Every hero needs a foil. They need an arch-nemesis to fight against. The polar opposite to their core values. The Big Bad. And the really best villains are the ones that used to be the hero’s best friend. There’s an exceptional poignancy to betrayal, when your greatest enemy is someone who knows you intimately, and knows exactly where to aim their blows to do the most damage. I’m pretty sure Taylor Swift wrote a song about this. Or an entire album.
We all have that friend, don’t we? The one that, well, we’re not really sure why we’re friends with them. Because they’re really exasperating. They don’t really add any value to our lives. The balance on their friendship ledger is always, but always, in the red. And every time you agree to hang out with them you think, why did I let myself be talked into this? We all have that person. And of course, we’re all that person, to someone else. I have a picture taken on my recent trip, that perfectly encapsulates this friendship paradigm. Now, of course, a photo is just a fraction of a fraction of a moment in time. It’s a snapshot that never captures the full reality of a moment. I generally have a death glare any time a camera is pointed in my direction, so I, more than anyone else in the world, know that a moment where you catch me glaring daggers into the lens is not indicative of my general mood with the circumstances or the company, it’s indicative of having a camera shoved in my face. The camera can, and often does, lie. Context, matters.
But ignoring all that for a moment, the photo is of me, sitting on one side of a sofa in a pub, kicked back, about four vodkas in, grinning with absolute shit-faced snark, and the poor soul sharing the couch with me has an expression on his face that virtually screams, “Please god, will someone, PLEASE just come and kill me and put me out of my misery!” and looking for all the world like he would rather be anywhere in the world but there, right at that given moment.
A moment that he’s enduring entirely of his own free will. There are no chains holding him to that couch. Except of course, the metaphorical ones of the Social Contract we all agree to live by, the terms and conditions of which are clearly causing this man unending torment. And that might have been his actual mood. He might have regretted every footfall that took him to that pub, sighing at every step along the way at his foolishness in agreeing to this outing. “Again”, he thinks, “How did I get myself into this…. again? Why do I keep agreeing to these things? God-awful! I never have a good time talking to these people why do I keep doing this!” From the look on his face, this was definitely what he was thinking at this fraction of a moment in time. Or, he might have just been floating along on vast quantities of beer.
But I’m not interested in the reality, really, but in the story that this picture sells. And I don’t know what this picture is really, is it an accurate reflection of a true moment, or just a randomly contrived series of seconds that arranged in a visual representation of a universal truth- a truth, but not necessarily this truth. This picture tells the story of a man trapped in social pressure hell, but was it the story I was actually living in, when this picture was taken? I don’t know. I don’t know if the story this photo tells is true. Which is, of course, entirely the fun for me. You can write it any way you want, when you don’t really know. Though of course, I have my suspicions.
I am captivated by the almost audible thought bubble scrolling above this guy’s head. I think about this story, about how we talk ourselves into doing things and continuing relationships and making social promises for things we know we’re going to hate and all because of the grand social contract. It is a tragedy and a farce. The photo itself is a study in opposites, on one side of the couch is a blithe, seemingly oblivious person. She’s clearly feeling amused and on the other side of the sofa is a slumped, suffering wretch; inwardly writhing because he found himself in the midst of a Social Contract Exchange dilemma and couldn’t say no. Because no, is such a …definitive word. There’s so little room for misinterpretation. There’s so little room for take-backsies later. People expect you to be willing to exert yourself for them,at least a little bit, and when you don’t, well. That says something, doesn’t it?
Because we do exert ourselves for the people we like, don’t we? And the amount to which we are willing to exert ourselves correlates to some degree to our liking for the person. We do more, for those we like more. So you’d move a little bit of heaven and earth, to see someone you really wanted to see, and for someone who was really more of a chore than you wanted to bother with, well, you’d glance at your diary and be like, “yeah, I’m getting a pedicure at 2 pm on Thursday if you can do that, I can see you, if you want….” But to have someone just come right out and say, “No, I am not interested in hanging, I like you well enough to chat with you three or four times a year through DMs but meeting you for lunch requires putting on pants, and going out into the world, with people, annoying, annoying people and socializing, and I’d rather be boiled in a vat of cooking oil than do that ever, thanks, no, bye”. And so of course, people lie, or they obfuscate; they invent reasons for why they can’t hang out with you, which makes it genuinely irritating for people who are legitimately trying to hang out with a friend and conflicts keep arising and now you’re to the point where you’re wondering, “Is she just making up all these excuses because she really doesn’t want to make plans? ” Is that what’s happening? Or are things just really not working out? How do you know? People have genuine lives that get in the way of best intentions but people doubt this as a plausible excuse because people won’t just say, yeah no thanks, when they don’t feel a vibe.
Because it’s such an insult to not like a person. It seems so…. personal. Trust me, it’s not personal. There’s 7 billion unique individuals on the planet. At best the amount of people I’d want to actually leave my house to grab a drink with are maybe 100. And that includes famous people. There is an astronomical percentage of probability that I am not going to like you well enough to put on pants and enter the world to talk to you if there is literally anything else occurring of interest in my life at the moment. Like the possibility of a nap. And I am not going to be shocked if you feel exactly the same way about me. And that’s totally cool. Go find your 100.
But we can’t just say that straight out to one another, oh no. It’s a lot harder to fob off a platonic relationship than it is a romantic one. People understand if you’re not feeling “the spark” romantically. But when you don’t feel it platonically? It’s not some nebulous chemistry to blame, it’s you objecting to their personality, to who they are. How could it not *feel* personal. Even knowing that there are 7 billion personalities walking the planet, and we can’t vibe with all of them. Nope, we can’t just say it. Because there’s consequences to breaking the social contract. So how do you distinguish between the people who really are interested in maintaining a friendship and people who are just maintaining the social facade?
