I was sitting with a dear friend at our weekly brunch at the fabulous Nick & Toni’s in the Hamptons, where we were talking about things we like to ponder, and I asked her about her desire to be liked.
“Do you care what people think about you?”
“Yes, I do. I always have. I’m the oldest of five from a Midwestern family; it’s in my DNA.”
“I care less and less about being liked now,” I replied. “I have lost friends over the past year, and I can’t afford the luxury of being likeable anymore. I will live with the fact that people used to think I was nicer.”
She looked at me askew, which is not unusual. She is a quiet, thoughtful type, and I’m the “in your face” friend who must shake her core now and again. But our friendship works. She means the world to me. I tried to explain it to her …
There was a time when I could let comments go. I could smile to myself in the knowledge that those who had delivered such comments had problems with those who were different from them, or in the case of some other friends, they were capable of overlooking flaws in others if it made them a bit more money. Slightly racist and/or greedy. Yikes! But those days are over for me. Our silence — in my position, my silence — is the biggest danger we all face now, and the luxury of letting the conversation go for the sake of a pleasant evening, or our decades of history together, is a thing of the past.
“Like” is a word that has always been at the forefront of our lives. “I like ice cream” (such a lie: I love ice cream). “I like that color best, and it’s what I always wear.” (For me, it’s black until I can find something darker.) “I like your new boyfriend.” “I like that movie a lot.” Facebook then sealed the deal by making the word “like” the stalwart companion to the posts of our friends and family. So, likeable is the goal. We want our posts to be likeable. We want to be likeable. And, the more we want to be likable, the more we can find ourselves in trouble in this age of lies and bad people who are in charge of too many things in our lives. Yep, I said it: bad people. And some of them were my friends.
So, the luxury I used to have of overlooking my best friend’s racist beliefs — which showed up like the occasional bad dream you have once a year — is long gone. I will not let a comment slip by anymore. I will not have an entire evening of friends pass without some acknowledgement of the times in which we live. Rome is burning and we are going to talk about some designer or other? I think back to the early Nazi years, and I am sure that people — good people — had dinner parties and gatherings, celebrations, if you will. Did they ignore the Juden signs on the buildings while they were together? Did they ignore the elephant in the room? I hope not. But either way, it will not serve us well as Americans to avoid having conversations to learn why our friends and family members can possibly feel the way they do.
The luxury of tolerance must be replaced over the next twenty months as we head toward another election. The question is, what do we replace it with? How can I seek to understand, rather than to be understood? How can I speak softly while crying to be heard? How can I appeal to the better angels in people who have become driven by their bank-account balances rather than their moral fiber? How can I make the plight of the huddled masses important to those who are struggling themselves through no fault of their own?
Those are the questions that haunt me at night. I haven’t learned the “how” yet, but I assure you, it’s no longer a question of whether or not I need to do it. So it’s up to you to decide if you want to leave me off the invite list to your dinner party. And, it’s my job to find a way to listen with true interest, and try and figure out how to get through these months ahead with grace and intelligence and kindness and authenticity. Life was easier when all I had to be was likeable.