Final Note on Estranged Friends

Note: the title of this piece is probably about as true as any of Mr. Trump’s assertions — this subject is one my thoughts inevitably return to from time to time [1]. Fascinating and terrible at once, it’s hard for me to keep from periodically chewing on the perplexing mystery of losing old friends. I will try to add a few thoughts to a piece I posted the other day called The Complex Difficulty of Human Affairs.

Zora Neale Hurston, toward the end of her 1937 masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God, wrote of two women sitting together under the night sky sharing that “oldest of human longings — self-revelation.” The desire to know and make yourself known to another in an authentic way ideally leads to acceptance — you will know all these things I share and give me similar things in return and neither will judge the other. It strikes me as a profound comfort human beings often seek in a world that is often indifferent, in a life that inevitably ends in death.

It is foolish, of course, to seek this profound connection in every relationship. Mutual self-revelation, on more than a minimal scale, is a rare thing. The good news is that good friendship can be based on many things, without any express self-revelation as such. We know each other by our deeds, our mutual willingness to help, our desire not to hurt. When you need my help, I’m there, when I need a hand, you won’t hesitate to lend one.

In thinking about the end of my long correspondence with Karl, a short, politely worded email about the impossibility of continuing our almost daily writing, I have to think about our very different expectations of life. Also, Karl as part of a troubling pattern over the course of the second half of my life — fatal estrangements. As a friend noted recently, finally putting these terminal friendships out of their misery helps me sleep at night. On the other hand, the mystery of why I’ve experienced so many of these fatalities remains. Is it not better to let friendships that have outlived their lives simply drift away?

It is a mild spring-like day outside, and an argument could be made I’d be better off vigorously exercising out there than rattling the keys here in a dim room overlooking Sekhnet’s garden. We each have our own way of doing what we need to do. I’ll take a long walk with Sekhnet when the sun is low in the sky.

I’ve written about my now deceased former friend Mark and his eternal three act tragedy. Mark, a man with high expectations, was compelled to relive the same excitement, deterioration, betrayal pattern in every relationship he ever had. It was easy for me to see, easy for anyone I mentioned it to to recognize, there were countless examples, stories with the identical dramatic arc. Mark had no insight into his need to idealize, criticize, alienate. He lived an unhappy life and died alone, probably of a broken heart, naked in his chair.

Looking at the many friendships I’ve had over the years, relationships that I no longer have, I must recognize the possibility that I am as blind to my role in their inevitable deaths as Mark was to his role in driving people he once loved away. After all, it is not one person who has angrily attacked me for being angry, or considered himself so intolerably provoked by me that he had to strike back hard, or felt the need to use deadly force to defend himself against a detailed list of “intolerable” offenses I insisted on “resolving”.

It could simply be that the many subtle ways I learned to infuriate my father during our hundreds of senseless fights to the death are something I cannot control. I believe, when I reach my breaking point with someone I’ve known for years, that I’m being logical, fair and humane, that I am presenting reasonable needs calmly; the recipient sees only a death ray. I do not discount the possibility that to them I show every aspect of a raging, over-sensitive asshole, though I also don’t accept that view as necessarily true.

I can also see that the people I wind up estranged from fit a certain personality type, not unlike my father on a fundamental level. They are people who will never back down when they feel cornered, no matter how gently one may have “cornered” them. This kind of casting is a feature of the Repetition Compulsion, placing others into the role of a primal trauma-inducer in an attempt to replay the psychological drama to a better outcome. It’s a game for suckers, that, a game we play unconsciously. I can also see, in hindsight, that over my life I’ve chosen many friends for their intelligence, wit and, often subtle, similarity to my combative father’s desperate zero-sum mentality. We both can’t be partially right and come to an understanding based on compromise of any kind — one of us has to die.

There is a small counterbalance to be had, looking at the subsequent lives of people I could no longer maintain friendships with. Raj and his wife finally divorced, his old friend I fell out with years ago (former husband of a woman I recall as Hitler) and Raj are no longer friends, Pavel told me I was by far his closest friend (before I unfairly accused him of insensitivity when he was only being cooly analytical about my vexing medical insurance situation) Karl lives an isolated life in Poland swallowing anger and serving a strong-willed second wife, etc.

I can look at each of these largely unhappy guys and think — we couldn’t help each other when we needed support the most. It happens. It is not the fault of anything but our respective human natures. The miracle is not that we finally went our separate ways, but that we were friends for so many years.

What expectation do I have of the world? To try to be patient listening to and honestly discussing the worries of my mate, without making her feel worse about things that already bother her. To have her listen to my troubles, without rushing to offer solutions before she’s heard the entire problem. To immediately make amends when I know I’ve hurt somebody. I have to admit, I eventually find these things, when they are missing, intolerable.

What expectations does Karl have of the world? I have no idea, but his worldview seem fundamentally more pessimistic than mine. Life is brutish, unfair, short, I suppose. In his case, it strikes me as a characteristically grim Protestant view of our duties to each other here on the earth. Impossible in the end, perhaps, for a humanistic Jew like me to fully grasp and appreciate, just as my outlook must seem absurd to him.

What expectations does someone who will only offer an apology when forced into it have? It seems they’d be unlikely to expect an apology if they were hurt — though perhaps they would expect it more than most. It is largely futile trying to imagine what is in the head and heart of somebody else, unless they work to reveal it to us. In most cases, the inner lives of others are a mystery.

As we can see all around us, people will construct whatever meaning they need to live as they see fit in our troubled world. A candidate they back can lose an election by more than six million votes and they can honestly insist he didn’t lose — the states that returned majorities against him were in on a conspiracy to steal the office from him. Proof or lack of proof do not come into strong convictions that will cause righteous armies to march — they feel the truth of it boiling in their blood.

So it is with people I’ve been close with, who, in several cases, I have had to behead in the end. They will believe, with the irrefutable proof that I wielded the sword that felled our friendship, that I am a vicious and unforgiving hypocrite who talks about not causing harm but who is as destructive as end-stage cancer. In my estimation, they were not capable of the kind of honesty that is a bottom line in my own life: if someone tells you they are hurt, hear them out before dismissing their complaint as the whining of a weak, corrupt, spoiled, hypocrite bastard.

On the other hand, and, of course, I may simply be a whining, weak, corrupt, spoiled, hypocrite bastard. Something like that is very hard to ever know for sure, no matter how certain we may feel in our bones.


A murdered darling I couldn’t totally delete, I’d originally added: as a dog returneth to his vomit.

Which is part of that great, largely meaningless, proverb:

כְּ֭כֶלֶב שָׁ֣ב עַל־קֵאֹ֑ו כְּ֝סִ֗יל שֹׁונֶ֥ה בְאִוַּלְתֹּֽו

As a dog returneth to his vomit, so is a fool who repeateth his folly.

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