Though gossip is inevitable, it also gives us a false sense of power. While evolution has prepared us to dish about others, it has not provided us with the power to change them in any way whatsoever, no matter how brilliant our input may be.
This paradox can be excruciating. How is it possible for an ordinary, controlling individual to care intensely about his friends without trying to change them? How can we give our treasured advice without feeling attached to its implementation? How can we witness friends making the same terrible decisions again and again — and again — without feeling the need to castigate them? Shouldn't influence be part of the friendship contract, a modicum of say-so to help us guide the people we love to lead happier, more worthwhile lives?
The answer is: Absolutely not. We're not meant to have any control whatsoever over the behavior of our friends. That is because their behavior is none of our business. Our opinions about the lives of others are void of inherent importance or meaning. This is the price of loving individuals born with a measure of free will: Control is never, ever, an option. We can no more dictate friends' actions than they call the shots for us. This is the slipperiest slope on the friendship mountain, the most demanding incline of all: How to be hands off and hands on at the same time? Committed but not attached; attentive but not invasive; present yet guaranteedly distant. This distance is extremely important. Friendship requires distance and closeness, just like any intimacy does, which is why knowing when to keep our mouths shut is such a virtue. Skillful detachment proves to our friends that we love them for who they are rather than the person they'd be if only they were perfect (and listened to us).
Meg didn't know what to do about Aaron. None of us knew what to do about Aaron. A mutual friend for 25 years, Aaron counted both Meg and me as two of his shortest-list friends for life, and both of us were at our wits end (Meg even more so). The issue was sex, which Aaron was having to great excess and Meg believed should not be discussed, and certainly not on the Internet. With this 50th birthday approaching fast, our once-dignified friend had grown increasingly vocal about his increasingly frequent hook ups with women a whole lot younger than he was, crowing about his too-numerous conquests like Casanova on too much Cialis. Aaron had taken in the previous year to celebrating the prime of his life in an online column called "The New 50," enumerating his questionable liaisons with for all the Web-world to see. Both of us were concerned for him. Actually, we were mortified.
"What are we doing to do?" Meg asked me, frantic with puritanical horror.
"Somebody's got to stop tell him!" she shrieked.
"He's making a goddamn fool of himself." As Meg said this, I felt a pain in my conscience. Twenty years before, when Aaron and I were in our 20s, we had entered into a solemn vow to warn one another if either of us was being age-inappropriate, or embarrassing himself in public. This promise had been made at a café in Paris. At the table next to ours, a lecherous codger was putting the moves on a pretty co ed, his Engelbert Humperdink disco shirt unbuttoned below his hairy paunch. We observed this with a shared mixture of pity, contempt, and self-appraisal ("there but for fortune go we") as Engelbert poked his mojo at the disgusted ingénue, who finally threw a ten-franc note at the table and stormed off. That's when Aaron turned to me with a serious look on his handsome face (it was true that he had aged almost too well). "Never ever let me do that," he said.
"Mutton dressed as lamb," I said.
"I would rather be dead." We vowed to save one another from ourselves. That's what friends were for, we agreed, but no intervention had ever been called for until now. Meg insisted that I was the one to do it since I was Aaron's best male friend. Still, the prospect made me uncomfortable. "The sooner the better," she said gravely.
I promised to do my best. Though Meg had a point, and I was worried, too, something about this didn't feel right. It seemed disrespectful, like trespassing. Part of the reason that Aaron and I had been best friends for 30 years is that we didn't bust each other's chops or do each other's inventory. We have always been temperamentally opposite, causing me to habitually suspend my judgment. What's more, addressing Aaron's adolescent-like sex life would force me to touch on deeper, more disturbing issues within his own checkered history, especially his inability to commit. No single woman had the ideal combination, Aaron would complain. He was scared, he said, of being bored. Hearing this, I would roll my eyes and tell him that was Peter Pan talking. I'd suggest that perhaps it was time to land. Aaron was pigging out at the salad bar but never getting a good square meal. He knew this, of course, but didn't seem to mind. He'd accepted his romantic limitations and decided long ago that it was other people's problem, not his, if they couldn't handle it. Was Aaron's promiscuity a smoke screen for loneliness? Yes. Was his life a case study in arrested emotional development? Of course. But was it my job to make him ashamed of himself? I doubted it. The words of a wise teacher came to mind. "There are only three kinds of business in the world," she told her students. "My business. Your business. And God's business."
