Ask Pajiba (Almost) Anything: People Change. And Sometimes Those People Are Your Friends...
You know, there was a time when people just came to us for tips on how to make new friends as an adult. Which was cute, because how should we know? We’re just figments of your computer’s imagination. But lately the “friend” questions have gotten… harder. Last week was a particularly painful one about how to handle a friend who isn’t there for you when you need them (which doubled as an exploration of how much we can reasonably ask of our friends). And this week we’ve got another troubled friendship — one that comes with less trauma, but its own kind of baggage. Oh, and politics! Because that always helps people get along, amirite?
[Reminder: Look, I get it. You have “friends.” Good for you! I mean, I guess. I wouldn’t know. But that doesn’t mean the Overlords aren’t prepared to tell you what to do about these “friends” — or even other problems! Just drop us a line at [email protected]. We’re waiting with plenty of bear traps at the ready.]
Here’s the problem of the week — and yes, it’s a long-winded one. But it paints a pretty relatable picture. Take a look:
I’ve been mulling this question for about a month now, and since I like and trust your - albeit sometimes appallingly bear trap obsessed - advice, hope you can help me find an answer.
My best and oldest friend, let’s call him Carl, and I haven’t spoken to each other since since before New Year’s. We met in what you would call Junior year of High School and became friends. He was funny, gregarious, visually creative, though his mood could become somewhat erratic. I was overweight, shy, socially awkward, and struggling with problems at home. I like to think that our characters complemented each other somewhat, and his friendship was a big deal for me. We hung out in school and after, bonded over games and movies, talked endlessly and commiserated about each other’s problems. He introduced me to his circle of friends, but none of them stuck. After school we went our different ways but talked or texted each other at least once per week and planned regular get-togethers. Heck, we called each other Bro unironically.
We both changed over the years, though not so much that we grew apart. I’m still overweight but learned to work on it with training, while Carl sought and found help with his psychological issues. There has been no lack of things to commiserate about, though. Through a combination of bad luck and bad decisions neither of us is at a point in their lives that we imagined when we were younger, and both of us are trying hard to change that. We still like, or liked, to talk about topical issues, pop culture and a hundred things in between.
In the last couple of years, though, the tone of our discussions has noticeably changed. When we were younger Carl and I agreed on a lot of topics, especially when it came to things like politics, but we could vehemently argue with each other, too. Still, even if we disagreed on something both of us were able to see were the other was coming from, and even if neither of us changed their mind we got a better sense for why we held an opinion.
As you can guess exactly this changed in the recent years. It’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment but over time I noticed his opinions getting ever more negative and low-level angry. At first it was mostly confined to pop culture: The endless stream of reborquels and changes to stories he loved turned him increasingly off, while the times he excitedly told me about something he saw or read recently got fewer and fewer. But then it spread to other topics like social issues and politics. We both have always been out of the mainstream and were often dissatisfied with how things progressed, but we were still on the same side. A major shock for me was when he revealed he voted for a far-right party in our country. He argued it was specifically because they „were the only party with a consequent refugee policy” but other things he said made me believe he mostly did it out of dissatisfaction with the ‚establishment parties’ in our country. I completely disagreed with his opinion about the refugee crisis, but that last thing I could sympathize with, so I calmed down eventually.
The next thing that came up was the 2016 US election. Yup, that one.
I should mention that, while neither of us has lived in the US at any point in their lives, the goings-on in your country make the news daily, and provide a lot of discussion fuel. He never expressed support for Trump, but it was weird to talk with him about it. Whenever some news critical of him came up he was quick to reply with Clinton and her emails and how she was coddled by the media. He thought she was not just a bad candidate but a bad person and that Trump would win because of it. When I pressed him about it he mostly resorted to „Both sides!” arguments or ultimately say something along the lines of „They all can fuck off for all I care”. The other remarkable thing was that, when Trump won, he wasn’t giddy or happy about it (except for the 10€ he won from me), mostly for having been proven right.
After the election our discussions became progressively more aggressive, and it got to the point where we ended up on different sides of just about every topic.
- Minority presentation in media? At best distracting from the story and instead of „turning established characters into minorities they should create new ones that are like that from the start”.
- Trans issues? They can’t expect to be treated as women simply because they feel that way, and anyway most don’t even want the surgery.
- Feminism? The important issues are solved, I should at least consider the idea that there might be a fundamental difference between the sexes, and today’s feminists are man-hating furies.
