Advice to My Grandson about Friendships

I am the proud grandfather of a boy who is great with people as long as they love Thomas the Train and banana bread and don’t mind the repetitive “Jasper do it!” He loves to charm servers at the Cactus Club and he randomly says “Hi” to strangers and most things that move. When he sees that dumping everything on the floor makes me upset, he will say “Poppa sad?” and of course I melt.

So I thought I would write my grandson some things about friendships and relationships and if you want to listen in, you are welcome to. And as Jasper and I say when we are about to read a book, “Are you sitting comfortably? Then we shall begin!”

1) The first bit of advice is that your friendships are not really about you.

Friendships are about the unanticipated and serendipitous mix of people, timing and events. They are not about your need for “me” and “my” or your noisy tantrums that interrupt the adulation of your Mom and Dad. Today you are the centre stage of everybody’s life (especially mine) but – sorry to say this – this won’t last. You will discover that friendships are what you add to someone else’s life and how you treasure what people add to yours.

2) You can be right or you can be happy but you cannot be both.

Most of us are right some of the time but mostly we are wrong much of the time. The real problem is the drive to be right all the time. This is a “righteous obsessive compulsive disorder” (I just made this up) where the obsession (thought) is to be smarter than the person you are talking with and the compulsion (behaviour) is to make sure he knows it. Doesn’t sound like a fun friendship, does it?

3) You are responsible for creating your friendships.

I don’t think I was ever taught this as a kid, or at least I learned it late. Let’s say your Mom, or your Uncle David, or maybe me, does some horrid thing that makes you venomous. Here is what I think — this rage has a lot to do with you and not as much to do with your friendship. And, I think it is your responsibility to figure out your feelings (anger in this case), settle your emotions so that something good comes from them, and work things out with the friend who tripped into your reactivity. And you have to do it most every time if you are going to be friendly with friends. And it isn’t just anger. It also has to do with your prickly hurts, the too often recurring lusts, various bits of guilt that swim out from your unconscious, and ever-present self-pity that makes you reach for another bit of chocolate. From this mix you create a friendship and for this you are responsible.

4) Your friend is worth accepting…

When your Gamma and I first met, I thought it was my job to make her into the person I wanted to be married to. More than stupid, this cost me a lot of angst and caused Carole a lot of heartache. I thought that she could be my Xerox copy but what is that really worth? I want you to know that accepting yourself and accepting others as they are without correction or complaint is a choice and a virtue. I have discovered that is how God accepts me and, by the way, how you have accepted me, too.

5) …and so are you (worth accepting).

Jasper, there is oh so much wonderful about you. I want to tell you that accepting your person and your personality is good and right. I love to hear your funny sentences, the words for your newly discovered feelings, how you surprised yourself the other day that I have an elbow like you. Shortly after you were born I read a novel (“The Help”) and in the story a marvelous mentor / hero speaks to a depressed and acquiescent little girl, “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” You too are kindness, intelligence and strength — I see this in you and more.

I may never really tell you these things but I think them.

I Just Want to Be Heard

This is a common complaint in marriage and other partnerships including business and family – “Just listen to me. Don’t try to solve my problems. Just be quiet and listen.”

Seems simple enough until you parse the verb a bit. What does listening mean? Different things to different people so it turns out.

Parents, especially moms, talk about active listening and passive listening with their children. Active listening is when you engage the speaker with your verbal summaries, concluding thoughts, various attempts at empathy, nods and affirmative grunts. Passive listening is when you pay attention but say not much, just vector in, eye-to-eye. I like the latter kind of listening a lot more. But there are other definitions of listening as well.

The other day in my office someone said, “I just want to be heard.” Here is what she seemed to mean:

  1. First, listen deeply and thoroughly to my point of view.
  2. Second, accept my point of view as true or at least more true than yours.
  3. Third, change your thinking and behaviour in accordance with my point of view.
  4. Fourth, advocate for my point of view that you now thoroughly endorse.

Otherwise, I will not feel heard, she seemed to be saying. In fact, she did not feel heard or understood in her family of origin (that is, her growing up family), in her marriage and also felt that her pastor minimized her thoughtfulness. She felt alone, misunderstood and antagonized by various other non-hearers.

