A good friendship, a good marriage, is like a knock-about game of tennis with an evenly matched partner.
You both start off with the same number of balls, and you decide which of you should serve first.
I serve to you, and you return it, and I hit it back and then sooner or later one of us drops the ball and it dribbles to the side of the court.
Then you serve to me, I hit it back, and you return it.
When we’ve warmed up a bit, and are more confidant of each other, you might put in a spin now or again, with a smile, keen to flex your muscles. Or I might run to the net and smash the ball back out of your reach. Tricky drop shots, sometimes badly judged strokes that barely make it over the net.
The play continues, potentially forever, neither player having the upper hand. Sometimes all the balls end up one side of the net. Then you, or I, depending, will lob a load back, one after another so that we can carry on with the same number each.
This sort of game can accommodate injuries, temporary absences and distractions, because it is full of shared good will. Sometimes one player will have more energy: sometimes the other will be full of the joys of spring. Other times it can be a bit lacklustre, but still comfortingly familiar. Sometimes the serve is under arm, easy to return. Sometimes there are strokes of brilliance which both recognise. Some games are fast. Others have a midsummer afternoon sort of heaviness about them. Above all, they are enjoyable. Fun. They make the world go round.
I know that this is what a good tennis game is all about because I play in them regularly.
Not all tennis games are like this though, nor all friendships or family relationships.
Sometimes it seems as if one player has all the balls, and so has to serve all the time. It is not that the player has hogged all the balls, because there is no advantage to having the balls to begin with. Rather they are a responsibility, because serving is the most difficult part. Serving is an act of hope, hoping that the ball will come back.
In this sort of game, the player the other side of the net is not interested in returning the ball most of the time. He or she will let the ball go, won’t try to hit it back, and so the ball goes out. This is the unacknowledged comment, the phonecall not returned, the email not replied to.
Sometimes, the other player will hit the ball back, just for the fun of hitting it, but not caring whether I manage to return it or not. The return shot is intended to show-off, not to help the game along. Worse, sometimes the smash is aimed at hurting me, not in the least bit playful. It is an angry lashing-out.
By luck, sometimes, I’ll be able to return the ball, but, by then, you’ve lost interest and so my ball flies past you unnoticed and joins the other sad balls at the end of the court. You almost never bother to pick them up and return them, though you could if you wanted to.
You will rarely if ever serve any balls in my direction. Christmas might be an exception, or if you are lonely or bored. But then you just want one shot back, just so that you know that I am still there, and then you’ve turned away again. I’m not sure that you have other games going on at the same time, that are taking up your time and attention, just that you don’t understand what the game is supposed to be about.
I hate this sort of stroke-pattern. Thinking about it, it is invariably preceded by a more normal sort of pattern, perhaps a doubles where you can hide your underfunctioning. The early games lull one into a false sense of security, but then the other person loses interest and the game changes. I’ve come across this game in many variations. It seems fairly common following a divorce amongst our friends when the underfunctioning player is left behind, and doesn’t want to keep to keep the game going by himself. I begin to understand why his partner did not want to play with him any more. It must have been exhausting fielding all the shots.
Being a determined optimist, I often hope that the other person will change their game, that they’ll be interested in a proper exchange. But, far too often, I end up wasting my time, sending my precious balls on one-way journeys to the Land of Lost Balls. Worse than that, it gets to the point where I’ve run out of balls and have to borrow them from other, nice, kind, players to send on this pointless journey.
As they say – you cannot change the other person, so you have to change yourself. What I should do is put all of my hope for this friendship, for this relationship, in one ball and smash it into infinity so that the hope disappears with the ball and I can spend my time in more enjoyable, equal games. I am getting better and better at doing that.
A friend, having a difficult time, told me yesterday that she didn’t mind despair, it was hope she could not stand. I knew what she meant.