- Black Lives Matter? You probably already can guess.
I tried to treat his arguments as genuine and in the most positive way as possible, but it became exhausting. After a while I just tried to stick to safer topics, which didn’t alway work. Something minor like the portrayal of Webby in the new DuckTales series could turn into a discussion about how „Mary Sue”-like she was just because this version was much more capable than the one we saw when we were children. Sometimes I had the impression I argued with a YouTube comment instead of a person. It got to the point that, when he mentioned off-hand that he had started reading Jordan Peterson I wasn’t even surprised anymore.
The most infuriating part for me was Carl being negative and pessimistic just about every topic. A show couldn’t just be not to his taste, it had to be an example how all new shows were bad. A politician couldn’t just engage in fuckery, it had to be evidence for all politics being broken.
When we had another chat discussion - this time about our country’s politics - and I tried to confront him about that he simply stopped responding and didn’t come back online again. This was more than a month ago and I still don’t know how to go from here.
You might be tempted to conclude that, the way I described his position on various subjects, that Carl is just on a path to become a far-righter after falling down the wrong online rabbit hole. But I sincerely don’t think that this is the case, or at least I hope so. Earlier I mentioned that we both are discontent and struggling with where we ended up in life, and trying to change that. I’m saving up to go back to school and he is already studying to go into a different field, while his fiancée is trying to get a foot into hers. It’s not easy for both of us and sometimes I wonder if this is how a way for Carl to cope with things: Others - refugees, minorities, etc. - get a lot of attention and help for their problems while he feels he has to deal with his by himself and that makes him resentful and negative.
I genuinely miss talking to him. He is my closest friend, I told him things about me I never told anyone else, and outside relatives he’s the only person I would take a bullet for. But I miss younger him even more, the times when we could relaxedly talk about every topic imaginably, just having a good time and being hopeful for the future. At the same time I’m afraid that these times are gone forever and I don’t know if the kind of relationship we had in the last years is all we can have, or what to do about it. I don’t even know if I should try to contact him again. It doesn’t help that he is not only my best friend but one of the few I actually have. Making friends hasn’t gotten easier for me over the years and I genuinely don’t know if I could forge one friendship like the one with Carl ever again.
Do you have advice for me?
Phew. OK, let’s see — Since you are calling your friend “Carl,” I’m gonna dub you “Mel.” Because Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner are current and topical references, right? Sure. Let’s roll with that. And please ignore my misleading header image — I just really liked The Breaker Upperers (available on Netflix!), and I’m running out of friendship-related pop culture pics I can choose from. I mean, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks aren’t actually at odds, so I felt weird using a picture of them up there. And your Carl sounds a lot like Archie Bunker, but All In The Family is an older show that stars a different Reiner and I don’t even know if you’ll have seen it, and also the image rights were a nightmare, so… funny New Zealand lady-friend rom-com it is!
So Mel, first off let’s just address the fact that you seem like a person of incredible kindness and patience (and yes, I’m making that judgement based entirely on hearing your side of the story). Seriously, the way you’ve tried to navigate the conversational landmines of your friendship with Carl isn’t easy. Hell, it isn’t easy talking to someone you don’t agree with in any context, but it’s even worse when it’s someone you hold dear, and whose opinions seem so almost arbitrarily negative (not to mention morally objectionable on several points). The fact that you’re still willing to give Carl the benefit of the doubt, and try to understand where he’s coming from and what challenges might be shaping his world view, speaks highly of your character — and demonstrates how much you do value your relationship with Carl. But here’s the thing:
People change. And that’s OK! That’s life! But some changes are bigger, or more impactful, on relationships than others. And Carl’s new rightwing tendencies and general pessimism seem like they are making him someone you probably wouldn’t be friends with if you met him right now — so are you just holding on for old time’s sake?
Look, old friendships are important. Having people in our lives who have seen us at our lowest, or who have known us the longest, is nothing to shrug off. Those memories matter. You both shaped each other over the years. But maybe it’s time for you to ask yourself, in the words of Janet Jackson, what have you done for me lately?
