In defence of trying to understand

I have a friend who I love dearly. Not that I would ever tell him so to his face, I don’t need to.

Our friendship is one that is hard to explain, and I sense often confuses people who witness it from the outside. In fact it often perplexes me myself. You see we irritate each other more than most of the people who regularly cross paths and resign themselves to agreeing to tolerate each other for the sake of convenience.

Most of our conversations consist of bickering, bossing each other around, talking over each other or full on shouting, and if not shouting, at least taking the piss with just a hint of cruelty. This person is over thirty years my senior, and I think a lot of people suspect there is something slightly bizarre about our friendship. But there isn’t.

The thing is, we both irritate and love each other so fully because we have many of the same faults, and the same defences. This is also the reason that we feel we need to look out for each other, as we can both see the motivations behind acting the way we do.

In his long life, he has had some truly amazing experiences, and some truly tragic ones. He is still single, and has three children, the eldest being in his forties and the youngest, seventeen. We have known each other for about five years. Raising teenage kids in your sixties must be hard enough, but I can only hazard a guess at how uniquely bemusing it must be if you are a single man in your sixties who has, by choice, and for numerous reasons, not contact with their mother. The eldest child’s mother is no longer alive.

However, I have huge respect, and a strange understanding of this person, despite knowing little about and having no experience of the vast majority of his life. I think it is because I can see the ease with which things have just happened.

And somehow he makes it tangibly apparent, without really explaining anything, how things just happen to everyone. How despite planning, and all the things that people my age do to map out and envision their future, that things will just occur. And those are the things that make up the majority of someone’s life.

I hadn’t seen this man for a while, and I popped in after work a few days ago for a glass of wine. His eldest son was there, and I soon as I came in there was an odd atmosphere. However, we all sat down for a drink, when out of nowhere, a row broke out between the two of them. It was the kind of row that I felt I shouldn’t witness, but there really wasn’t anything else to do.

When it ended, and the son had left, strangely there wasn’t any awkwardness. Unlike the reaction most people would have had, an embarrassment followed by stream of apology for behavior, or my having to have witnessed it, we just both sat and drank our wine.

I could sense something strange, and despite the lack of context I had to the argument, I felt no need to ask. There was just a feeling of the years of history behind it. An inexplicable glimpse into so many years of someone’s life that had all simultaneously been apparent in that short exchange of heated words. The look of a frustrated teenager on a forty-year old man’s face, and the look of confusion, hurt and lack of understanding on the face of a man of sixty.

It wasn’t awkward because my friend is much like me. We find it difficult to, and are often unwilling to explain our situation, and this experience had done the explaining for him.

I suddenly realized from that look that despite age and experience, there is so much that is out of our control. There is so much that happens, despite what we intend, that we are unable to change. And no matter what face we put on to encounter the world, there is so much about life that we will always be at a loss to, or loathe to understand.

But the reason I wanted to share this is that there was something positive about the whole experience. A feeling simply in a look and sharing a drink, that we are all in it together, and that both the arrogance of youth or the sometimes condescending facade of old age are misplaced.

It is easy to judge, but it is impossible not to make mistakes. And it is often equally impossible to explain those mistakes to anyone else. That is why we should be alert, and make it our business to look after each other, no matter whether you can understand the motivations of others or not. A life is a difficult thing to manage.

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