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“Listening is an art that requires attention over talent, spirit over ego, others over self.” ~Dean Jackson

listening-manListening is a lost art. Believe it. There’s something to be said for sitting still, giving eye contact, and nodding along, not because you’re waiting for a chance to speak, but because you care enough to be there. I know too many people who are waiting to jump in, to offer suggestions, and to tell their own personal stories that may or may not be relevant to the issue at hand. But sometimes, sometimes listening should be just that — listening. Being there. Proving it.

And believe it or not, but someone you just met today can be a better listener than the friend you’ve had since diaper days. Someone who just walked into your life can be the friend to whom you can be most vulnerable and just let it out. Sometimes that’s better because you have no preconceived notions of them, and they have none of you. They can come into it as a fresh page ready to receive the scribbles of your soul.

I’ve had too many friends over the years who used me as just that sounding board, from those who I had known a while to those who I had just met, but something that was common to the vast majority was the assumption that there would be no reciprocation. I know this because these friends were never really there for me when I needed them, were never truly listeners for me because every time I saw them they were too busy talking.

Beware those who can’t keep their mouths shut long enough to listen. Odds are that if you let them in on your secrets, they won’t be secrets for long. And if they’re constantly interjecting their own thoughts how can they possibly be there for you? I know a few people who are always comparing whatever I’m saying with something that has happened in their life, even if there are absolutely no parallels, instead of just letting me vent, or get out my thoughts. They eventually moved on to other friendships, which was okay with me.

Because often that’s all I need is a pair of ears, a soul that obviously cares, and eyes that look into mine with empathy, with caring, with a firm commitment to be there for me. And that’s what I try my best to give to my friends who need me in turn. And it’s not reciprocity, the idea of “tit for tat.” It’s just being a good friend, no matter how often they may need me, or no matter how often I need them. They don’t keep score. They don’t disappear from my life, and I don’t from theirs.

Learning how to listen is a skill that is dormant from way too many people’s lives. It might have to do with the selfishness social media breeds, or it could be something else entirely. But whatever the reason, we need to bring it back. We need to empathize with others, to give them the gift of our time, because nothing is more precious.

Sam

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“When a friendship ends, people don’t always give it the same amount of thought that they do relationships. With an ex-boyfriend, there are discussions of bad timing or different expectations. But most of the time, friendships end in a different way — slowly, and without declaration. Usually people don’t really notice until a friend has been gone for a while and then they just say they grew apart, or their lives became too different.” ~Jennifer Close (The Hopefuls).

235571-oI’ve given it a lot of thought, this idea of endings. Obviously every relationship has a beginning. These starts are generally demarcated by introductions or shared initial moments. They are definite. Sometimes only one person remembers the exact particulars, and sometimes neither one does, but you do remember when you weren’t friends. Then something shifted.

But endings — well, they do tend to be gradual among friends. At least that’s what I’ve noticed. One friend can’t make a lunch date on a Tuesday. Two weeks later the other one is too busy to take a phone call. Before you know it so much time has gone by since you even texted each other that now it would seem a bit awkward to text out of the blue. So it stretches on. Then when you’re relaying a story to someone else later, a memory of the two of you, you realize it’s all in the past tense. The entire relationship. That it has all been in the past for quite some time.

Don’t get me wrong. Not all friendships are created equally. That’s just the nature of the beast. Some friends are meant to be transitory, to fill a void in your life at a particular time when you need someone there, then they’re gone. Sometimes you’re that friend for someone else. Most times you both know it, but you go with it because it’s beneficial for everyone involved. Those can be very sweet friendships. But other friends seem like they’re in it for the long haul, so what happens to derail them?

It’s honestly a combination of a few things, in my opinion. A good friend needs to be 1) a good listener, 2) able to be empathetic, and 3) there in times of need. And it needs to be reciprocal. You can’t expect these 3 things from someone else and not be willing and able to give them in return. It’s this last part that I think dooms so many friendships because they end up being lopsided. One person gives and gives, the other takes and takes, and there’s never any time for reciprocity.

Beware when you’re the friend who is always there for others because you’ll get that label and it will stick with you. When others befriend you it will be because they need something from you, because they know you’ll be a good friend to them. And you will, because you’re the giving type of person. But eventually you will need something, and others won’t be there, because they don’t know how. Because you’ve allowed them to be takers for so long that they don’t even know where to begin when it comes to giving.

See, it’s those friendships that are reciprocal, the one when both friends give and take equally, that last for a long time.

I’m not saying it’s your fault you’re such a good friend, but usually those kinds of friendships end when you stress the point, when you need them and they’re not there for you. It can be devastating when the realization hits that your entire support system is built on yourself as the sole support. It’s true that we need others in order to be stable, healthy human beings. No one is exempt from that.

So they disappear, or you are the one who vanishes, stuck in the cycle that can’t possibly sustain itself. See, it’s those friendships that are reciprocal, the ones when both friends give and take equally, that last for a long time. Those are the easy ones, where both friends ask how the other is doing more than just dropping more drama on each other. It’s so much easier to be there for each other than to simply expect the other friend to always be there for you, and not expect the same in return.

When a friendship ends someone is left holding the torch. Either it’s you, or it’s the person on the receiving end of your ambivalence. Everybody needs friends, people you can lean on when the going gets rough, but who are also just there for you when you need to share good news, or you need a piece of advice. We all need a pick-me-up in the middle of a particularly difficult day, an ear that will always listen to us, yet someone objective enough to always tell us the truth, even if we might not want to hear it.

When a friendship ends there is a fracture in the system of our lives, whether we know it or not. I often think of those who have disappeared, those who used to wander these halls with me but who have now moved on to new halls in new buildings in their lives. And I don’t blame them. It takes two. They just weren’t ready to be that second person. They weren’t equipped to be that two-way street. And it’s okay. I need people in my life who are.

Sam

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“It’s hard for me to make black friends.”

11965720-friend-friendship-relationship-teammate-teamwork-society-icon-sign-symbol-pictogramI saw this on my Facebook newsfeed today, but it’s always been just as true for me. For those of you who don’t know me, who are reading my blog for the first time, I am black. I say this because I think it matters in the framework of the above quote. A white guy said this on my Facebook newsfeed, but it’s just as true for me.

I grew up in an entirely black neighborhood, I was a member of an entirely black church, and I went to an entirely black elementary school, but that didn’t make it any easier to find black friends. There were many black people around, so I had many black acquaintances, yet I didn’t really get close to anyone. It may have been some combination of my initial shyness, my lack of common ground with them, and/or my low opinion of myself.

Or it could just be that too many black people are too familiar with too many other black people without really knowing them. That has always been a pet peeve of mine. I would love to get to know you, but when you assume that you already know everything you need to know about me I bristle. Maybe it’s just because I’ve never felt normal, whatever that means, so I hate assumptions of normality.

But I shouldn’t generalize, right? As I very much know, not all black people are the same, even if the culture calls for over-familiarization when it comes to other black people. Getting through the initial assumptions, though, they’re tough, especially when the over-arching societal structures don’t allow for getting beneath the surface when you meet someone new.

Besides that, I don’t meet very many black people these days, which makes it that much harder to make black friends. I made the decision to live where I do, to work where I work, and to be where I am, so that’s partially a byproduct of those decisions, but I have to be honest. Even if I met a slew of black people every day, what are the odds that some of them would be my friends?

It’s hard for me to make black friends, even though I’m black. Maybe even because I’m black. But I guess it’s hardest for me to make black friends because for me people are people, because it was difficult for me to even put the term “black” in front of so many nouns in this post. It’s hard for me to make friends, period, which is okay. I’m an excellent friend once you get to know me, once you get to trust me, but not many take that opportunity.

Which is okay, because I hear that quality of friends is so much more important than quantity of friends, no matter their color.

Sam

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neededThere have been very few times in my life when I truly felt like a part of something, like I was intrinsically involved in the inner workings of a cause, a movement, or even a group of people. I have always been a catalyst, for sure, because of my boisterous personality, but what has that done for me when it comes to feeling necessary?

Others often look to sports as a way to feel a part of something, as a means to an end, but even on that front I was always lacking. For some reason I always chose the sports that weren’t really a team concept, like tennis, and golf, and I left the group mentality to those who needed the push and pull. But I need the push and pull too. I guess I just didn’t realize it back then.

As I’ve gotten older it’s been about friends for me. Maybe I just wasn’t meant to be the friend type in this society because for me to feel like a part of a friendship I need a lot of contact. So, of course most of my friends throughout the years have always been the type who aren’t contact people. I seem to attract the type of friends who are content with sporadic communication, and that’s not me.

