Saturday, March 6, 2010

My Mental Filing Cabinet

A wooden Filing Cabinet with drawer open

You wouldn't call it a party; it was more like a casual evening with dinner thrown in for good measure. I knew some of the people, didn't know others, and that was the whole point, to become better acquainted while having a pleasurable time. The hostess was a good friend of mine and this was my first visit to her home.

After walking me through the house, one that she felt very fortunate to have found and rented --it was a beautifully renovated mountain chalet that dated from the 40s -- she apologized for not having invited "Marty." I looked at her quizzically and she went on, "He is a friend of yours, isn't he?" I said he and I were friendly, but that's as far as it had gone, and asked why she felt she had to apologize. "I didn't want anything to disrupt the evening, you know? I mean, he can be 'disagreeable,' and people are uncomfortable around him sometimes."

I was genuinely surprised, but only said she needn't worry, it was her evening and I wasn't offended in the least. And I wasn't. In fact, it never occurred to me to wonder why he hadn't been invited, but apparently, she'd thought of it and didn't want me to feel badly. She was a sweetheart -- it was one of the things I liked most about her.

I have an internal filing cabinet somewhere in my brain where I put things like this that I don't immediately understand -- you probably do, too. As time goes along, I'll add notes to a particular file and then thumb through them to see if anything makes sense. Some files get pretty thick before the lights come on.

In Marty's case, it took the better part of a entire drawer. For one thing, his demeanor never gave me any reason to imagine him being disagreeable. In fact, agreeable would have been closer to the truth. You can't have been a therapist or counselor of any sort without people asking for free advice. It goes with the territory and as long as it doesn't become a habit, I'm fine with it.

Marty seemed to need a lot of advice and I figured he'd eventually grow into his own clothes, as my father used to say. So, I forgot about my hostess-friend's comment, until one day I happened to pull out Marty's file. I had been thinking we were on the cusp of becoming friends when I wanted his assistance on a project. I'd been available whenever he needed me, so it felt natural to ask. To my surprise, he seemed reticent, and while he ultimately agreed, curiously, I had the feeling he thought this meant I owed him one. Another one?

And that's when it finally dawned on me (duh): he only sought me out when he wanted something. It was hard to accept but I couldn't deny the evidence -- it was all right there in his file. I hadn't been naive but neither had I been discerning, a very important distinction. My proclivity for believing the best in a person had led me to misinterpret information that had been completely obvious to my female friend.

It's easy to kick yourself in situations like this, especially if you've invested a lot in a relationship. But here's the thing: some of us have been trained by family dynamics or other environmental influences to tolerate what others would never consider. I was eager to make new friends at the time and allowed that to color my perceptions. It's easy to do and ought not be cause for self-criticism -- we really do learn as we live. And we should endeavor to live better after the lessons have hit home. If we don't, well, that's another issue altogether.

(GNU Free Documentation image via Wikipedia)
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