Friendship, Civility, Weird Lessons

(In the last few years, I’ve read a few hundred similar shunning stories on Reddit and other sites. It must be exceedingly common for friends to inexplicably shun people. I’ve been fascinated with the complex stories people have shared – with quite a few being very close to my story. I’m certain I have read a few thousand of them in the last 7-8 years.)

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This blog post is actually several years old and I’ve modified it slightly a couple of times, especially as I’ve seen so many people come forward with similar stories.

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It’s been a few years now since one of the best people I thought I had ever known revealed himself to be indifferent toward me. For the purposes of this essay, I’ll call him John, to ensure his identity is protected. Every couple of years, I revisit this very old blog post and update it. Time changes all stories, that is for certain.

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Even though I had known John a long time, evidently he had awakened one morning and decided that I was scum – without saying a word to me about it. I had often described him as one of the best people I had ever known, used him for a reference, house-sat for him, defended him more than once even though I was being ridiculed for it, and shared many quiet and powerful moments in my life with him. To say that I had a high opinion of him would be an understatement. He shared the day I got the call my dad died unexpectedly, and he was there for me the morning my wife dropped dead.

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Despite having many private and available opportunities, he never took a moment to express his resentment toward me, which is what we usually expect from people in our lives. He could have emailed after the first brush off, called and left a message, or any number of methods. But he didn’t. He allowed me to plod on, increasingly curious and surprised by my friend’s brush-off.

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That I had recently suffered the single biggest and harshest personal blow in my life evidently didn’t matter. That I had always defended him, helped him in any way I could and been a steadfast friend ultimately were ignored. It is important to understand that I had just went through one of the hardest personal tragedies anyone could imagine. He knew that, as he was there for me when it happened. Everything about the surprise of the way he changed toward me and then treated me should be imagined through that perspective. Nothing he alleged to be his reason for shunning me compared even slightly to my story. He did ultimately offer a story about throwing peanuts at a restaurant which caused him personal embarrassment; it’s his life and only he knows whether it mattered in the scheme of things. It would be arrogant for me to presume to know, except for the fact that this is how our minds work. My defense is that my wife had dropped dead unexpectedly. All things considered, I behaved very well on the spectrum of possible behaviors.

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It was his right to do anything he wanted, even with no motive, or with a motive unexplained to me. That has been the hardest lesson in life – that people are transitory and often inexplicably motivated. Needing an answer for all the travails will not result in a satisfying life if you live it that way.

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But it was a terrible way to treat a friend – and if he had mentally decided to no longer be my friend there were a million different ways for him to have told me so. I know that confrontation isn’t easy. He could have emailed or texted or sent a note. Knowing that the had made a mental break with me would’ve still been an angry blow, but one tempered by his decision.

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All of the good memories of him were soured  when he lashed out at me. (Granted, my former friend continues on in his life, hopefully happily. My opinion doesn’t affect him in any way.) It was hard not knowing what prompted his revelation of disdain toward me. To say that there was no advance warning is truthful. His indignation toward me bloomed suddenly, without notice. As I was already deeply wounded by another horrific personal experience, it affected me more strongly than it should have. After I wrote him a personal letter, he finally lashed out with a couple of justifications, but each sounded hollow. Please remember that I’m living my life from inside my window and he is doing the same. Maybe he knew something about me I hadn’t realized?

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The reason I mention all this is that sometimes lessons come from unexpected places. It’s a reminder to me that sometimes you can’t be sure of anyone, no matter how well you think you know that person. It reminds me that it’s no excuse to be cynical toward everyone else – that all judgments, if possible, should be reserved toward the specific person at hand, which is a tough challenge. We often are unaware of what another person is thinking until they file for divorce, tell us that they’ve secretly hated us for a year, or find us unworthy as people.

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(People change their lives inside their own minds long before they change their behavior or make changes in their lives. I often say that a change of behavior is always a result of change in one’s thinking. Whether John slowly changed his mind about me and concealed it very, very well or arrived at some horrific conclusion about me, all at once, is for the ages to decide.)

