Friday, December 5, 2008

Mistaking “I Miss You”: A Common Phrase Misapprehended and Misconstrued

As I would imagine is natural when one grows up, I have rather suddenly found myself far apart from quite a few people I like quite a lot. I have never moved and I hold tight to people I love, so it is a strange and unfamiliar feeling to be apart from my old friends for so long at a time, and naturally, I miss them. But as I have been trying, somewhat desperately, to stay in touch with these friends and keep my relationships with them ‘the way that they were’, it has me thinking: what does it mean to miss someone?

In my musings on the subject, I have come up with the following articulation of what ‘missing’ is: when you miss someone, you feel a desire to be with them. If I assume, for the sake of making my point, that we are all essentially selfish beings, this is usually a desire for the person you miss to be where you are currently (that is, one generally does not hope, when we miss someone, to be with them where they are, at least at our basest level). This desire fails to account for the other person, at least as a casual emotion. By this logic, missing someone is a selfish impulse, in the same vein as jealousy, or greed. So not only does my missing someone accomplish nothing other than making me sad, it is also a disservice to the other person (whom I assume already knows I care enough to miss them). At least as a feeling and an impulse that is not acted on, the sadness one feels in relation to not being around one’s faraway friends is self-serving and accomplishes nothing much, for even telling someone “I miss you” just pulls them into your foolish sorrow. But what can be done? Even knowing what it means to miss someone doesn’t make me miss them less. It doesn’t make Phoenix or Miami or Seattle or Boston or wherever any closer to me.

But even here, I am selfish: I fail to realistically imagine that my friends are happy without me; in my wish that Seattle or wherever be closer to here, I am considering the situation only from my own viewpoint. Once when I was at a book signing, the author of the book was trying to explain the importance of seeing people as they are and not seeing them as they relate to us. When he was expressing his apologies that he had to end the event because he had a plane to catch, nearly everyone in the audience told him that he didn’t have to go, he should stay here, it would be better anyway. These sentiments, he said, while flattering, were just we Arizonans failing to realistically imagine and understand the people who were waiting for him where his plane was going. They wanted him to be there, for their own selfish reasons, just as much as we wanted him to stay here. Missing someone is sort of like that: it’s selfish in that it expresses much more about the person doing the missing than it does about the person being missed. I don’t think I explained that exactly clearly, but hopefully I get the point across. I am not trying to do a disservice to people who are missed, or say that I am not missed or shouldn’t be. However, I am pointing out that we need to think about what we say, what it means, and how it affects the person we say it to.

I also think that it is generally implied in telling someone you miss him or her that you will someday be together again. Even many of the people I talk to and certainly many that I miss, I may never see them again (which is why I am limiting this post to friends, not family, who I am almost certainly going to see again). Does this mean that missing them is going to be my current state, in regards to so many dear friends of days in the past? I don’t want to be selfish, or to bring them into my silly sadness, or to fail to realistically understand the people I don’t see regularly. It just seems so pessimistic and ungenerous to say, “Well, it was good times, have a good life.” But it is more honest and more realistic than my self-serving and self indulgent impulse to look at my faraway friends only as they relate to me.

The true virtue in missing someone is in its quiet expression of care. Missing people, be it selfish or not, is what keeps us writing letters, sending emails, mailing Christmas cards, years after it becomes clear that missing each other is our constant state. When we (or at least, I) miss someone, we are not trying to be selfish or misunderstand the people we miss. The only thing I can think of to be done is to more clearly express what I mean when I say, “I miss you.” And I think what everyone is trying to express is simply that: care.

No comments: