I am currently reading “His Whole Life” by Elizabeth Hay, a novel that pits childhood coming-of-age against itself in a fury of horrible difficulties and rosy memories, exactly what a truly good coming-of-age novel should do.
In the novel, Nan, the protagonist’s mother, has a few secret shames, one involving a former friend who abandoned her when she was 11 for another girl and the two began teasing and taunting her. It is a shame that Nan never lets go of in the novel, still referring to her former friend Janet as ‘the Jerk’, still thinking back to that time with immense difficulty, still leaving out moments in her memory of pining for Janet’s attention and fruitnless invites that were never attended. Of these shames, Hay as a writer is in Nan’s shoes, saying:
Forgiveness, she was thinking, was in some terrible, overeager way a lack of curiosity. It was a big powerful hose that washed everything away… As eager to reconcile as she had been in the schoolyard and in her first marriage too. Only to think now that she should not have been so hasty. Forgiveness was the premature end to the story. She had skipped to the last page instead of reading the book through.
It’s the oddest definition of ‘forgiveness’ I’ve ever read, particularly because the word is most often painted in an extremely brazenly positive light; the idea that we can’t move on unless we forgive, that forgiveness is mercy, mercy is Christian, that you forgive for your own self so that you can move forward in life without holding onto pain or grudges. The even odder thing about this definition is it is attached to a middle-aged woman’s feelings about a ‘friend’ who had abandoned her when was 11. Eleven. An age where immaturity is expected, an age so far into this character’s past that the question becomes not about forgiveness, but about the mark such a silly incident left upon this woman’s life at all.
It does, though.
The things that friends – the people we love the most and feel closest to – do, positively or negatively, can shape the outcomes of our lives one way or another. We often don’t see it this way because we abandon friends for boyfriends and they are the first people we let go of when life gets busy or we fall into a rut or we get married or have children. We look around in these moments of drastic change and see family, spouse, partner, and not a friend in sight.
I’m a teacher. And I look at kids I have taught in junior high and high school, and they are at an age where friendship means EVERYTHING to them. Their relationships are silly and without love for the most part, and last maybe a month or two. Their parents are the enemy suddenly, as if overnight some lightning struck a space in between parent and child. But that person they shared a locker with, that person they sit with in math class, who they ride the bus with, who they tried alcohol and cigarettes with for the first time, is their soulmate. Nothing and nobody else matters really, except an over-emotional attachment to their friends. This changes when life becomes more complicated.
As I write this, I think of the former friends who I am in what I like to call ‘mutual abandonment’ with. The people who betrayed me the way Nan was betrayed in the novel; the people who robbed me of certain shreds of my own self-respect. I don’t know or care what they’re up to. I’ve opted to pull myself out of a life of cyber-stalking and jeering because to open old wounds is like false forgiveness, and it will never propel you forward. I think of a future encounter with one of those people and wonder if or how I would bother approaching such difficulties, without regrets either for doing too much, too little, or not enough.
As it stands, forgiveness is a barrier that I cannot cross, and I am unsure if I want to. Because what friends do or don’t do, is a barrier in itself. It matters. It mattered. Betrayal is something that simply does not go away overnight – the ways you betrayed as well as the ways you have been betrayed by others. There is a glorification in life and literature of ‘bffs’ – the idea that you have the same friends forever and ever and those long-standing friendships mean more than new or surfaced friendships. In some ways maybe this is true. But if the nature of those friendships is steeped in constant secrets, constant needs to apologize, constant needs to ‘forgive’ falsely or otherwise, constant needs to bury facts and feel deeply the pains of moments where someone acted outside of how they should have acted – then those friendships are not worth having at all.
I wish them well before drawing them onto parchment and burning them with a two-ended candle and throwing the ashes onto the lawn.