Even my sister was an enigma to me. For years I was jealous of her, which hampered our relationship. It always seemed like she made friends easily, the type who were there for her early and often. It always seemed like she had it all down, that people flocked to her without her even trying, that she was an integral part of the world she inhabited. I was jealous that it wasn’t me, that I didn’t have whatever she had to make myself necessary to others.

But it’s not about her. And it’s not about the friends I chose to surround myself with off and on for years. It’s really about me and my expectations. When I think about the times when I felt like a part of something I inevitably go back to my poetry groups, to the first one in Philly so long ago, and to the one in Utica now. For some reason, even though poetry isn’t my first love when it comes to writing, it brings something out of me that makes me feel necessary, like I’m a part of something so much bigger than myself.

I expected nothing from either poetry group, and they gave me everything. Funny how that happens. And I wonder if that’s how I should be when it comes to other situations and with other people in my life. Maybe I should stop beating myself up over lost friends, or over time between conversations. Perhaps I should instead spend my time getting rid of expectations, just living for the moment and seeing who comes along for the ride.

That’s a very renaissance kind of attitude for me, but I’m feeling a renaissance kind of feeling right now, so it fits. I feel like approaching 40 is making me see things in a completely different way than I ever have before. If I want to be a part of something I need to let it happen organically, to just explore my interests and let things come to me. And stop blaming others for not fulfilling that need.

Because it’s all up to me, and it always has been.

Sam

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“Come on don’t leave me like this. I thought I had you figured out. Can’t breathe whenever you’re gone. Can’t turn back. Now I’m haunted.” ~Taylor Swift

394245_315552211813007_315184498516445_1054979_1253620114_nWhy am I haunted by the ghosts of friends gone by? I know what my therapist would say. There was no closure. I never got the answers, the reasons why, and that bothers me to my very core. I am haunted by the ghosts of friends gone by because they decided I wasn’t worthy enough to get an answer, or a reason why. And that sucks.

I’ll admit right off the top that I’ve never felt adequate. I’ve never felt that I was worth time and effort from other human beings, and I have absolutely no idea where that came from. My mother gave me all kinds of attention and validation when I was a child, so it wasn’t that whole nurture thing. I’m thinking maybe it’s just in my nature, that it’s always been in my nature, some hidden part of my brain that is driving me in this direction.

And maybe it’s also the kinds of friends I’ve picked up along the way, now that I think about it. I tend to gravitate towards those people with big personalities, or the “misfits” who are deep and introspective. But those kinds of people aren’t the ones who keep in touch. They’re more interested in doing a plethora of things, and if I fit into their plans, great, but if I don’t then I won’t hear from them.

It’s uncanny how that happens too, because even when I think I’ve found someone who can be there for me when I need them they somehow disappear. And when they show up again it’s way too late, and then I carry around this disappointment like an anchor around my neck that colors how I treat them then. I hate that about me, but I don’t know how to fix it other than to get friends who are actually there for me when I need them, not when it’s convenient for them.

I understand being busy. I am busy as well. But I’ve always believed that people make time for the things and the people who are important to them. I make time for my friends, even if it’s a small piece of time wrapped around things I have to do, but it’s difficult to get my friends to take time out of their schedules for me. I have to admit that maybe I’m to blame for that. Maybe I’m just not special enough, not in that top tier of friends who warrant time being spent to just send a quick text, or a quick email… or anything.

So when the few and far between calls or texts are disappointing to me I try to rationalize them to keep from feeling like it’s me. I say that my friend must be busy, that they’ll get back to me when they can. And I wait. Then, after an interminable period of time (sometimes a week or more), they reemerge from wherever they’ve been with a text or a call that isn’t apologetic but picks up where they left off as if they weren’t gone.

I don’t know how to handle that, so I internalize my feelings, I withdraw from the friendship so that I’m not so torn apart when it inevitably ends. I get torn apart anyway because not once has someone told me before they disappear that they’re going to disappear and why they’re going to disappear. I have never gotten an explanation so my brain goes to dark places when yet another one leaves without a word, without a whisper, without anything to give me that closure I need.

It’s almost enough to make me say that friendships aren’t worth it, but then I look at other people who seem to have good, solid friends who are always there for them when they need them to be, who don’t fade into the ether like the phantoms I call or called my friends. And don’t get me wrong. My wife is incredible, the single most impressive person I’ve ever known, but I need a support group that doesn’t stop and end with her. I need the same kind of network that she has, those people she can count on aside from me.

