When I was in college, living off campus, in duplexes with a rotating cast of residents, there was a couch in one of the living rooms. A perfectly cushy leather couch but typically unyielding as leather couches are. As long as none of you were too large, you could fit people on the couch (four, if you were all women under five feet tall who lived on cigarettes and mints). Someone had painted “ME!” with exclamation marks on the back of one corner.
The couch’s current owner at the time felt it was his sacred duty to banish people to the ME! couch when they were being self-absorbed. Given that we were all adolescents, there was always someone making something all about him or herself when it was not, really, including Sacred Duty Couch Guy.
And that was the lesson my mother had tried really hard to teach me, to help me get through life better. “Elizabeth, it’s not about you.” she’d say, particularly when I was upset that something was unfair or wrong. My mother wanted me to realize that it’s actually a positive condition when a thing is not about you. Someone else gets the prize you wanted? It’s not about you being not good enough; it’s about the judge preferring poems about spring to poems about jealousy.
No-one asks to sit with you at lunch? It’s not about you. The person who did not ask to sit with you at lunch is thinking about a million things, not one of which is “I will make YOU feel bad by not talking to you at this moment in time.”
Many really good attitudes spring from this very valuable piece of advice. Empathy, for one. If you recognize that the woman who cut you off in line was not cutting you off but was hurrying or distracted or angry at the world for reasons you don’t know (sick child, boss who wants any excuse to yell at her), you no longer react with outrage or insult. You start to react with kindness. That makes the whole world better.
Improved self-image, for another. When all your friends were at the bar across the street but no-one called you, you don’t suddenly think everyone hates you or worry that you did something wrong, if you are coming from the headspace of “it’s not about me.” Instead, you think everyone assumed someone else had called you or did not know you missed the tweet. Or you figure you weren’t around when the get-together was planned. You don’t feel personally excluded or personally rejected. You realize that people are not thinking about you all the time–why should they be? So no-one was deliberately leaving you out–why would they?
It’s very freeing, actually.
But sometimes it leaves you not knowing how you’re supposed to react to things. And sometimes, you’re struck with how cruel it can be, having nothing be about you.
A friend of mine died unexpectedly last week. Young, not even forty yet. No, I don’t know what happened and it’s likely I never will as I only met his longtime girlfriend once and never met any of his family.
So, you see, we were not best friends, not especially intimate friends. In fact, we had not interacted offline in some years, although we did chat from time to time. And I thought of him every time I got together with the usual suspects and he did not show up. Usually someone would mention that he should come around more, that jerk; we missed him. I know that I only once said “Hey, WillR, we’re at the usual place and time next week, why don’t you join us like you used to? We’ve missed you.”
I know that all the times I got together with friends, without trying specifically to ensure he came along, I never once thought I was glad to be excluding him. That he wasn’t there for the fun was never about him not being there for the fun. It was just a thing that happened.
On the other hand, it’s funny how things which aren’t about you can sometimes, also, mean everything to you. Seven or eight years ago, when I first met WillR, he and I used to get together at a bar in my neighborhood and talk about nothing in particular. Just the two of us, hanging out in a bar, talking politics, social philosophy, movies, books and about things we hated. I’m sure he just had nothing better to do and got a reasonable amount of pleasure out of the conversation.
I know–because I never mentioned it–that WillR had absolutely no idea that it was necessary for me. He did not know what it meant to me that he was willing to come out drinking with me for no reason. He could not know how much I needed a friend at that moment in time. So it was not, as far as he was concerned, about me.
Of course, I wish I had told him. I really wish I had. It would have been good to let him know that his friendship was all about me, so he would know that his absence would be felt keenly when he stopped coming around.