A different realm

About once a month I visit my therapist, whom I’ve been with since I moved to Germany. I’ve learned a lot about myself in these years. You’d think that after a couple of years, you stop learning new things, particularly about yourself. You’ve seen it all. Nothing new to be found. But it continues to amaze me how wrong that idea is.

I keep getting new insights.

Every. Single. Time.

In my most recent session I discussed friendships. I read a book the other day in which the main character transitioned from a person in a normal working class job to reach a position of fame and a very high level of achievement. It’s a story you see in many walks of life. Could be sports, could be writing, could be acting, you name it.

The main character experienced an intense and increasing feeling of loneliness. The reasons for this were manifold, but a couple stood out to me.

First, the character’s career development skyrocketed to a level of understanding and operating that was no longer in the normal range. Because of this, baselines diverged between the friend and the character. As a result friendships were no longer what they used to be. It was a case of ‘what’s left to talk about?’

A second part that stood out was the effect of location. Being away a lot, or physically separated from friends, it has an impact in the sense that friendships are not as intense as they may have been in the past. Not all friendships are going to survive that.

A third, quite sad notion was the question: are you actually a friend, or just interested in other stuff? In this case, I believe this was particularly related to fame and money. Can you be sure that the people you meet new in your life are actually (going to be) friends, or are they after other things, such as a bit of the fame, a bit of the bling, a bit of status. Is it about you, or about your achievements?

These three elements made me quite sad, because they were also so recognizable. There are pretty strong parallels between the type of high achievers I described above, and people working in academia, as happens to be the case for me. And I’m not sure if I’m alone in this, but there are times where I experience a pretty intense loneliness because of that. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not alone. I’m truly blessed in that my partner is a fantastic friend, as are my two kids. But it’s clear that the home base can and should not substitute ‘external’ friendships. It’s healthy to have both, I think. And on that external front, I sometimes miss friends around me.

First, I lost many friends along the way. This is something I have felt very bad for in the past. I always blamed me. People left me, because I was not good enough, or so I thought. It’s only since recent years that I have come to realize that it’s normal. People diverge. Become mismatches. Part of that might be because of new interests. It may also be because of reaching a certain level, where you forget about who or how you were when you were younger. I think this is certainly true for many in academia. For me, as a first generation academic, it’s a difficulty for interactions with family sometimes, and I’m sure it’s among reasons for growing apart with old friends who are no longer friends. I have no understanding of their world, and they have none of mine. It makes it hard to connect sometimes. Family obviously remains for life, but friendships may disappear. They certainly have disappeared for me at many times.

Now, I also have many people I still call friends, but they are scattered all over the globe, from my home country of the Netherlands, to various other countries in Europe, to the US, and one of my oldest friends lives in China. Most of them people with very similar walks of life, although not all in the same field. We just get each other. They’re great friends, but we rarely talk. Busy lives. And it’s okay like that for all parties. But when we meet it’s good. No, it’s fantastic. But it’s very very irregular. Moving to Germany didn’t bring me closer to any of these, to me very valuable friendships.

Another parallel I struggle with is that I find it increasingly difficult to know who are really friends and who aren’t. I used to have a good radar for it, but it may be broken. With collaborators or colleagues it’s always tricky. Some people truly want to work with you because you’re a good friend. I have several of these types of repeat collaborators, and it just clicks with them. I know it will continue to click in the future, and we probably will collaborate again, because it’s fun. However, there are also new collaborators coming and going. Are they friends? Are they genuine? Are they nice because they like you as a person, or do they act this way because they need something from you? Lately, I just don’t know anymore. And it’s something I find difficult in academia. People have different sets of masks for different situations. The mask you see the first time may not be the one you get to see the next time. This type of approach can happen from higher, equal or lower levels in the hierarchy. It feels almost disingenuous, if that makes sense. And it’s a strange feeling for me. I never really worked this way. Most of my collaborators from the past are also (still) my friends. I work much better with friends, and certainly am more willing to work extra hard for friends, and I have experienced that with friends this is often reciprocal.

So I was just philosophizing out loud about my struggles with the current state of friendships in my life, and how I felt about it. I miss friends. I have nice people around me. About that I cannot complain. But close friendships I haven’t established after moving to Germany. Maybe it’s my level of German. Maybe it’s because I look scarier than I am. Maybe it’s the pandemic and my cautious attitude towards it. Maybe southern Bavaria and I are a mismatch. Or maybe it’s something else.

My therapist put it quite nicely:

“You’re in a new realm now…”

I blinked stupidly when he said it. What did he mean…? I like how he can sometimes make me feel really silly for not seeing very obvious things.

He acknowledged that there was probably some truth in all of the above, and that this may contribute to the lack of solid friendships. But he also told me I was probably too hard on myself. And he’s right, I probably am…

Luckily he explained himself, and made me aware of how becoming a parent changes how people perceive you, and how it suddenly warps you into a different segment of the population. This is not really by choice. But parenting is really something that can only be understood through experience. Babysitting the neighbor’s kid is not the same. Owning a parrot is not the same. So, because of this, automatically you connect better with that segment of society, where people get each other in ways that almost cannot happen between parents and non-parents. I was not unaware of the phenomenon, but I also never considered it a reason. When he said it, I had one of these Aha! moments.

Suddenly it all made sense.

It’s these silly things – these outsider perspectives from someone that understands the human mind – that make therapy valuable for me.

Look, it still doesn’t get me friendships, I get that. But at least I can live with the idea that it’s a normal thing, and not 100% about my deeply flawed personality. And that’s a start.

I made this thing for lunch which tasted incredible. It has absolutely nothing to do with this post, but who the fuck cares.

Published by Robin Heinen

Father of two | Husband | Entomologist and Ecologist | Postdoctoral Researcher @ TUM | Traveler | Coffee Addict

2 thoughts on “A different realm

  1. What is that thing you made for lunch? While you’re teaching me how to make it you could tell me which of your old friends is like a potato, filling, spicy, or a hot potato, too hard to handle until cooled off, and do you wonder how well they are doing? It’s hard to understand your dilemma when everything is so abstract. Would any of them care if they heard you fell off a cliff holding a potato that you intended to ferment into Vodka. Would you care if they fell off a cliff if one of them was named Cliff? The Devil is in the details. No? There are some who know all about the Philosophy of friendship, the virtue, the utility, and the pleasure of Aristotle, but like Aristotle they are dead. And there are 7 ways to be emotionally dead, I suppose, but I’d rather make that thing you made for lunch. If you tell me what it is, I’ll write you an academic paper on “The Art of Using Food At Lunch to Seduce a Person to Taste Your Philosophy, A Study of 100 Hungry people versus a randomized 75 1/2 satiated people who previously ate on an unstable bridge.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Haha. It’s a pumpkin sage galette. It’s on Ottolenghi’s ‘Flavour’. It’s pretty easy to make, and I was lazy so I used store bought puff pastry. It’s probably even better with the real deal, where sage and pepper are worked into the pastry.

      Would they care? I don’t know. Would I? Yes. I wish everyone well. Sometimes roads diverge, without any reason. There was no agreement (or disagreement) to end the friendship. It just was… I honestly never ended friendships in a fight.

      Liked by 2 people

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