There is a level of closeness I’m sure you feel with Carl, just from the duration of your friendship. But practically speaking, how close are you really right now, in this moment? If you’re having a hard time even talking to one another, then maybe it’s OK to let this friendship slide to the wayside a bit. I’m not saying you need to cancel Carl entirely, because I don’t think that’s necessary. I mean, if you want to — if his beliefs are so utterly objectionable to you — then go for it. Nobody would judge you. But it’s also OK to just… not reach out to him for awhile. The fact is that old, dear friends can go a long time without talking, and then pick things up and find that they’re as close as they ever were. So maybe you should embrace the chance to put some distance between you and Carl. If he wants to talk, he’ll come to you. And the funny thing about people being able to change is that, well, even after they’ve changed… they can always change again. Maybe in another few years Carl’s life circumstances will shift, and he’ll revise his views on the world. It’s not impossible! And if you “break up” with him, you’ll be closing the door on the possibility of him becoming the person you think he’s capable of being once again.
But of course, I’m an optimist — I would say that. However, the little cynic in me demands I point out that just because you’ve witnessed him change once, it doesn’t mean he’ll do it again — or if he does, it might be a slow slide to an even more extreme rightwing stance. So maybe don’t hang all your hopes on the possibility of him becoming old-Carl again. Still, as someone who lived through the 2016 U.S. election from the inside, I can tell you it is possible to keep people in your life that you don’t agree with politically, while also sort of keeping them at arm’s distance for your own sanity. I mean, not all of us cancelled our crazy uncles! We just unfriended them on Facebook. Obviously if we’re talking about straight-up neo Nazis then yeah, DUMP THEM. Nobody needs Nazi friends (I can’t believe I even need to say that). But there are plenty of dissatisfied, angry folks with some bad takes out there — people who are just as entitled to their opinions as we are — and if we stop talking to them they’ll just find people with even WORSE bad takes to listen to. Like Jordan Peterson. And trust me, I have had looooong conversations with people I know who read Peterson. It doesn’t mean they’re horrible people! Reading a bad book doesn’t mean you ARE that book, it means you were curious (I should know: I read all the 50 Shades of Grey books out of curiousity). And hell, I don’t even think Jordan Peterson is a horrible person! I just think he’s got some wrong ideas on a number of topics, and engaging on those topics with my friends means I have a chance to offer some context and counterpoints to the things he spouts.
That’s the thing: As far as possible, I want to engage with the people that matter to me on the topics we don’t agree on — but I’ll also be honest about my own feelings and beliefs, rather than trying to keep things smooth and non-confrontational. Being diplomatic is one thing, but speak your mind. Because that’s what friends do! They’re honest with each other, and they listen! And yeah, they still might not agree. If Carl can’t hack that, then let him make the decision to cut ties himself. Which it sorta sounds like he already has, to be honest.
And if he comes back to you, and you find you can’t stomach his values or opinions anymore, then you can always initiate the next break yourself. Because sometimes people just grow apart.
The bigger issue here is the fact that you are placing so much weight on Carl as your friend — not just because he’s your closest friend, but because he’s one of your only friends. And that’s skewing your judgement a bit, because it means you haven’t got a lot of reference points for what should be acceptable or unacceptable behavior in a friendship. Rather than worrying too much about Carl, who is a negative drain on your emotions and time, spent that energy on something positive: meeting new people! I linked our older column on making adult friends above, but I’m not going to sugarcoat this. It won’t be easy, and you’re right: you’ll probably never make another friend like Carl. You can’t. The time for making childhood friends is gone. But you can meet people whom you can relate to now, as the mature adult you’ve become, and those relationships can be just as valuable. Because Carl isn’t the only one who has changed. You have too. You’ve grown up, and it’s not just a matter of politics or pop culture or other conversation topics — it’s a matter of experience and your approach to life, things that only come with time. And when you make friends as you are now, you may still discover people you can grow close to. People you can share secrets with. People who may not have known you as a teen, but who can see clearly the person that teen grew into.
Basically — yeah, old friendships matter. But so do new ones. So explore your interests! Take some risks! Volunteer, or talk to people online, or get drinks with your co-workers. When you go back to school, make some study partners! Lay out some bear traps in crowded public spaces and wait! It won’t happen overnight, but if you’re serious about making changes to your life, this is an area that might make a big difference. And it’s not a matter of replacing Carl, because you don’t have to give him up entirely. You can stick Carl on the back burner if you want, and only catch up when you have life shit to talk about instead of politics. But in the meantime, work on making sure Carl isn’t the only option you have, because you’re not a lonely teenager anymore. You deserve some not-Carls in your life, Mel. Or at least someone who appreciates the absolute fucking joy that is Webby on Ducktales, because she’s GREAT.
You know what? Fuck it. Carl’s clearly a monster. Burn him with fire!
Header Image Source: Piki Films
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