I mean, you do know, really. You know who really is trying to schedule time with you. When you talk, they’re the people who are asking questions about you, because they want the update on your life. They listen to your stories. They put in effort, in other ways, than contact volume. Maybe you only talk once a year or once a month, but you know the difference between someone who is glad to hear from you and someone who’s just trying to get you off the phone. And you know the person who gives you the bare minimum when you reach out. You know when it’s really just distance and bad timing, and you know when that’s not the real problem. But nobody will just say that. Because there’s consequences to breaking the social contract. And break-ups have consequences.
A friendship break-up is as significant as a romantic relationship break-up and follows similar behavior patterns. How many people in a romantic relationship opt for the slow fade-out/ghosting method of dumping over the abrupt, “Yeah, you don’t suit me, we’re done” method? Friendship break-ups happen along fundamentally similar lines. Nobody wants the awkward, “I don’t understand, have you found someone new to get mochasmoothacinos with, you’ve replaced me?!” conversation. Break-ups go badly. People take sides. There’s consequences to making enemies out of people who were once friends. They know where all your weaknesses are, and where to hit the hardest to cause the most damage because they know the location of all your scars, from when you’ve been damaged before. They know where the bodies are buried. They helped you bury them.
There are consequences to breaking the social contract. Break-ups go badly and become origin stories. And nobody wants to be the villain of the piece. They opt for the slow slide away hoping that the other person won’t notice they’re going til they’re gone. Most people just trudge along dragging these relationships like anchors behind them, attempting to dodge firm commitments and outings whenever possible until dammit, fate intervenes and they find themselves in a situation where they know that any other answer than yes, is the equivalent of a hard no. That situation where there’s just not an excuse good enough, that would justify you not attending. So it’s a yes, or it’s a No that is a definitive statement. And we can’t just say no. We can’t say, “No, thanks for the kind offer, but no, we’d prefer to keep you at the acquaintance level of association, without the additional social obligations, thanks all the same”.
Nope, absolutely cannot say that, and therefore people find themselves forced into an obligatory outing to be endured with gritted teeth, reinforcing their general distaste and putting a little bit more sour in their mix. For what? I don’t do this shit. If I’ve hung out with you in the past, it was out of a genuine desire to do so, even if it was only for the inevitable psychoanalysis I would be doing on you later. I mean some people are interesting, and some are just useful for research purposes. I could make a great story out of you. In my head, I’m Shakespeare, but you know, actually capable of writing a coherent plot with believable characters.
But oh, I really like this picture. I like the story that it tells. It reminds me to be a little humble and recognize that some people will find you insufferable and you should acknowledge their pain. And drink it like fine wine. I mean, frankly, I’m amazing and I’m well aware of the fact. If I’m not this gents cup of tea, that’s okay. How pallid and tasteless and bland would you have to be, if you were to everyone’s taste? And I don’t know, maybe it’s time we just all collectively agreed to dispense with the bullshit a little bit. I think the pandemic has frayed the social contract for me. We are living in a weird time, so why are we wasting time going to events, and doing things we don’t want to be doing with people we don’t like? Did the murder hornets teach us nothing?
And, I hear you, I hear you grumble and say, oh, yeah well that’s easy for you to say, you don’t care what Squiffy thinks if you don’t agree to do the bake sale. And of course this is true. But there’s a flip-side of Squiffy’s judgment on you, it’s your judgment on everyone else,the people that you feel are failing to meet the relationship roles you’ve assigned them in your narrative. Maybe in addition to agreeing to stop forcing ourselves to maintain social contracts we have no interest in, we need to also recognize the relationships we’re forcing on others. We all have relationships that we’re pouring an awful lot of emotional energy into, trying to make them something that they’re just not, and maybe we should recognize that it isn’t going to be whatever we want it to be, and let it go. Or at the very least, let go of our idea of it. Whatever those relationships might be, romantic, friendship, professional, whatever. Turn the page. Move on to the next chapter.
There’s a fundamental flaw that has been put into our cultural zeitgeist by moronic rom-com movies that basically states, if you just keep pursuing the object of your interest, one day, you’ll be rewarded with the love you want, the job you want, the respect, the praise, the (insert validating affirmative feeling here). And that’s a crock of shit. It’s also stalking and harassment. Chances are, if you’re always the one initiating conversation, and texting Jane, even if Jane texts you back, if she never, not once initiates conversation, she’s sending you a message. Or maybe not. Maybe Jane is actually me and she’s just a really shit texter and would be happy to grab lunch and catch up, or a phone call, or a zoom call or even a day at the beach, but who is never going to text you because she hates her phone and positively loathes all forms of written communication that aren’t long-form essay. Hell, I want pen pals with actual written letters to come back in vogue. But nobody writes anymore. And nobody makes phone calls either. I remember when we thought technology was going to enrich the way we communicate with other people. Boy, did we fuck that up. People are maddening things. And you’re people, which means you’re the cause of someone, somewhere tearing their hair out. Someone is cursing your name. I hope it’s for a good reason. This could be the start of your origin story. I hope it’s a good one.
See I’m looking at a photo, of a story I’m in. And I don’t know the story. Who’s the hero and who’s the villain? Who should I be rooting for? No, I don’t know what the story is, but I know what it isn’t. It isn’t my origin story. It’s just an amusing whimsy my brain has dragged me down, that’s going to get tucked away and turned into a story somewhere down the line. With much more interesting characters than the two who are actually in the photo. Maybe in this story, maybe there’s no villain. Maybe it isn’t even a single story. Maybe it’s just two protagonists, from two different stories, who happened to be sitting on the same couch for a brief moment in time, each contemplating their next move, in the narrative pause before they start their next chapter.
But no, this picture tells a story and most stories have a villain. And the woman in this photo does look like she’s shifty.