When a loved one tells you they miss you, you should listen. You should set aside what you’re doing and pay attention. On some level, we believe we already do this. We lay claim to love and compassion without turning off our phones, pausing our own agenda, and looking other people square in the eye.
If that’s love, no one wants to be loved that way. We’ve all just settled for what we can get.
“But we’re all ultimately responsible for our own happiness. We can’t impose our misery on others.” That’s true. We should possess some semblance of wholeness on our own. There is a balance point between healthy and unhealthy need for people. It’s a balance most try to approximate, and few achieve. The trouble, however, is that it doesn’t absolve us of our responsibility to care. To be present, to listen, to absorb and churn that awareness into love that can be felt. Defaulting to a balance point assumes that ‘need’ is always spawned by misery, a preamble to twelve hours of endless venting. Sometimes it is. But usually, it’s an invitation to connect. Maybe it starts with commiseration. Twelve hours later, it becomes communication. We all invent a way back to our relationships, a reason to talk again. An on-ramp. It’s easy to mistake what we’re talking about for why we’re talking at all. We conflate the two, but they are not the same.
It isn’t enough to skate in the margins of friends’ lives. That makes us tourists, checking in and out, free to play but not to talk. Free to talk, but not to hear. Always to do things apart, never to do nothing together. I’ve been a tourist in a lot of lives. Still am. Even when I receive heartfelt emails, I think, “Do I have time to reply now?” Inevitably, not having time now turns into not having time later. Those future moments don’t exist, because we’ve already ruled them out by behaving as we do in this present moment.
In 2004, I left home for college. I bolted out of my parents’ house like a felon on prison break, deep-throating as much fresh air as I could, relieved that I would finally live autonomously (on their money! suckers). Weekend visits home were negotiated, like I was whoring my time for rent. (You laugh, but this is an apt analogy.) That first semester, my mom asked me to call home every day. I declined. Once a week? They should be so lucky. Several times over the phone, my parents choked and grunted through awkward “I love you’s.” (If you know my parents at all, then you also know that “I love you’s” come in a manner akin to giving birth. As in: Looks like a crime scene, somebody cries and we’re all glad no one video-taped it.) Once, my mom said, “You know, it’s different without you here.” Blah blah time’s up and click.
That happens. Blame whoever invented separate wavelengths, because it’s impossible to stay on the same one with another person for any significant stretch of time. Losing sight of other people is a fact of life. Geography just makes it easier to forgive.
The fact needn’t be fatal, though. We can adapt. Choose to pay attention, even when it’s easier to keep our eyes wide shut. We can’t always find our way back, but the possibility exists. What reconnection requires is the hardest thing you’ll ever do: Relax your own agenda.
This is more than just freeing an hour in your day, or picking up the phone. It’s about not having expectations for what that voice on the other end will say. And not rejecting possibilities for where an open afternoon can take you.
I do call home a lot more now, but probably never as much as my family would like. I’ve learned to be grateful – rather than irritated – that I’m needed. After all, I need them too. Isn’t it funny, that at 18 and living on my parents’ dollar, I didn’t think I needed them? And now, at 26 and paying my own way, I realize I do? Of course, this leads to an obvious and crude point – that love and need run deeper than our wallets. But there is a hidden and more poetic point, which is that we never really know when it’ll be our turn to pick up the phone and say, “I miss you. It’s not the same without you here.” And rest assured that our turn will come. When it does, what do you hope the other person will do?
I hope they listen. I hope they set aside what they’re doing and pay attention. And, if we’re using Skype, I really hope they look me square in the eye.