The porcelain shell of a friendship is a delicate thing. I almost dropped one on the floor last week, and just yesterday I almost knocked one over, which would have really bummed me out, because porcelain is beautiful.
You’d think, at first, that friendships are unbreakable, maybe. That nothing about them is fragile or brittle––but that’s not true. They shatter at the slightest crack.
I knew that my friendship with Topher was cracking. It fell to the floor in slow motion for weeks, and I scrambled in slow motion just to try to keep it from breaking into too many pieces.
I read some self-help books, right before it hit the ground and shattered. The self-help books wanted me to do conflict identification, and to sort out my thoughts and emotions with colorful post-it notes. So I tried that.
Topher and I worked together almost every day. As soon as we left our day jobs, we would rush to meet at a local coffee shop, setting up our secondary offices, and slaving away at our passion project: a social networking site for artists and craftsmen. We balanced each other’s strengths quite well, and that was the first thing that made me think that even if something bumped into our delicate porcelain friendship, it would still regain its equilibrium. I over-planned every detail of our venture, while he balanced my fixation with his rabid spontaneity. I slipped into pessimism, while he preached a cheery optimism. And even our most apparent difference, my devout Catholicism and his cynical atheism, was just something that brought us together, due to endless hours of philosophical conversation that left us both in awe. When most people like us would go to the YMCA or play basketball or sink hours into the black hole of video games, we volleyed over ontological courts, dodging in and out of discussions about truth and morality, science, evolution, and how strange it is that Dunbar’s number is only one hundred and fifty.
I finally sat down with that damn self-help book, jotted ideas down on post-it notes, trying diligently to “identify the conflict” and “categorize my emotions.” I realized that, for all of the time we spent together in that tiny coffee shop office and on the ontological basketball court, I spent more time picking apart the things our friendship lacked than I spent appreciating it.
So I tried a little bit of Conflict Identification and Emotion Categorization. I wrote “Topher is an idiot” on a blue post-it note, and “Topher can’t see past his own two feet” on a green one, and “Topher is a rotten waste of time” on a pink one.
The next day, the hard shell ceramic of our friendship shattered into a pile of broken pieces. I wasn’t surprised. I had seen the cracks forming a long time ago.
There was only one thing that surprised me about those fragments, and I only realized it because I tried to pick one up. The razor sharp splinters of porcelain cut deep into my finger, and a thick drop of dark regret dripped from my skin.
I thought that I was the one who picked things up. I was the one who remembered the important investor meetings. I was the one who found the holes in our work and made sure we filled them. I was the one who squared the checklist, the to-do list, and any other lists we had.
But that’s not how friendship works. Friendship entails a delicate balance, even when things get knocked over, when things are reeling and spinning and about to fall. A friendship only works because not only do I pick up the pieces that he never sees, but because he picks up the pieces that I never see.
It works because if our friendship hits the floor and smashes to pieces, we’re both there to pick up the pieces that the other misses.
And if one of us decides to stop because we might get cut, or because we think there are too many parts to try and piece back together, then time locks the pieces into a ceramic museum of friendships. You get to remember all you want, but you’ll never see the whole sculpture again.
When I walk past our empty coffee shop office, remembering how strange it is that Dunbar’s number is only one hundred and fifty, I start to believe that the only way to see everything is to trust that someone else, your friend, sees the parts that you’ll never see.