of not knowing how bad it was or what the treatment plan would be, I sent email updates to people I had thought were friends – there were many of them then. I was both asking for support and trying to keep people in the loop. Most of the people I sent emails to did not reply, and I gradually pared the list down to just a handful of people who expressed concern.
Standing in the bookstore’s sunny entry way, W repeated over and over how sorry he was, and that I really must hate him.
No one else has apologized to me over what they did or did not do.
I was taken aback and did not know what to say.
So I went into pontification mode about how common it is for someone with cancer to have friends and family simply bail out. I told him that most of the people I had thought of as friends turned out not to be, and how, from reading a lot of cancer blogs, I now understand this as a common phenomenon, not something to take personally.
But W doesn’t consider himself part of “most people” or as part of any common phenomenon. He persisted about how bad he feels and how I must hate him. As if this is about him.
“Look, no, I don’t hate you, it’s OK,” I said. “It’s really nothing. It’s a really common phenomenon.”
“Why is that?” he asked, now shifting into his detached, intellectual mode with a new concept to ponder.
“I don’t know, they either don’t want to deal with it, or they fear it, or something like that.”
The conversation then went on to other things. W never asked how I’m doing now.
And that’s why I never did hate him, and why it’s easy to forgive him. This is a person simply lacking the social finesse to have done anything other than nothing.
Here in the bookstore, W was the needy one, not me. He needed forgiveness or repentance, to be absolved of his guilt, though almost four years on, the reason he was standing there apologizing was that I’d bumped into him at the bookstore.
I left the encounter feeling clear and unattached and free. As far as W goes, the slate is clean. And that also does not mean that I think of him anymore as a friend. He’s just another friendly acquaintance to say hello to.
I’m sorry if W carries guilt or shame. It’s not my job to fix it. I gave him credit for and accepted his apology.
In one of Paulo Coehlo’s stories, someone asks a wise man, “How can I stay myself if I willingly let go of all that I was?” To which the wise man answers: “The important stuff stays.”
I don’t care much about what happened and who did and did not do what several years ago. I’m interested in what it all can teach me now.
Here in a brightly lit bookstore, symbolic of inner light and knowledge and values, I was given a glimpse of my own passages, from just a few years ago to now.
I had maintained a very long habit of not knowing how to distinguish nuanced categories of friends and acquaintances. I had a habit of collecting around me a motley crew of interesting and entertaining people and thinking they were all my good friends. That’s not the worst habit one can have.
The fact that very few of these people gave me the time of day when I was in crisis was a harsh sweeping away of a veil of illusion. I was forced, and continue to be forced, back to self-reliance and, ultimately, to reliance on the eternal Guide and Friend.
I think it often takes a dramatic event to reveal just what it is that is genuine and valuable. “The important stuff stays.”