Dime-store philosophy does me no good
During syllabus week of a psychology class first year, the professor said something that has since implanted itself in my regular thoughts. She was explaining why science must exist, and why, for obvious reasons, we can’t rely on folk wisdom to guide our lives. Truisms and proverbial phrases we learn growing up are often contradictory and should be taken with a grain of salt, she said.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but out of sight out of mind; opposites attract, but birds of a feather flock together; money is power, but the best things in life are free.
It makes you stop and think about which of these truisms you live by — if any — and how true they actually are. I value quotes that validate my relationship with my family — anything along the lines of “your family will always be there for you” or “family comes first.” But that’s not true for everyone. At the risk of sounding like a pessimist, the more I think about it the more I see these truisms as vacuous and open-ended. They are used primarily as justifications for the behaviors and beliefs which already define us.
If you’re wealthy and fashionable, but not the sharpest tool in the shed, you’ll think “the clothes make the man,” because that’s the upper hand you have. But if you’re the pauper trying to sell an idea to a local business, you’ll think it’s true that people “don’t judge a book by its cover,” because it gives you hope. Either way, the proverb is used to make you feel more confident, regardless of its minimal basis in reality.
My best friend and I got in a big fight during the summer. We had been best friends at U.Va. for our first two years, but when we got into screaming matches about things out of our control, nasty things were said, lines were crossed and our previously perfect friendship shattered. It’s hard to find a best friend in a member of the opposite sex, so when I found mine, I guarded him with my heart. When my hard work went down in flames, I felt defeated, broken and lost.
After a dramatic and exhausting fight, I got advice from a lot of friends to help me through. I listened to girls tell me that I “didn’t need a friend who treated me like that,” and that “no true friend would say those things to someone.” I believed them, and shortly afterward I got on a plane to go far away from him and our past, letting those morsels of advice sink in for four months.
I was happy to get away to France for the semester and let everyone cool off, but I had little hope that our bond could be repaired when I came back home. It really felt like a chapter in my life had ended, like I lost a companion to something permanent and inextinguishable. But somehow now, months later, I find myself back on his bed, by his side and on his mind. Fast best friends again.
That’s how I remembered the psychology professor. And the contradictions. Now I’m talking to my other friends about how he and I are hanging out once again, and they’re generally approving. They commend me for being able to “forget the past and move on,” for being “so forgiving” and for putting my “relationships first”. It makes me feel more confident, not having to defend my friendship to anyone.
Friends are supposed to make you feel better when you need it, and all of mine have successfully done so. But you always have to take a step back and look at things for yourself, with a clear and unadulterated view. Nobody should know you better than yourself, and nobody is going to be as concerned with your affairs.
I made the subconscious decision that his friendship was more important to me than any fight — no matter how grave. And I use the word subconscious deliberately, because I did not knowingly or actively try to fix this friendship — it just happened. Somewhere along the road I went with my gut feeling, and my subconscious made a decision for me without any friend, any proverb or any thought telling me what to do.
Valerie’s column runs biweekly Tuesdays. She can be contacted at email@example.com.