Barbara Emrys

Imaginary Friends

Like most little kids, my son loved our bedtime reading. Every story had to be experienced several times, until his eyes finally closed and the illustrations faded into nighttime dreams. One of his favorites was a little book called Are You My Mother? about a newly hatched bird who fell out of the nest before he’d had a chance to meet his mom. The story had a happy ending, but the bird’s journey was both a sweet and sad one.

Not yet able to fly, and desperate to find his family, he walked around the countryside in search of an answer. He asked every animal he met, “Are you my mother?” He asked a dog, a cow, a pig…I’ve forgotten how many creatures he approached in pursuit of the truth, but they all shooed him away. When the mother bird finally found him, their meeting was deeply touching– and a huge relief for both my son and me, no matter how many times we’d read the story.

For some reason, I thought of that book today, when I decided to write about imaginary friends. I thought about how the little chick, unable to imagine his own mother, would have happily bonded with anyone who said, “Yes! I’m the one you’re looking for!” Whether it came from a dog or a donkey, he would have gladly settled into their dream. We all want to hear similar words of love and welcome. We want to believe we’re in sync with the people around us. We want to believe they’re just like us, and that we have a place in their lives.

Most of all, we expect them to be the way we imagine them. But is that really fair? Can anyone realistically live up to our expectations of them? Should we even ask them to? Probably not. We do the people in our lives an injustice by refusing to see them as they are. We do ourselves an injustice by insisting on a fantasy. None of that sounds fair. And, in the long run, it isn’t kind.

Your world is filled with imaginary people. They’re real human beings, of course, but you imagine them your way– and you hold stubbornly to that image. We all have imaginary friends. Some we marry. Some we meet for lunch on Saturdays. Some we call brother or sister, mother or father. In every case, our impression of them is made- up. And if they do or say anything that contradicts that impression, we feel angry and disappointed. Now, I ask you, does that seem kind…or fair?

All people deserve to be seen and appreciated as they are. Nobody can fully understand the workings of another person’s mind; it’s challenging enough to understand our own. The image we have of ourselves is fanciful, too; but we can see beyond it, to the truth. We can, that is, if we want to.

Of all your friends, only one knows your secrets and your unspoken terrors: your very real, physical self. This one is asking, “Are you my friend?” every day, and the answer seems ambiguous. This one may justifiably ask, “Do you love me? Can you accept me as I am?” And, like the grazing cow in the story, too busy to be bothered with so small a voice, you may ignore the question. You may reject it without a second thought.

It’s not too late to think again. You fell from the nest a while back and began a quest to discover who you are. Yes, you’ve experienced rejection. Some expectations have ended in disappointment. So what? Make a new commitment to yourself. “Mother” is the life force that made you, and she’s both kind and fair. She lives and breathes in you. She’s eager for you to see beyond the roles you play and come home to who you are. All imaginary friends aside, she has no intention of abandoning you… not now, and not even when your story ends.

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