There are, obviously, those who bring out the best in you.
My former boss is one such person. She is the most upbeat human I know—and not in a superfluously perky or absurdist way. She can be telling you about her mom’s slow miserable death from cancer, but she’ll tell it in a way that makes it clear people were lucky to have known her mom, and that you in turn are lucky to have known someone who knew her mom. Not because her mom moved mountains, but she just emphasizes the positive in her mom’s life—even in those horrible last days where she couldn’t speak or move more than her hands and face—to the point where you’re alternately thinking “damn that woman has guts, dredging up memories like this” and “if I have to go I hope I go with that much grace.” My former boss drops that word into conversation occasionally, without a religious context, and like a struck bell, it clears out a space for the important things in a life. Here is a woman who has seen enough grace to know to value it. Talking to her, you’re pretty sure you’d better get a handle on that, too.
There are those, though, that bring out the worst in you. For fractious people like me they can be harder to spot, easily confused for people with whom you just end up disagreeing a lot. But that is not the defining factor. Friends of ours have this effect on us—on both of us, we agree. I’ve mentioned people who are black holes before—they number among them. What they want to talk about, always, is how things have gone sour for something or someone in their lives. Whether it’s a mutual friend who is marrying a girl they find boring, or a political movement gone awry, or a social group whose clothes or music or habits they’ve chosen to vilify that week, the talk is always negative. But it demands response and engagement, such that you realize all you’re saying in return—indeed, all you’re preparing to say as you set out to meet these people at a given venue—is negative. What has gone wrong in the world since you last spoke? Who has suffered or been made a fool of? What can you sneer at together, then wrack your brains over later, alone, trying to figure out why it felt so necessary to take such a harsh interest in earlier?
I don’t think it’s any secret that you want to minimize the ranks of the second kind of people in your life, and maximize the first. You could speak of balance, but I have little desire to populate my social sphere with those whom I know cause me to enter these spirals of negativity. I think here of playing SimPark as a child—population management, predator control, the need for slaughter amongst the delicate hoofed creatures of the wild.
But my life is not a national forest, and if you prey on positive feeling—on happiness—you will be removed from the premises, as hastily as I can hustle you to the gates.
Once that’s done I can resume my anxious tread through the brambles—breath suspended, feet agonizing over the possibility of cracked twigs, hoping that in some pocket of the wilderness I’ll stumble onto the sudden clearing, the raised horns, the placid amber gaze that shrinks you into someone who knew only wonder, once.