I try not to be jealous of her, but while she has those who have been there for her the entirety of her life, I am still waiting to hear back from those who say I’m their friend. And no, a Facebook “like” doesn’t count as a response. Maybe if I ever got some closure from friends gone by I wouldn’t be so pessimistic about what the future holds in that regard.

Sam

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imageWhy is it that some people stick around long after they’re gone? How do I find myself wasting my time thinking of them when they’re obviously not thinking of me? And I know they’re gone. I know they’re not coming back. I know all of that, but I still can’t help thinking — wishing — that they will show up around the next corner any minute now and everything will be just the way it was. Why do I waste time deluding myself?

I had a friend once who I used to talk to every single day, like clockwork. I knew her number better than I knew my own. In fact, I still know it even though we haven’t spoken in two years. At first it was gradual. She was busy, so I was patient, and instead of talking every day it slipped to once a week, then once every couple of weeks, then once a month, until it was really just me having a friendship with her voicemail.

And I know I haven’t had the greatest track record with friends. Most of mine are the kind who don’t feel the need to be in constant contact, or even in intermittent contact. Most of mine are the kind who get back to me when they eventually get around to it, while I’m the kind to respond right away. Maybe I’m too needy, and it gets draining. I don’t know, but it’s not for lack of trying to figure it out.

In the meantime, though,these ghosts just keep adding up, dropping out of my life as if they were never there, even if they played a major role, sometimes for years at a time. And I guess I don’t know when to give up because I keep expecting them to reappear, to have some plausible excuse for not contacting me for a year, or two years, like they were in a coma or something. Then in my Disney-addled brain we would pick up where we left off.

But that’s not the way the world works, not the way things have gone for me. Because these are solid patterns now, not just random friend after random friend. So it must be me, right? It must be my own issues that they are reacting to, that they can’t handle, and they feel like they can’t talk to me about it so they fade into the background until they eventually disappear completely from my life.

Yet their ghosts remain, the memories of what they used to be to me, of how they used to make me feel, of all the times we spent together. I can’t block them out. I can’t toss all of that away like they seem to have been able to do. So I do what I can to try and move on. I delete their information from my phone’s contacts list. I focus on the things I do have some say in, like writing about it as some kind of catharsis.

Let me know when it’s supposed to get easier.

Sam

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facebook_friend_requestIn this age of Facebook it’s all about numbers. Who has the most “friends?” How many friends are mutual between you and somebody else — and anybody else? How many likes do your friends have on their posts? And my favorite — how many friend requests are pending, how long have they been in stasis, and why?

I have no problem having “friends” I’ve never met in person before. I call them my acquaintances. I am acquainted with their names, and sometimes other things about them too, before I accept them into my world. I’ve noticed that often times these friends become even more dear to me than the ones I actually know in the flesh. I wonder why that is. But anyway…

There are four general types of friend requests I encounter:

  1. Friends of friends. I may post a witty comment in response to something one of my friends said, and before I know it I have a few of their friends requesting the pleasure of my friendship. Depending on my mood I might accept them, but more often than not, unless it is one of my close friends who is the mutual, I let it sit in limbo.
  2. Forgotten friends. These are the folks whose names I don’t recall off-hand, either because it’s been so long, or they were such a small part of my life even when I did know them. I don’t feel particularly bad about having to dredge my memory for a fragment of them, but if it’s been that long I don’t really know what they bring to the table now. I usually accept them out of a sense of obligation.
  3. Prior generations. I’m always on the fence about whether or not to accept these people as “friends” because I knew them when I was young and they were adults then. Now they’re all on social media, they think they’re hip, and somehow I showed up as “people they might know.” They care about the numbers so they send out a request… that I usually ignore.
  4. “Not-even” friends. Every so often I get friend requests from people who don’t fit either of the categories above. We share no mutual friends. Their names don’t ring any sort of bells. The only reason I would accept them is if I care about the above numbers, if I’m concerned enough about them to warrant a bit of randomness in my world. I’m usually not.

At any given time I have several friend requests pending, and I try to check on them every now and then. Of course the longer they sit there, collecting dust, the more I’m sure the sender is deciding that I just won’t accept them. Maybe I would be better served just going with my gut on each one as they come in instead of letting them sit around. I can always unfriend someone later if I’m not pleased with the things they post.

Right now, at this very moment, I have three friend requests floating out there, all of which have been hanging out for a while, waiting for some kind of acceptance from me. I’m sure at some point I’ll get back to them.

Sam

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