“I’m just smart enough to know how stupid I am.” — Joe Strummer
When my niece was three years old she had, for a brief period, several imaginary friends. I thought it so cute and clever – whatever she felt missing in her real life, she conveniently conjured up to serve her via an active imagination.
It was only recently that I realised I’ve been keeping imaginary friends too. And it’s not cute or clever at all considering I’ve been an adult for several decades.
Here’s the way I did it: I would meet someone – for example, someone at work. He appeared clever and capable. I’d project all sorts of other benevolent traits onto him – he’s kind, he’s patient, he listens, he can handle any crisis. I’d selectively focus on and accept what he did that corresponded with this. I adored my version of him. I was loyal to my version of him. And he was this person – but really only in my imagination. And if his actions contradicted who I wanted to believe he was, I would rationalise or make excuses to keep my version of him alive.
I was vaguely aware that I was doing this, but I put this down to (a) being a positive sort of person, and (b) wanting to see the best in people. Besides, I thought the alternative was to be someone who is suspicious, withholding or acting as if people are guilty until proven innocent.
I see you
By creating what were essentially imaginary friends, I would sometimes be appalled by the often rude confrontations with reality – why hadn’t I realised s/he would turn out to be such a nightmare to work with?
The reason was not because I didn’t know better. It was really because I wasn’t allowing myself to see the true picture.
I see me
I’ve even curated the way I see myself – disciplined, loyal, will always deliver and keep my word, even if it means suffering terrible health or social consequences. I wouldn’t allow parts of my true nature – which is more carefree and mercurial – to surface. I can tell you: it’s exhausting to keep battling with who you think you are.
When I’d participated in Vipassana, the ten-day silent meditation retreat, I’d left early, screaming and gasping for air. But – somewhat grudgingly – I have to admit that its numerous teachings are now seeping in.
My health mentor, Anju Venkat, from THAC described to me our mental state as a glass of water that is constantly having mud thrown at it. When you stop slinging mud for a while – the way we paused all external stimuli on the retreat – then the cloudiness is allowed to settle, allowing us to finally See Clearly.
At the retreat, they frequently repeated the message of No Attachment. I was smug about this; I knew not to get attached to anything – look at my vagabond lifestyle, I don’t want to put down roots, or get (re)married. I am No Attachment personified.
But wanting to see people not as they are, but as I wish them to be is also a form of attachment. And it’s one that really needs to be released.
The way I see it
Now in interactions with people, I try to do so without judgment (or at least, less judgment). I had not realised how, previously, I’d always be a little outside of the conversation, looking in, taking mental notes about whether s/he were behaving in a way that pleased me.
I have friends who hover over a conversation fretting how they think they’re being perceived by the other party.
Any which way, it’s exhausting and takes us out of the present moment.
Letting go of this attachment is being released from how we think things should be. (Should = one of the most disabling words in our vocabulary.) It allows us to simply participate in what is.
I had thought that holding on to what I expected people to be was a form of putting “good energy” in the world, as if expecting only the best would make people rise to their most noble selves.
But reality is far from charmless. It’s actually better: I’m less disappointed and more forgiving of human frailties – mine, as much as others’.
If I am surprised by someone’s actions, I now simply ask them for their version of events, rather than grimly believing they “let me down”.
Everyone has their own story. Instead of superimposing my version onto theirs, it’s been a revelation to see people as they are: messy, often full of contradictions and – most of all – real.
“To be fully seen by somebody, then, and be loved anyhow – this is a human offering that can border on miraculous.” — Elizabeth Gilbert
Two old college girlfriends meet up, get drunk and reminisce about their past. Eloise remembers her pre-marriage romance with Walt Glass before he was killed, then her young daughter Ramona enters with tall tales of her imaginary friend, Jimmy Jimmereeno. The stubborn conviction of Ramona against the drunken bitterness of Eloise (who has just as much been living with an imaginary Walt) is handled so exquisitely by JD Salinger in this short story, Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut (from the collection Nine Stories), it makes me weep.
In addition to the emotions that rule 11-year-old Riley’s head, there are also some half-forgotten elements roaming the corridors of her long-term memory, including Bing Bong. He’s pink, he’s loveable and you really, really wish he were real. Watch Inside Out, directed by Pete Doctor from the ever-mighty Pixar animation studio.
Six-year-old Calvin gets bored at school and his parents don’t find him amusing, so it’s a good thing he has his stuffed toy tiger Hobbes as a companion. Bill Watterson created the classic and much-loved cartoon strip Calvin and Hobbes 20 years ago. It ran for 10 years and still enjoys syndication in over 50 countries.