On the first day of high school in 1964, I nervously stood in an alphabetized line behind a new student who had moved to the district over the summer. I was a B; she was a B. I remember thinking that since she was new and knew no one at school, she would likely welcome my friendship overture.
So I tapped her on the shoulder and smiled, giving a little wave to say "hi." The new girl turned and glared at me, her icy blue eyes shooting icicles my way. I had unwittingly ventured into what today would be known as the Mean Girl Zone. She flicked away the cooties that my fingers had left on her cool girl shoulder and turned her face away from the likes of me forever. I think she was named captain of the cheerleading squad by lunch and by the end of the day was going steady with the football team's quarterback. Four years later, when we again lined up for graduation in alphabetical order, I was eternally grateful to the B boy who joined out class senior year and now came between us.
She was my first real enemy for no good reason. I hadn't known that someone could hate you without cause up until then. Sure, if you did something that got someone mad, they wouldn't like you -- that, I understood. And I understood that sometimes countries declared one another enemies and killed people over it. But in the small world of my high school, this girl defined the word enemy for me. Hell, she became its poster girl.
Enemies, especially those who hate without cause, are such soul-zappers. The more of them you encounter in life, the less energy you have for everything else. Here's what I've learned about enemies, now that I'm in my 60s:
1. Never mind keeping them near.
You know that cliche about keeping your friends close but your enemies closer? Wrong, wrong, wrong. Cross the street to avoid your enemies. Walk down a different hallway; duck into a store when you see them at the mall. If it's possible to send them to Mars on a space shuttle, do that. This has nothing to do with cowardice and everything to do with minimizing their disruption to your life. For what it's worth, I feel the same about squishy tomatoes. The less exposure to them I have, the better I feel.
Enemies, depending on the degree to which you empower them, can rule -- and ruin -- your life. They make your kid not want to play on the soccer team anymore. They make your mother want to skip the dining room and eat in her room at the assisted living place. They make you dread going to office meetings where they seem intent on undermining everything you say.
The best way to handle an enemy is to distance yourself, and if you can't do it emotionally you have my permission to do it physically.
2. Don't let the bastards get you down.
The 63-year-old me has this question for her 13-year-old self: Why did you empower the new girl the way you did? You did nothing wrong, you were trying to be nice and she rejected your overture. That was on her, not you. Why didn't you just shake it off and move on?
Instead, I let her haunt me every day for four years. It seems silly now, but I've seen adults repeat the pattern.
Enemies can throw a toxic brew our way, but we don't have to drink it. Avoid, challenge, flee. Those are pretty much your options. Don't make "suffer" a fourth choice.
3. Accept the possibility that once an enemy, not always an enemy.
The Mean Girl didn't make it to our high school reunion. I didn't either, but she wasn't the reason why.
People who forgive and forget are happier people. People who collect injustices stew in their own juices. People change, including us.
4. It's easier to hate online than off.
Yes anonymous commenters who hate, I mean you. At least the new girl looked me in the eye and declared herself committed to my misery. She wasn't afraid the way anonymous commenters are. I dismiss people who seem to take joy in inflicting hurt. Last I looked, no one was holding a gun to your temple and demanding you read something.
If you want to talk about ideas, great, I'm happy to oblige. But if you can't keep it civil and must hide behind the coward's cloak of anonymity, well, sorry, but you're talking to yourself because I'm not listening.
Social media has a lot of upsides and good intentions. Anonymous haters have none.
5. Enemies can be irrational.
I have no idea why my neighbor doesn't like my dogs. They don't bark, they don't run into her yard and they have never pooped on her property. There was one occasion about five years ago when one of them -- who has since gone to doggie heaven -- followed my daughter over to her yard to retrieve a ball. You would have thought World War III had been declared because the dog stepped on her grass (didn't even pee). The neighbor sufficiently scared both the dog and the daughter that it was traumatic for both.
I follow the steer clear rule with her. When people overreact and act crazy, I don't feel a need to clear the air or inquire why. I just lock into avoidance mode and stay there.
6. Frenemies are for Millennials.
By the time you reach middle age, life appears clearer cut. The dividing lines are unambiguous. If you have a friend who is mean, disloyal, double-crossing and manipulates situations so that you wind up hurt -- they aren't still a friend. Rivalry has no place in a friendship, nor does jealousy. And as for enemies who pose as friends, well, if you can't tell the difference by now, maybe it's time to line up alphabetically in high school again.
What you want is someone to hang with near where you live. Approach this scientifically. Having a friend who lives an hour's drive away will mean you won't see them as much as the person who lives closer. So think global, but stay local. That means your local coffee shop, the local branch of the public library, they local chapter of the Sierra Club, or the local college that offers evening courses.
If you play tennis, join a club or take a few lessons at the community center. If you like to throw parties, volunteer to run the annual fund-raiser at your synagogue or church; when the board thanks you publicly at the dinner, everyone will learn your name. If you hike, join the Sierra Club. If you bicycle, join a biking group or enter a race in your age category. Here's the one caveat about following your interests: Nobody ever met anyone while watching "American Idol" from the couch.
Be open to the idea that it's OK to have friends who are older or younger. The fact that they are in different stages in life just means they bring a different perspective to the table. While a 14-year-old won't be interested in socializing with a toddler, that 10-year age gap dissipates when they get older. Why not say yes to the 30-somethings who invite you to join them for drinks after work? Invite them over for dinner with their families and get to know their kids. Their views on the world may not match yours precisely, but variety is the spice of life.
If you are post 50 and uncoupled, you might find that traveling isn't as much fun. Call it the Noah's Ark theory, but in general, we like to go places paired up. There are services that will help you find a travel room-mate. Not only does this give you someone to talk to over dinner, it cuts down those single supplements that some tours and cruises charge. Friendly Planet runs one such pairing-up service. Road Scholar offers many active adult adventure vacations here -- offers to find you a roommate if you want. Their programs and generally educationally based and draw a well-heeled and educated crowd. Cruise ships do a pretty good job of making sure solo travelers find people to hang out with; group dining arrangements go a long way toward conversational icebreaking.
Even if you've never been a joiner, now may be the time to get yourself out there. Got a new puppy or an old dog who needs some new tricks? Find a community dog-training class. If you like to cook, take a cooking class. Participate in the 5K run for charity, even if you walk the final three.
Keep your smart phone with you and ask for numbers. Sure it may feel a little awkward to say to someone you just met "Hey, I really enjoyed talking to you on this Sierra Club hike but the next one isn't for two months. Would you like to get together for a hike before that?" Worst they can say is no.
With Skype and apps like FaceTime, it's easier than ever to have face-to-face visits. Don't assume your old friends are too busy to talk to you on the phone. Most cellphone plans include free long-distance calls and for those that don't, there's Skype. Invite friends who live a great distance to come and stay with you. Show them your city. Friendships are like gardens; it's often easier to tend to an existing one than grow a new one from seeds.
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