Introducing “Ask Eric”, The Wisdom Daily’s new advice column. Every month, Eric Kaplan, a philosopher and writer for The Big Bang Theory, will answer your questions about life, the universe, and everything else. To send Eric a question, you can him email him here.
I have recently run into a roadblock in a project I care deeply about. I started and grew this project with a close friend of mine, someone who is almost like a brother. And as time has passed, we’ve grown even more as friends through this project and just through our shared experiences and care for each other.
Now, we have come to an impasse about a critical decision we both care about deeply. And we are having trouble reconciling, both as project partners and friends.
My question is this: Is it a mistake to do projects and work we care about deeply with friends? Is it dangerous? And if it’s not a mistake, how can I prevent such problems from happening again? I’ve seen this happen both in my life and in others’ multiple times, and the pain of these situations is enormous for all involved.
A Friend In Pain
Dear Friend in Pain,
I hear you. You had an idea for a project — a beautiful idea. You birthed your project into the world and it was a gorgeous, vibrant baby you were proud of—so proud you included a friend in it, and the sheer kissable amazingness of the project just increased. You felt proud of your project, happy with your friend, exhilarated with yourself. Now you hit, as you say, a “roadblock,” and you’re tempted…
Tempted to do what, exactly? You are tempted to take your toys and go home. Resist the temptation.
“Why should I?” I hear you ask. I am able to know what you’re asking because I hear the same voices in my own head, all the time. Why don’t we take our toys and go home?
Think about that phrase and the time in your life it comes from. You said were working on a project with a friend. When did you start doing that? When you were a child. Because when children play making projects — say a tower of Legos with army men and plastic snakes having a battle inside the tower— it’s okay if the tower falls. Why? Why would two seven-year-olds spend an afternoon building a tower if they don’t care if the tower falls?
Because (duh!) the point is not the tower. The point is the play.
We think we make relationships in order to get our projects done. Really, we commit to projects to deepen our relationships.
Think about what that means for conflict. If you and I are playing and I want the tower to be in the process of being conquered by plastic snakes and you want it to be besieged by rubber lizards, that’s okay— because the point of our interaction is not the snakes, or the lizards, or the tower. The point is the friendship we are building between us. Even if the Legos, snakes, and lizards all belong to you — don’t take them and go home.
It’s frustrating to hear and frustrating to experience because you think, “It’s my tower! They’re my snakes, my lizards, and by Gum, my Legos!” But the truth is, once you invited your friend to play with them, those Legos and snakes got transformed. Alchemically. They became the snakes and tower in your shared play world. This project is not your project anymore. It belongs to you and your friend. And that’s okay because you can build towers with other friends. There will always be more projects.
But, I hear you ask (and, again, please believe me, I’m listening to myself and relating it to you in the hopes it has some help), “Why all the pain?”
We feel pain when our needs are not being met. You wanted your needs to be met by your relationship with your friend and they weren’t. That hurts. To deny it is to pretend to be some kind of solitary inhabitant of a tower, a god-emperor of an empty universe—which none of us actually is. At least none of us with any interest in building projects. Or having friends.
I’d like you to take a look at the situation and see if you can believe a)Yes, I want my needs met — in fact I deserve to have them met and b)I’m glad they weren’t met right away.
How is that possible? Why wouldn’t we want our needs met right away? I mean, babies get that at the breast. They get to suck on a giant breast all day, and that’s pretty good! Right?
In fact, for grown-ups, the kind who build projects and make friends, it’s actually even better if our needs aren’t met right away. It’s better when the people we are involved with push back, and say hurtful stuff like “No!” and “You’re wrong!” and “I think it would be better to do it my way!” It’s great because it helps us know ourselves better. And that leads to our real needs being met– as opposed to the needs we thought we had when we started the project.
Let me explain.
You might have thought your need was “build a tower,” but if you scratch the surface, you may find the need actually was “build a tower that other people care about and like.” And if you scratch even a little more, you may find your need is “be acknowledged and understood by other human beings.”
How can you do that by building a tower? By seeing how they react, and how you react to their reaction, and then responding to both. React to you own reaction and let them react to you, and keep doing it. Be honest and open about what the project and the friendship mean to you and why you need them both desperately. And be grateful for that roadblock, because if it weren’t there, you would never know.
Thanks to the roadblock, you can now get your actual need met, rather than what you thought your need was when you started your project.
And, yes, you will have multiple times in the future when you disagree with your friends, and everybody feels pain, but that doesn’t mean the project or the friendship, or mixing the two of them was a mistake. It means they were for real. Because where there is no risk of pain, there is no possibility of growth either.
That’s the cool thing about projects. And who knows, maybe the tower is being conquered by lizards AND snakes. Which, in this respondent’s humble opinion, would be awesome.
Eric Linus Kaplan
Send Eric your question about about life, the universe, and everything else, by emailing him here.
Eric Kaplan is an executive producer of (and writer for) the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory and the author of Does Santa Exist: A Philosophical Investigation.
He studied Buddhist thought and practice at Wat Chulamani in Thailand, Jewish thought in New York and Jerusalem, and philosophy of science, philosophy of mind
and existentialism at Columbia University and UC Berkeley. His blog is ericlinuskaplan.wordpress.com.