We spend so much time and energy trying to guess what’s going on in someone else’s head, and we often jump to the worst conclusions. I have a habit of doing this everywhere in my life – from friends and family to work associates – and it definitely highlights some of my more neurotic tendencies. If I send off a story to a new editor and receive radio silence instead of some sort of electronic pat on the back, I worry that she hated it and will never want to work with me again. If I’m dating someone and I call to make plans, every minute that the phone call goes unreturned looms heavily over me, as I become increasingly certain that they’re never call me again. Even with my friends – my lovely, ever loyal friends – I have moments of doubt if a few days or a week passes and whatever query I’ve sent out into the world hasn’t been answered.
Part of this problem is insecurity, and part of it is related to one of the more unfortunately pessimistic aspects of my personality, most likely rooted in my parents’ long-standing marital discord and eventual divorce: the awareness that relationships, even relationships that once seemed tremendously important, end. As a result, I can dwell over what I perceive to be signals that a relationship is nearing its conclusion and I start to briefly mourn – that is, until common sense calls in or they call me and I’m reassured.
But, increasingly, I’m aware of just how wrong I so often am. More often than not, the editor did really like my story. More often than not, the boy does call back, excited to make plans. And almost always, my friends really do want to get together for brunch as soon as possible. Recently, I visited London and I sent several emails to a friend who lives just outside the city to see if she was game to meet up. I didn’t hear back from her, even when I was in town, and those unreturned emails nagged at me for much of my trip. Well, I thought, I guess we’re not really friends anymore and my visit just wasn’t that important. I did finally get a reply from her after I returned home, only to hear that her life had recently been turned upside down, and there wouldn’t have been a way for her to see me. The note was loving and apologetic and reassuring, and I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty for failing to guess that maybe those unreturned emails were actually cause for concern or empathy instead of indignation. Moments like that remind me that this tendency of mine to assume the worst isn’t simply about insecurity or pessimism, but that it’s also supremely self-centred: pay attention to me and do it now.
And so I’ve decided to make a conscious effort to give my relationships the benefit of the doubt and practice greater compassion. It’s true that most relationships – with friends, boyfriends or colleagues – don’t last forever. But, given how truly spectacular the people in my life are, I should know better than to expect the worst.