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John’s hardened heart toward me has contributed to a better environment for a lot of people. His surprise rejection gave me the ability to step back many times and practice: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” Or indifference. But in some cases I think it might have hardened some of my edges and led me to lend too much credence to my instincts and avoid someone in my life.

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One thing it definitely helped me with was deciding that it would be stupid to avoid loving again, regardless of the time which had elapsed after my wife had died. John’s decision to drop me from his life compelled me to acknowledge the stupidity of living for other people or worrying about their opinions of my footsteps. It was painfully obvious that no matter how measured my actions that people were going to attribute motives to each thing I did. Even the people who were close to me. If someone as close as John could throw a bucket of cold water in my life, it seemed plausible to conclude that everyone in my life could do the same. It was John’s example that also allowed me to finally tell my mom to stay out of my life after 40+ years of abuse and disrespect.

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What I’ve learned without question is that I can more easily gauge people’s veneer of civility. Some people, like my former friend, have a better capacity to conceal their opinions. He was always diplomatic, even when I knew that he didn’t care for the person he was addressing or that he disagreed strongly with something. His background and training molded him into being a social diplomat. In turn, this helped me to learn that you can’t consistently take people’s words at face value. Without being treated so unfairly by my former friend, I don’t think I would have ever had the realization that he could turn that same skill toward me. It was arrogance on my part to not expect it, wasn’t it? When I sometimes find myself thinking I understand a person, good or bad, I see my former friend in my mind’s eye and remind myself that I could easily be under the spell of manipulation or be fooled by civil appearance. (…seeing only what that person wants me to see, hear, or think…) Or worse, that I’m being quietly judged or shunned, unaware of the change.

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The balance lies in not being horribly cynical or holding the concealment of my former friend against other people. It’s not easy. I had always adhered to being honest with him, as I felt a kinship toward him.

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While I can’t “prove” it, I think he developed some crazy theory about me that wasn’t rooted in anything realistic. That’s his right, fair or not. Again, the little bit of explanation he did offer sounded illogical and disjointed, especially after what I had just survived. One part of his reasoning was that I had embarrassed him in public, unbeknownst to me. He had to make amends to another mutual friend because of my innocent misbehavior. I don’t remember the incident, but all I can say is that we were having a good time and someone extremely close to me had just died. That’s why I was out with him that day in the first place. I can only surmise he had washed out the memories of the craziness he had put me through a couple of times – I don’t know. My instincts kept telling me he wasn’t being honest about it. Years later, after witnessing so much human interaction, I’m certain that he arrived at some ridiculous conclusion about me, quite possibly as the result of gossip and rumor.But, I could be totally wrong.

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Would my life have been better had he not turned on me? Probably, because right up until he figuratively hit me in the face with a nail-studded verbal 2 X 4, I thought everything was all peaches. I think his life was better with me in it and that he diminished himself by treating me so poorly. Again, though, it is his right, even without explanation or warning. Coming to terms with it when it happens falls to each of us.

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It turned out that John was not the person I thought after all, and he had me fooled. I don’t think there was any way at that point in my life I would have seen it coming.

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I know that 1 huge challenge in life is letting go of things and letting go of people. It’s really hard when the people you are letting go of do it unexpectedly or unfairly. There’s no closure, no “aha!” moment to reconcile. I think that most of the time we know we are not doing the right thing and pride or anger prevents us from coming forward. In this case, there was no precursor or advance warning to let me know what the true motives were.

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One day I had a great friend and the next, only the cold shoulder and bewilderment. I often wonder what our friendship might have been like and I certainly use his surprise shunning toward me to remind myself to carefully watch how people behave and react to those around them.

My life would have been different – and better – had John stayed in my life. That is what saddens me. I say it without any rancor or bitterness. It’s simply the truth from my perspective.

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