Once, I had a friend who was moving away. Everyone knew she was going to move at the end of the school year. She meant a lot to me, and I was really bummed that she was leaving.
She usually stayed after school, and so did I (my mother taught at the school). On the last day of classes, I finished cleaning out my locker and stopped in my mother’s classroom, and then made my way to where I could usually find her. She wasn’t there. Her stuff was, but she wasn’t. I waited for fifteen minutes. She didn’t come back. I decided to go back to my mother’s room again. Twenty minutes or so later, I went back to see if my friend was there. She was not. Neither was her stuff.
I saw her partway through the next year. I don’t remember the exact context — how or why I saw her — but I was thrilled to see her again.
Until she said to me that she wanted to talk about the last day of school the year before. She wasn’t happy. In fact, she told me that she had been very hurt that I hadn’t come to see her. She had thought that our friendship had meant more than that.
I tried to explain what had happened. She cut me off by telling me that I should have written a note the first time. She wouldn’t hear anything else except for an apology.
I don’t remember how the conversation went after the apology. I do, however, remember the incredible guilt that I felt. I had never thought that the friendship meant as much to her as it did to me. I had never thought that she would have been hurt by our missed goodbye.
Amazingly, it was only this year that I remembered that moment and had a realization: I didn’t owe her an apology.
For one thing, I had tried. I had put in some effort. She, on the other hand, had not bothered to try to find me.
For another thing, she had my phone number. I didn’t have hers. She could have called me, if it had meant that much to her.
And finally: I was a seventeen-year-old kid who had just finished my junior year of high school. She was a teacher.
She was the adult. And yet when I saw her the next year, she was acting like a twelve-year-old. And I never realized it until just this year.
Things like this can stick with me. I have lots of guilt from things that shouldn’t make me feel guilty, which can sometimes make me confused about whether or not I actually know when I should feel guilty. (I know — some people believe that guilt is a waste emotion, and that instead you should focus on being better. That’s all well and good, but I believe that without at least a little bit of guilt, some actions won’t get sufficient negative reinforcement.)
I also have trouble figuring out when I have the right to be angry. I spent a lot of my adolescent years angry, and when I was about eighteen I realized that it had to change. My primary method for handling it was to avoid situations that could make me angry, and to just refuse to participate in conversations that were sure to get me riled up. I quickly realized that I felt better, in general, when I did this. And, in fact, I discovered that I get along with people a whole lot better when I don’t push for what I want, and most of the time what the other person wants turns out to be just fine. It does meant that sometimes I miss out on things, but if it comes down to getting what I want or having friends, I find that I’m happier with friends.
I know there’s a middle ground. I don’t usually know how to find it.
But in the process, I have discovered that I have become far too much of a diplomat. I don’t like to challenge people because I don’t trust myself to fight fair. I don’t push for what I want because I don’t want to be obnoxious. And most of all, I don’t know when I have the “right” to be angry.
I believe in forgiveness, and in fact I will often forgive things without being asked, on the assumption that (a) the other person probably didn’t mean to hurt me, and (b) a more normal person might not have been offended in the first place.
But (a) well, yeah, I don’t think I know anyone who would want to hurt me… and/but (b) just because there have been times when I was angry when I shouldn’t have been, or guilty when I shouldn’t have been… how do I know when I have the right to be angry? How do I know when I should push back, or at least let someone know they hurt me?
And then how do I do it without burning that bridge to a crisp? I’m not sure I know how to do that.