Aspen Princess: It’s a simple question: How are you?
“Do you want to see my nipple?” a girl I know asked after yoga the other day, poised to pull up her athletic bra. “You don’t have to look if you don’t want to.”
“No, yeah,” I fumbled. “Sure.”
She wanted to show me the scar from her recent lumpectomy. I’d had no idea she had breast cancer or was undergoing treatment.
I had noticed with a tinge of envy that she’d been looking a lot thinner lately. She’d ditched the leggings and started wearing this cute two-piece outfit, high-waist shorts and a cute matching top that showed off her slender hips and flat stomach. I’d struck up a conversation to compliment her, wondering what her diet secrets were. The answer was she was losing weight because she’s been undergoing treatment for cancer.
This isn’t the first time I’ve misjudged someone. Lately, it’s been happening all the time.
So often, we think only of ourselves, of what’s happening to us. If we have a negative interaction with someone else, we rarely stop to think about what the other person might be going through. We take everything so personally.
A few months ago, I ran into a friend of mine whom I absolutely adore. She has a demanding job that doesn’t allow her the luxury to check her phone every 15 minutes. I know this about her, but it still bothers me when she ignores my text messages. After all, I live in a world where I look forward to correspondence from friends.
So I saw her at Whole Foods, and it just came out. “Dude, thanks for never responding to my texts, like, ever.”
Her face, always ruddy and bright, darkened. She blinked a few times, gathering her composure. “My dad is sick,” she said, on the verge of tears. “I just found out.”
Then I recently had an unpleasant phone conversation with a friend of mine who lives far away. She called me out about a comment I’d made on her Facebook page that she was offended by. It totally caught me off guard. I felt my face get hot, my heart thumping in my chest. What I’d written was meant to be complimentary, and I was really annoyed that she’d misconstrue it any other way.
I found myself waking up in the middle of the night, mind spinning with grievances: her lack of correspondence, her tendency to not respond to my text and voicemail messages, the fact that she hadn’t thanked me for a gift I’d sent months ago and so on and so forth.
I argued with her in my head for days, confronting her in these imaginary conversations about the things between us that had been bothering me. I’d be driving somewhere, my mind a million miles away because I was so lost in my own thoughts over these relatively trivial issues, forgetting where I parked my car or not screwing on the gas cap after I filled my tank.
Then I started to notice that she’d stopped commenting on my social media posts. She always was the first one to gush over every photo with a surplus of exclamation points. Was she really going to give me the silent treatment?
The longer I let communication between us go, the more these arguments with her in my head continued to grow, to expand, to take on a life of their own in breadth and context. Suddenly the issues went far beyond this one incident to include every negative thing that had happened between us in the past five years. I began to take stock of the friendship and wondered what would happen if I stopped trying so hard. Would the friendship exist without me?
After several weeks, I finally caved in and called her.
She was totally and utterly herself, nonchalant, upbeat, cheerful and happy to hear from me. When I confessed my feelings, she didn’t even try to argue. “You should be mad at me. I suck,” is all she said. This awful, lengthy argument I thought we’d been having did not exist. It was entirely constructed inside my head and began based on conclusions we’d both come to because of our interactions on social media, with no real footing in the real world. To think I’d lost sleep over this, wasted so much time and energy stressing about it, was insane.
My mom, who worked for 30 years as a shrink, always told me, “Honey, you just never know what goes on behind closed doors.” She said you might think you know someone, but you can never truly be witness to the lives of others outside your own home.
Now we live in a world where technology has somehow clouded the waters of understanding even further. In this surplus of communication, we have lost the ability to communicate at all. It seems like things have to escalate to the point when an actual conversation is inevitable before we can really come to understand one another. It’s only when the real dialogue begins we can finally listen or be heard.
Just the other day I sat outside on the Cooper Street Mall with a client I felt insecure about. I wasn’t sure if she was happy with my work because our email correspondence always felt clipped, as if something wasn’t being said. Just when I thought she was going to fire me, she opened up to me about a struggle she’d been having in her personal life. She allowed me to see a side of her I hadn’t gleaned in our interaction online and in business — a human side.
It’s kind of like the old joke, “Enough about me. What do you think about me?” I think the next time I don’t understand where someone is coming from, I won’t take it so personally and maybe use it as an opportunity to get more personal. Maybe start with three words: How are you?
The Princess lives among bighorn sheep. Email your love to firstname.lastname@example.org.