I was sitting alone in a New York restaurant awaiting the arrival of my dinner companion. I was only peripherally tuned in to the conversation of the two women at the adjacent table when one sentence caught my attention. One woman, talking about the upcoming eightieth birthday party of her mother, said, “The only problem is that my sister Margie has not spoken to my sister Evelyn in seven years.” For a moment,I found the remark comical. “Only” generally means one small thing among many. But estrangement, especially between kin, is not a small thing. I have no siblings, but I was estranged from a close friend for some years before we were able to repair our relationship, and I remember it as painful.
This friend, who was also a professional colleague, wrote me an unsolicited “feedback” letter with his opinion about something I’d done. I felt deeply insulted and, uncharacteristically, enraged. I was mad about being maligned, even though it was in the privacy of a letter, and upset about feeling so disturbed. Although I tried not to think about the letter, it kept coming to mind, and every time I thought, “How could he have said that about me?” Even months later, en route to a meeting at which I imagined he might be present, I’d think, “How could he have said that about me?” and I’d feel upset again.
I would remember the insult and my distress about it each time I taught loving-kindness meditation, the practice of cultivating universal benevolence. I’d mention the four categories of persons—dearly beloved people, friends, neutral people, and enemies—that we use in this practice to identify the people we know. I often say that if I imagine myself in the middle of concentric orbits of people who inhabit my inner universe, my enemies are at the furthest distance from my heart. The goal of loving-kindness practice is that everyone becomes equally dear.
Once, a very close friend asked me, “Do you have any enemies?”
“Only one,” I said, and I told her about the letter. I remember saying, “I can’t believe he said that about me.”
“Don’t you wish you could get over that?” my friend asked.
“I do wish that,” I said. “Or at least I think I do. I even feel embarrassed now that I’ve told you. It was just a letter, and it was a long time ago. But so far I can’t let go of it. Thinking about it still riles me up. It’s too painful.”
Some time later, driving to an event at which I was to be one of the speakers, feeling relaxed and happy looking forward to the evening, I remembered that my “enemy” would be sharing the podium, and I thought my reflexive thought: “How could he have said that about me?” And then I thought, “Because it was true!” I felt relieved.
At the meeting we exchanged greetings, and I felt genuinely cordial. We made plans to meet again, to catch up on our lives. We met often after that, both of us enjoying our renewed connection. Finally, I said, “Let’s talk about what happened between us.” I told my story of receiving the letter and being upset for so long. I ended by saying, “When I greeted you so wholeheartedly that evening, I was feeling wonderful because it was such a relief to stop hiding from myself. When I asked myself, ‘How can he have said that about me?’ I realized that you said it because it was true.”
“No it wasn’t,” he said. “Not the way I said it.” He said his embarrassment about having written so impulsively had made him reluctant to contact me.
“You were right, though, about what you said about me,” I replied. “I had made the wrong decision you said I made. I was covering it up for myself, so I wouldn’t see it. So I wouldn’t need to acknowledge it or deal with it. Your letter gave me the chance to avoid dealing with it. I could just be mad at your harsh words, and at you—and not look at my own issues.”
So there we were, good friends with normally good communication skills who each felt wounded by an event and too uncomfortable to confront it for a long time. Was it just the insult? The insult wasn’t that awful, even if it were true. Was it the startle of having someone I trusted as a friend “attack” me? Is embarrassment, especially when it is a reminder of other embarrassing moments, so painful? Apparently it is. The pain of wounds can cause the mind to build barriers that protect it from going near the scene of the wounding, lest more hurt happen.
I’m not sure how wounds heal, except that time helps. Thinking of the day of my rapprochement with my friend, I tell myself, “The necessary and sufficient conditions for change to happen—for me to see what was really making me mad—were finally present.”
I hope the eightieth birthday party went well.