The sun is sliding back behind the clouds and an overhang has been pulled out to keep the little round tables dry. It is officially spring. People are pausing and lunching out on the sidewalk. Rain gently falling through the afternoon. A woman sits outside, alone at a table for three. I ask to sit with her. Yes. She is encouraging. Enthusiastic. Clearing the table of her newspaper, she tells me to please sit down. I tie my dog’s leash to the arm of a chair.
For the first several minutes, we remain present to our separate worlds. Me, passing the last of my bagel into the mouth of my overzealous dog. The woman staring out as people shuffle, shoes wet, umbrellas open wide on the street.
I’m about to meet an old friend, she says quickly. Nervously. My first college roommate. It’s been 35 years. 35 years.
I can’t believe it. They’ve just flown by. How have we waited so long to see each other?
This isn’t something I typically do, she tells me. The people I have in my life now are all new. She won’t even recognize me. I can’t imagine she will. And honest, it’s not that I’m going to be judging her. That’s what’s so nerve-racking. I have no idea what she’s going to think of me. That’s what I’m worried about. What will she think about what I’ve chosen to make of my life?
I understood, I told her. My ten year reunion just happened earlier this month. But so many of my high school friends refused to go. They were too busy or didn’t care. They said they didn’t see the point. That wasn’t true though. Their avoidance has been going on for years. It’s shown up in little ways all along. As I see it, I told her, excuses are a lifestyle.
So many of my friends back home avoid reaching out to each other directly but have made a habit out of looking in through the grapevine which, of course, is easy to do with social media but never seems to satisfy the underlying wonder about what has become of someone. It’s like we have this closet curiosity that we are too prideful to acknowledge out in the open.
We want to know each other but something stops us. It’s as if we don’t feel safe to go there any longer, to step in that closely, to be alone and ourselves with the friends of our past.
This is probably one of the more unfortunate realities that becomes us in life. The reality that we latch onto busyness and self-importance in order to position ourselves at a vantage point that in our minds is higher up than others. The reality that we use these strategies to float up above the people who once made up our world, and yet that even from above we manage to continue looking down almost suspended between two worlds we don’t feel entirely comfortable in or accepted by. The unfortunate part is that we feel like frauds around those who are most capable of overlooking our small stuff and loving us just because.
Why would we want to move on from this, from the people who loved us when we were just starting out, who were interested in us when our stories were young and short and our worlds so familiar? There’s only one reason. People turn away from their past and the people they knew there—I’m talking about the people who haven’t wronged them, the good friends, old friends, childhood friends, we-know-each-other’s-families type of friends—because they are afraid those friends will see the fear that has become them.
There’s just no other way to make sense of turning your back and taking off. At least, as far as I can see it. We only give people up because we feel we’ve given up on ourselves in some way and we think that those people—the people who knew us best, who knew us when we were dreamy—will notice it.
And, we’re afraid of that. Afraid that we not only will be seen but that we will be judged for where we currently are not.
Isn’t that just human nature? I asked the woman. We have some deep shame that we haven’t come far enough. And we just waste away thinking like that. Suspecting that everyone will see us for what we haven’t achieved rather than take us in for all that we are. I think it’s the greatest myth of time. It’s the worst lie we tell ourselves. Because it keeps us from being in each other’s lives.
Enjoy yourself, I encouraged her. I mean, I kind of envy what you’re doing, I said. Honestly, I regret having not made any deep friendships during college. I regret not having a person to call “my college friend”. You’re fortunate you have someone you can meet all these years later, that you have someone who hasn’t forgotten you. Don’t think about her judgment. If you let her in, I can bet you, she won’t have any of it.
But what if I get quiet or what if we have nothing to say? She asked as I untied my dog and readied myself to go. Nothing to say? I laughed. If you begin to feel nervous again, just remind yourself that you’re both showing back up for each other because you haven’t forgotten that 35 years ago you were each others world. You’re meeting up because you care, because you haven’t let pride rule your life. If you don’t know what to say, remind yourself that it’s only your own judgment that’s in the way.
The judgment you have of yourself is the only force that can keep you from living your life. Don’t let your mind get in the way of a good moment with an old friend.
As I walked through the afternoon’s light rain, I thought about the realities that we all share but stay quiet about. The reality that we each feel fear. We each yearn for the experiences vulnerability provides us but from which our own disempowerment holds us back from. I know with myself that I have felt so much of it, so much fear and so much doubt, and that only now am I able to even challenge myself to finally do the work to break through the wall I’ve built up between myself today and myself from years ago. It’s the wall that keeps me further than I actually ever want to be from other people.
Every day I try to chip away at this wall.
Some days I do a great job and somedays I can’t even lift the sledgehammer up as I wish to. It takes time to feel differently, to even move through the day in more promising ways. But sitting down with this woman is an example of where you can start. It’s an example of the kind of the work, the kind of healing that I know I must do. Sure, it sounds easy and the conversation really was nice but it wasn’t always something I could do with ease. The ease has become the gift, and that gift took effort, humility, and the time to garner both.
I don’t know what became of that afternoon for the woman I sat down with and the college friend she was meeting. All I know is that I’m glad I was there, that I’m in a position to be available for women like her in moments like those. And I’m glad she was able to let go of some of her nervous energy, that right before meeting her best college friend, she was able to get some of her fear out of her system.
What is the quickest way to rid ourselves of fear? Is it by accepting where it is we actually are in our lives? I think we must begin there.
I think that those who are fearless were not never afraid, but rather that they made early efforts to talk themselves out of their fear, out of the invisible force we so comfortably impose upon ourselves, but which we do not have to.