When I sat down to count the number of times that I lost a friendship by actions of another, I didn’t imagine I would reach the number 29 in the last 27 years, almost all of them close friends, or other people with an ongoing connection, who chose to sever contact with me. Each a story of its own. Some with reasons I understand. Some without any reason ever told to me, though surely with a reason that made sense to that person. The worst was a condensed period of two years during which I lost seven of seven close friends, and then had no new ones for more than six years. The most recent last month, during my visit to Israel, one of the extremely few people in my life I was sure beyond any doubt was a friendship for life. No more.
I decided to write about it when a friend who heard about it wrote: “Wow. Just Wow. It’s a miracle, and a testament to your tenacity, that you continue to trust and to open your heart.” Even though I know that such off is traumatic, and that I have endured most likely a higher-than-usual rate of these, reading this response I realized more strongly that what I was doing, how I was responding to life, was perhaps something useful to reflect about publicly. Specifically, a look into what is making it possible for me to trust and open my heart, and how far does this openness go.
Why Framing Matters
One of the fundamental insights of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), my spiritual and political home of sorts, is that what happens isn’t in any simple way what causes our reaction. Our reaction emerges from what we tell ourselves about what happens. I have watched this, studied this, and worked with people about it long enough to recognize this insight as a life-saver. It brings freedom to the inside, because I am continually reminded that I have no way of knowing what is true inside another person that leads them to actions that I may not like. Fully accepting the humility of not knowing leaves me with much more choice in what I tell myself about other people. The labels I may assign to them are mine, not simple truths about life. The vivid conviction I have about what motivates their actions is also mine, and says at least as much about me as it does about other people. In the absence of the futile search for who is to blame for what I am enduring, or for certainty and truth about others’ inner landscape, I am now free to take full ownership of my own inner landscape, critically examine its contents, and choose what I say to myself and where I put my attention.
There are no choices without consequences, and this holds true for this kind of choice, too. The stories I tell myself can open my heart or close it; can lead me to walk towards life or to run away from it; and, even, can offer me a path to a new identity of a powerful, alive, and open person. NVC provides a template story, a framework for making sense of life, that supports me in showing up in the very way I want, in line with my values, which include care for self, others, and the whole.
Because the story of my losses is so dramatic, I want to use it to illustrate this rather complex point. I imagine that any of you reading this asked yourself why so many people have made this repeated choice to exit my life. Of course you do. We all want to know the why of everything, from the moment we discover that the question exists, and forever unless curiosity is rooted out of us. Wanting to know why is never an issue for me. What I mourn is the that our civilization habituates us to answer the “why” of human relationship often with pointing fingers at who’s to blame for what happens. In this frame, the more people choose to exit relationships with me, the more “evidence” it provides that there is something fundamentally “wrong” with me that leads one person after another to move away from me. The only alternative to there being something wrong with me is some elaborate way of painting me as a victim, helpless in the hands of so many people who treat me without care.
The other frame that NVC offers is that in this case, as in all human affairs, actions are expressions of needs. Good and bad dissolve into a different perspective, one in which more and more awareness of needs can lead to more choice, more care, more integrity. I’m all in. Neither I nor 27 people who made specific choices in relation to me are good or bad. We all have the same needs, and they contain the code that can help me decipher this drama.
As my sister Arnina has identified and now teaches, needs often cluster, and there are two core clusters that are pivotal to who we become. One is the cluster of security, which also includes belonging and being seen as essential needs, and the other is the cluster of freedom, which also includes truth and presence. The tragedy of socialization within the patriarchal world we live in is that the two triangles polarize. As children, our security triangle is not a given; we have to earn it by being obedient, “good”, and overall following adults’ ideas and instructions. This means we get a subtle and profound message that says that the price of security and belonging is loss of the freedom to be. The overwhelming majority of us accept this extremely difficult deal. We give up who we are, our truth as it lives in us moment by moment, for the hope of being seen and accepted as part of the whole. We conclude that freedom is impossible, and keep longing for it.