When she said this, I knew that the teacher was right, which led to a great epiphany. Suddenly, decades of blurred relationship boundaries turned crystal clear, years of confusion over entanglements, projections, and taking things personally that weren't. As a nosey, controlling, insecure person, this came as a great liberation from the vain belief that I was responsible for other people's choices. In a flash, I was free not to pretend to be able to change a soul; I was also freed from trying to know God's business and make everything work out the way it should. My business. Your business. And God's business. It was very hard to argue with that.
Since then, I'd been using this motto whenever the urge to meddle seized me. What my friends did was not my business. So what should I do about Aaron, exactly? I knew what I wanted to say to him. The issue, to me, was privacy. He could sleep with all the ladies he wanted but why make it a media event? Why publish things that he might regret - information that others were finding distasteful - in the virtual human mall where information lives forever? Could a little restraint or decorum hurt? That is what I would say to him.
We met the following week for a pow wow. Aaron was in fine form. The night before, he'd hooked up with a woman he met in the line at Duane Reade.
"Ultra foxy. Twenty-nine. She told me I looked like Tony Bennett."
"You don't look anything like Tony Bennett."
"I know! She'd been drinking. My bad!" To make Aaron's mid-life worse, he was now abusing teen Twitter lingo. "She told me that I rocked the house. "
"The house is old," I couldn't help saying.
He ordered a Red Bull on the rocks. "I never understood sex before. That's what's ironic. You know what I mean?" I shook my head. "It took me 50 years to figure it out. Women love me. They say I'm a catch. I used to think I was nothing special. Now, I know I'm filet mignon! Maybe I'll make that my next column. From Chopped Liver to Filet Mignon. What do you think? Too much? I don't want people to think I'm conceited."
"I wondered about that. The conceited part. Maybe -" I chose my words carefully, "A little discretion might not hurt." Aaron arched an eyebrow at me. "I mean, it's not really anyone's business-"
"You really need to loosen up," said Aaron. "I've been meaning to tell you -"
‘Tell me what?"
"Life doesn't have to be so goddamn serious."
"I love my life."
"I love mine, too," he insisted. "This is the best time I've had in years. I feel free! I don't give a shit what people think. Remember what a prig I used to be?" I nodded. "I look in the mirror now and think, Watch out world! Big boy's in town. I know what people are saying about me—"
"They think that I should act my age. They think that I'm an embarrassment. I should toe the line, button it up, play the dignified middle-aged man. Well, guess what? They can keep it. If people don't like what I'm doing, screw them. I mean that in all sincerity. I spent my whole life judging other people. I thought I knew what was right for them without having a clue what was right for myself. If I'd paid more attention to how I felt, it might not have taken me 50 years to start enjoying myself."
And just like that, the engine of righteousness sputtered out in me. I fell off my high horse. Aaron was right - dead right - while Meg and I, and our hand wringing circle of friends - were perfectly wrong. My business. Your business. God's business. The rest was moralistic presumption. The rest was more about us than him. My job as a friend was to cheer him on; if I couldn't do that, I should shut up and mind my own business. But what about our long-ago promise to watch each other's back? Did Aaron even remember our vow not to morph into lechers at this late date, to protect our pride and our reputations? I may ask him about this one of these days, if the satyr phase of his life ever passes. As for Meg, she's still beside herself, outraged by Aaron's change of image, outraged that he is not behaving as she believes a 50-year-old ought to behave, and scared of what lies ahead for him if he doesn't button up and shut up. I wish she'd keep her eye on the ball and figure out why she has stopped dating, herself. I wish she'd find out why she isn't happy and finally do something about that. Luckily, though, it's not my business. Unless she asks.