Wednesday, March 19, 2003

The Voices of Friends

So I'm riding in the car with my friend Joe from work, and we are running a work errand together. Whenever we spend time in the car together, we end up catching each other up with our lives, and over the years, we've had some real heart-to-heart talks in "the confession booth on wheels".

Our conversations weren't always so personal, of course. We started out just joking around about work, the people there and the odd situations that come up, stories which are always much more entertaining to the people you work with than to anyone who doesn't and suffers through your "this thing happened at work and was so funny" stories. It wasn't until he started going through a series of spirit-crushing personal tragedies that we began to stop joking and start talking about what was really going on in our lives.

Joe lost his mother and his sister to cancer within two years of each other, understandably became depressed, and then his marriage started to come apart soon after that. My closest friend had suffered through cancer when she used to live with me, and I'd lost both my parents, so we found that we had a whole lot of common ground to talk about. It seemed to me that it was helping Joe to be able to talk about it all, and it made me feel good to be able to help him through a difficult time, even though it seemed like such a simple thing to do. He just needed someone to talk to who he could trust not to judge him or repeat what he said, and I was happy to do that for him. And he has spent just as many hours listening to me ruminate over this problem or that, and he's proven to be a good listener and a discrete confidante, which is a rare thing in this world.

It didn't seem to me at the time that anything that I contributed to the conversation was of much help to him, but Joe surprised me today, and repeated an observation I'd made to him years ago, something about how his house that he lived in with his now ex-wife had very little of him in it. It was all decorated as if she lived there alone, and I mentioned that to him, not unkindly. He brought that up and favorably compared where he was in that situation then to where he is now. Although it was good to know that he's doing better in his new relationship in that respect, I was more struck by the fact that he even remembered that observation, and that he'd placed so much importance on it.

It's an odd feeling to suddenly become aware that YOU are one of the little voices in someone's head. I've got a thousand little voices in my head. Oh, that came out wrong, like I hear voices or something. No, no, let me clarify that.
For example, my grandmother was excessively proud of her baking skills, and so she would often try to get you to sample whatever she'd just baked, and would never take "no, thank you" for an answer. She had a million entreaties ready, so you would have to just give up and try the damn mince meat pie already and stop arguing with her, you knew she would win. Even so, it was her answer to the protest that it would "spoil" your dinner that was the most intriguing and memorable. She would say, "Oh, just eat your dessert first, like Jewish people do!"

Where on earth she got the idea that it was a Jewish custom to eat dessert before dinner is beyond me, but the point is that forever more, when someone suggests that you eat a sweet before you've had your proper meal, I "hear" my grandmother's words in my head and smile at that little bit of eccentricity. And she's not alone up there. There are hundreds of sound bites in my head, popping in at the most- and least- expected moments. This is just something familiar to me, and I assume that other people have similar (if perhaps not as numerous) voices in their heads, too.

What I hadn't expected to hear was that *I* was a voice in Joe's head, and that he'd been carrying that one comment around with him for years. At first I thought that perhaps what I'd said had been overly critical, but luckily, he was happy I said it, because he was having trouble articulating to himself why he felt uncomfortable, and that provided him with a visual metaphor for how he had been feeling in the marriage.

I'm left with two important lessons after our conversation this afternoon. One, is that you just never know how something you say or do might impact another person, and you may just end up being a voice in someone else's head for a long time to come, so mind what you say. The second one, is that I realized today that Joe is one of my closest friends, in terms of the way we can talk to one another, and I've never told him that. I think I'll go do that right now.

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