“It is a melancholy truth that even great men have poor relations.”
As seasons change with the frequency of natures clock, we (as sentimental humans) are forced to (voluntarily or involuntarily) take a certain measure of who and what we are in the eyes of the world staring back at us from the convoluted mirror of self-perception. It is a novel (and somewhat naive) notion to assume our self-image is anything similar to the perception others hold of us; and we cannot even begin to believe our perceptions of others are anywhere remotely close to the self-perceptions held by even our closest loved-ones, friends, and acquaintances. Put simply, we all see ourselves as one person, and we assume others see us in this light as well – but they don’t; they never do.
I struggle with this – as many people do – because I know more about me than anyone (just as you know more about you than anyone). But I carry the disadvantage of having been publicly shamed for the choices I’ve made. And therefore, the perception held by others is often based solely on the image perpetuated by the residual assumptions of who I am based on who I was and what I did numerous years ago – not who I am now.
There’s a little bit of faux-irony in this: I am a more moral and faithful person today (with my ruined reputation) than I was six or seven years ago (when I had a stellar reputation). When I was perceived as a good husband and a successful educator, I was actually a cheating and philandering narcissistic sex addict. Now, barely a hint of that person remains and I am living the most moral and faithful life I ever have – and yet, the perception is just the opposite.
And it goes both ways as well. I have a tendency to walk through the foggy gray haze of everyday life with the assumption that anyone I may encounter from my past will automatically hate me and be repulsed by the site of me. My immediate reaction to seeing someone in public with whom I’ve had a previous acquaintanceship is to pretend I didn’t see them, act as though I don’t remember them, or attempt to duck out-of-sight completely. At first, I thought this reaction was mere cowardice. But now I realize the truth: I simply don’t want to put anyone else in the position of being forced to talk to me. There seems to be a social obligation to carry-on the superficial “how-have-you-been” discussion, simply for the sake of fulfilling the social contract, so I don’t want to put someone through that if they are thinking to themselves, “I really hate this guy.”
I had this friend in high school, and then in adulthood. We ran track and cross country together, were both team captains, graduated together, even stood next to each other in our track and cross country team pictures. He has become a very successful orthodontist here in Wichita and even did braces for me before I went to prison. And in the several years leading up to my departure from society, he and I were also occasional running partners, bonding over the sweat and soreness of a four or five or six mile run.
After being arrested, I was immediately charged with “rape.” Well, obviously that was an over-charge (because it was soon dropped) but for the few weeks that it lingered in the media, it really bothered me that people thought I was actually capable of doing something like that. One day, I was driving by a hardware store and saw my friend’s wife, with whom my wife and I had become friends as well. So when I saw her, I stopped and simply said, “Please tell him that it’s not true.” She replied with an uncomfortable “Okay” and quickly got in her car and drove away. I knew I wasn’t completely innocent of any crime, but I certainly knew I wasn’t some sort of sick barbaric rapist. And I wanted my friend to know that as well. I valued him as a life-long friend and his opinion mattered to me. Yet, I haven’t spoken to him since.
A few weeks ago I ran the Wichita Prairie Fire Marathon. About three miles into the race, I happened to glance around at my fellow competitors and there he was, running nearly next to me. It threw me off a little because I’d seen him at numerous races before, but never actually crossed his path. And there he was, essentially running right next to me. But I said nothing. A quick glance at his race number indicated he was running the half-marathon, so I knew he wouldn’t be there for the entire race (because after about seven miles, the half-marathon and full-marathon courses split from one another).
But still, it bothered me. It bothered me that I had this friend – this great friend – who now wants nothing more to do with me because of the choices I’d made. And he wasn’t the first – (another being my former best friend, best man, and now Nemesis) – and seeing him running next to me, knowing I could not feasibly say anything to him, was just a little upsetting. I was three miles into a marathon and I needed to keep my mind as straight and focused as possible; yet I was unable to combat the sudden feeling of life’s remorse – and to add insult to injury, that part of the race course just happened to be running on the street in front of Wichita East High School, the place where my immoral choices were made, my crime was committed, and things changed forever.
Sometimes in life, timing is everything.
I did my best to stay in front of him until the race courses diverged, and after the the split, the entire remainder of my race was a struggle. I “hit the wall” earlier in that race than I ever had and it simply became a struggle to reach the finish line. And I did, but in a very unimpressive time. Of course, I don’t blame him – it isn’t his fault that I can’t seem to conquer the guilt of my own life choices.
And sure, there are others friends I’ve lost. I had a very good friend with whom I taught – we both started teaching the same year and were both alums, both coaches at one point, and it was well-known around the school that we were buddies. He and his wife were friends with my wife and me and we did couples things together; he and I played golf together a lot – but he too is gone from my life, refusing to acknowledge I exist. And yet, I don’t fault him either. His reaction to my choices cannot be construed as a fault of his; only a fault of mine for doing what I did. But that doesn’t make it hurt any less.
I guess the cliche is true: “You sleep in the bed you make.” But the problem is, they don’t know me anymore. The tragic irony of this situation is that I’m actually a better and more moral person now than I was when I was actually friends with them. But I guess that’s just the way things work out sometimes. I guess that’s another price I must pay.
I guess the thing is, I just miss my friends.