Sometimes we can ask to be listened to when what we want is to be agreed with. Different.

“The Female Brain”

I am reading “The Female Brain” (2007) by Louann Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco and founder of the Women’s and Teen Girls’ Mood and Hormone Clinic. I had read “The Male Brain” (same author) and felt understood – now that is a compliment. But as well, a bit boxed in without the freedoms and capacities I think that men have. However, it is probably timely to understand my wife and so I have launched into her older book on “The Female Brain.”

Here are some of the things I have read, enjoyed and wrestled with:

(1) “Men use about seven thousand words per day. Women use about twenty-thousand words per day.” I know that Carole often asks me, “What are you thinking” when I don’t really have any words for my thoughts. In fact, I am not sure I am thinking at all. More cognitively muttering.

(2) “Girls arrive already wired as girls and boys arrive already wired as boys.” This is certainly the case for my 2.5-year old grandson. Loves trucks, shouting his “outside voice” around the dinner table, playing pirates with a hooked finger and a mean sounding “grrr” (taught to him by his aunt) – if this is part of what it is to be a boy toddler then he seems to have been born this way.

(3) “Men are on average twenty times more aggressive than women.” Makes no sense to me at all. I have talked with lots of female client-friends who are the clear aggressors in their parenting and marriage. And their husbands / partners / kids agree. Seems more personality-driven than gender-caused.

(4) “Girls are motivated — on a molecular and neurological level — to ease and prevent social conflict.” Interesting. I am aware that men are often domesticated by women, especially in marriage and so become less competitive over time. But many men are “rescuers” in relationships equipped with a dominant fear of harming the significant other.

(5) “85% of twenty to thirty-year-old males think about sex every fifty-two seconds and women think about it once a day – up to three or four times on fertile days.” No wonder math scores are plummeting. Actually, I have heard this so often I think it must be a suburban myth. What I do know is that men can control their thoughts and lusts however frequent and that this self-control reduces the obsessional, minute-by-minute interruptions. I don’t think that most men are victims to their sexual impulses.

(6) “Men pick up the subtle signs of sadness in a female face only 40 percent of the time, whereas women can pick up these signs 90 percent of the time.” Maybe for some men but it is not true for me. And I am aware that men can learn to discern faces and the differences between sadness and tiredness, or hurt and anger.

(7) “65 percent of divorces after the age of fifty are initiated by women.” A divorce initiation, by a man or a woman, is a response to something else, usually a hurt or a harm. Subjectively I think that men typically break covenant for another relationship, probably sexualized, while women break covenant for peace and quiet or differentiation (“find out who I am again”).

The thesis of this book is that the female brain sees the world differently and reacts differently than the male brain in every stage of life from newborn to old age. Sweeping in its generalizations, I feel like I know women less by Brizendine’s research or at least I have to think more about what I think about men and women.

(1) I think that men and women are not “opposites” but “equal others.” Opposite-thinking looks for differences, creates misunderstanding and minimizes similarities.

(2) I think that men and women have strengths and abilities based on context, culture, circumstance and that both or either can lead or submit (the latter I see as a great strength), create or appreciate, initiate or complement.

(3) I think that emotional-sexual resourcefulness is distributed to the species in a higgledy-piggledy way with men typically being the sexual initiators (80%?) and women typically being the emotional initators (80%?). This is more of a clinical guess than research. And we can learn and practice and benefit from the other’s strengths.

There is a wonderful King James description in the Bible about men and women in relationship. “Helpmate” is the ancient word. It means help appropriate to another or resourcefulness sufficient for another. I think that man is sufficient for a woman and woman is sufficient for a man and they can be more than sufficient by empowering each other. More than hormonal or biological differences.

A Husband’s Hope

When I saw you cry
today
at the psychologist’s
— you were so vulnerable and sad —
I wanted to catch each tear with my tongue
but also to stop the pain
or at least help you feel your way
through
and beyond it
to us
again
(Anonymous to you but known to us)