My friend Brad and I are speaking to one another again. For the second time in the 15-plus years we've known one another, we had a falling-out 14 months ago. It seems silly in retrospect. During lunch last week, I asked him, "Why did you stop speaking to me?"
"Because you didn't apologize," he said.
"Yes, I did," I said.
"No, you didn't," he said.
After going back and forth a few minutes, I realized he was right. I sincerely thought I had apologized for my verbal assault on him soon after my mother's death, when anger and sadness alternately possessed me every five minutes. But he was right. While I had explained my emotional state in an e-mail to him, I had not backed down from my accusation or made a direct apology to him.
"Why didn't you just tell me what you needed?" I asked, knowing fully well the answer. An apology on demand doesn't mean much.
"And besides," he said, "didn't our mutual friends tell you I needed an apology?"
"If they did, I'm sure I told them I'd already apologized," I said.
Silence. Fourteen months of bitter silence and missing one another for this?
Friendship is mysterious. Aristotle said it was the condition of "one soul inhabiting two bodies." That would be a case of a soul with frighteningly voracious appetites in the case of Brad and me. One explanation of my friendship with Brad is provided by Jungian analyst Adolf Guggenbuhl-Craig. "A good friend," he said, "is someone you can't stand to be around more than an hour a year."
That's comic exaggeration, but most people recognize its intrinsic truth. True friends know us so well they can call us on our bullshit in 30 seconds. To their eyes, we are transparent. Everything we try to hide rises to the surface as soon as they show up.
In theory, having the sometimes unpleasant truth reflected back to us is a good thing. But even psychotherapy recognizes the need to do that with some gentleness over time. Then again, in cultures where friendships are more important than in our own, psychotherapy is not nearly as popular.
Once, during coffee with some new friends in Madrid, one of them asked me what kind of psychological work I was interested in doing. I explained that I liked working with questions of creativity and the construction of meaning in life. I explained I was not studying or training to work with severely disordered people.
They found this hilarious. "You Americans don't even feel like ordinary conversation is worthwhile if you don't pay for it," one of them said. "Don't you have friends and family to talk to?"
I told them I'd read the average American has only two friends and that 25 percent of us report having no friends at all.
The Madrileños were aghast. "We enjoy one another's problems," one of them said. "Our lives would be meaningless without the problems of our friends and family."
He was joking – sort of. The poet Federico García Lorca wrote that the bullfight and flamenco are both exemplary of the Spanish love of dramatizing life problems as a means of resolving them. One becomes both actor and audience member.
I know this sounds vague. "Drama" has immediately negative associations for us. Another way of putting it is to say that when a problem arises, rather than avoiding it, you should consciously exaggerate its importance by throwing yourself into its solution.
This of course requires the cooperation of the other "actor." That's why Brad's own question was important: "Well, why didn't you speak to me?"
I told him that I started to write him numerous times, but each time I was overcome by the fear that we'd end up in another ... "drama." Also, I was so absorbed in the physical pain of recovery from (botched) knee surgery and the emotional pain of my mother's death that my behavior with him only further convinced me I should avoid everyone, as I did during the last year. My Spanish friends would say, correctly I think, that by avoiding the drama, I denied myself its resolution.
I don't think it's a coincidence that the recent death of my father, from whom I was estranged most of my life, precipitated an end to my estrangement from Brad. He wrote me a loving e-mail and I realized that, as another friend put it, I'd been living in a cave. With my father's death, I could go farther into the cave or rejoin the drama of life.
I'm grateful to Brad for helping me take a step out of that cave.
Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For information on his private practice, go to www.cliffbostock.com.