10/16/2015

Problematic friends

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I was told by my editor to write about “the importance of staying where you are,” and that I was free to interpret that phrase however I wished. So let’s talk about cavemen first.

I’ve read once that we, as human beings, treat gossip as a survival mechanism. While the hunters and gatherers of a given tribe would make their rounds, those left to hold the fort would tell stories about enemy tribes in order to, I assume, anticipate attacks or assess possible weaknesses. Presumably, after all the fruit-picking and the mammoth-hunting, everyone is accounted for by night time, the information is processed, and the tribe survives. It’s a feasible assumption, though it’s strange to think that you’re probably alive today because your lineage is made of people who knew how to talk trash correctly.

I don’t know if there’s any truth to this, in terms of what we are as a species. But I’ve been doing this for years, spreading and believing questionable stories in order to live. It isn’t quite right, making a lifestyle out of social maneuvering, but it’s something I’ve been conditioned to do well, being around judgmental friends. When you play the game of gossip, you’re led to assume that the only reasonable thing to do is make sure that you don’t wind up the unwitting subject of venomous hearsay.

We all have that friend. The problematic friend. The friend you like hanging out with but would never in a thousand lifetimes wish to be.

And when you’re determined to not be a rumor, you take to being the kind of person who feeds on rumors in some sort of twisted attempted to stay on the right side of things. That’s something I’m guilty of, and as a result I’ve often found myself in this kind of situation: I’m hanging out with a friend I haven’t seen in a while, we’re catching up on each other’s lives over coffee, and half an hour later we’re updating each other on the latest screw-ups of a common acquaintance who, though kind to us personally, seem to carry in themselves some sort of undiagnosable neurosis, as though every move they make somehow builds toward some unforgivable social faux pas.

We all have that friend. The problematic friend. The friend you like hanging out with but would never in a thousand lifetimes wish to be. The phrase “Too weird to live, too rare to die” applies to this friend.

These kinds of conversations, I can’t help but think, are just cases of backstabbing disguised as concern, and I don’t really know what to do with myself after. My view of that person becomes skewed, and I fashion an image of them in my head based on both shared experiences and questionable accounts.

I don’t know if this is wrong. There’s this vague responsibility to cultivate balanced views of the people you keep in your circle, even if that means treating rumors as potential source material. And it would be remiss to believe only stories straight from the sources themselves, told the way they want, because we all like to make ourselves appear good and self-reflexive, no matter how objective we try to be. I don’t know. All this effort put into being guarded and tastefully skeptical, and all you’re left with is the ache of not knowing what to believe.

But I keep thinking about my problematic friends. I keep thinking about the people I love whose mistakes just end up getting signal boosted more than other people’s faults, the people whose idiosyncrasies just don’t vibe with the majority, and I keep wondering what they’re left with. I keep wondering if they suspect that the world has turned its back on them and if they become irreversibly broken for it. Damned to be a story, never just a person.

Keep understanding that the company you keep will always be scratched up with divisions, and that sometimes the person you cherish will be the person everyone else loves to hate.

I suspect that popular culture trains us not necessarily to be good or smart, but calculatedly unproblematic. And when you’re expected to be socially clean and spiffy every waking moment, you don’t know what to do when your problematic friend’s name comes up in a gossipy conversation that invites your participation. Do you play PR agent? Do you play furious bodyguard? Or do you play court jester and pander to the expectations of the talkative, lest your name come up in the next trending rumor?

I’m not telling anyone to stop playing the rumor game. Nine times out of ten, you’re the only person in charge of protecting your identity, and making sure your name doesn’t get dragged through the mud sometimes means playing that game. But keep loving your problematic friends. Keep understanding that the company you keep will always be scratched up with divisions, and that sometimes the person you cherish will be the person everyone else loves to hate. Your problematic friends have made a place for you in their lives. So stay. I’m pretty sure someone else in my life does the same for me, for the same reasons.

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