The Perks of Being a Substitute Person

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My entire life has been a never-ending quest for real conversation. The people I like talking to the most are capable of truly talking to me. Conversation is valuable to me. I like to talk. I like to share ideas. I like to have random conversations. Some of the happiest times in my life were four hour phone calls with occasional kindred spirits, who enjoyed perusing as many different topics and going deeper into all of them. Oftentimes, those people were my “writing buddies.” Once, when working on a vampire novella with a friend, we stayed up super late on the phone discussing different elements of our ideas, coming up with new possibilities, divulging the secrets of the individual research we had done, and laughing. I was excited to talk to her. I couldn’t wait to do it again. In those carefree summer days, we had all the time in the world to exchange a flurry of e-mails. One a day, at the very least – sometimes, three or four.

That relationship, as all of them do, eventually faded. Our passion burned out. Our lives went in different directions. Our interests changed. Yet, those discussions forever cemented her in my mind as the person I could discuss all manner of vampire-related things with. To this day, when feeling a burning need to talk about anything relating to the blood-drinking undead, for a split second I think, “Gee, I wish could call…”

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Another friend, a decade later, was my go-to buddy for sci-fi related chat. We spent hours Skype chatting while watching episodes of Star Trek and Fringe together. I loved those days, because I got to not only watch shows, but talk about them with someone else as invested in them as I was. Not only did we theorize on the upcoming episodes, we made up back histories and ran theories by one another about secondary character’s lives. We also wrote a 300 page Trek novella together. Then, as all friends do, she drifted away.

I have a kind of intensity when it comes to close relationships. The more I like someone, the more I want to talk to them, and the more often I yearn to do so. But as we get older, our time fills up with other things. We no longer have the luxury for frequent e-mails or late night conversations. And, with so many television shows to choose from, inevitably my friends and I all wind up watching different things. I am no longer in synch with my friends. We are out of orbit, occasionally casting shadows across one another, but not focused on the same thing, with the same intensity, at the same time. Discussion falls by the wayside.

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People come and go in our lives. It’s normal, because our interests shape who we choose as friends. We need one another at different times in our journey through life. But deep down, I will always want conversation. If I watch a movie, I want to discuss it. If I read a book, I want to discuss it. If I have a thought, I want to discuss it. The nice thing is, if I live my entire life searching for good conversations, eventually I’m bound to find it.

Recently, I re-watched Elizabethtown, which has one of my favorite fictional characters of all time in it, Claire. She is a lot like me in many ways, from her crazy six-hour phone conversation to the detailed, music-timed map she lovingly gives Drew before he embarks on his cross country trip. I see her as what I can become if I continue to search for conversation. She has one line in the film that has always impacted me: “we are the substitute people,” meaning, she and Drew are remembered for a time, when needed, but passed over once the crisis ends. I have found that quite true in my life from time to time, when I got the impression that I was the last person on the invite list, or people just plain forgot about me (another quote also resonates – “I’m impossible to forget, but hard to remember”). Yet, although she enjoys being “not” a substitute person with Drew, she doesn’t seem to mind being that person for other people.

Claire’s entire involvement with Drew starts as a substitute person – she’s the last person he calls when he wants to talk, but she’s there for him. She sees on the airplane that he needs her, and steps up to the plate, despite his disinterest at first. She sees a need and fills it, knowing he’ll need her later. At the end of the story, she sets him off cross-country with a map and a decision, to continue home and back to his old life, or to find her at a fair and change her life. Claire is willing to be the substitute person. She could have just been the girl who was there for him when he needed it, and nothing more; but she let Drew make the decision otherwise.

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We substitute people don’t have to feel bad about being there for people when they need us. It’s a glorious thing to chase away the shadows in a dark moment. And if we live for every moment, we’ll enjoy the experience while it lasts. When we’re at the center of another person’s world, we’re temporarily not the substitute person, but when that moment passes, we’re back to being it again. My former friendships came about because we needed each other, but once our interest subsided, we went in search of other conversations with other people, based on our needs of the moment. Not only is everyone on the planet a substitute person, we treat other people as substitute people. This can be a very bad thing if it is cruelly done, or it can be a good thing if we realize that life gives us different friends at different times.

I do not feel sorry for myself when a relationship ends, because while it lasted, the friendship was wonderful. We had fun. We had good conversation. We helped each other through some rough stuff. It made memories that will continue onward with me, even though the closeness I once had with that person is gone. I’ve always seen “being a substitute person” as a bad thing, but it’s really not. It’s the chance to bring joy into many people’s lives, and in doing so, into my own, for an instant. Claire saved Drew, because she cared enough to be a substitute person. Without her, he would have remained in depression, driven home, and killed himself. We never know what may happen as a result of our interaction with others, but if we are always open and looking for good conversation, unexpected delights may come our way.

20 Replies to “The Perks of Being a Substitute Person”

  1. Wow, I think I may be a substitute person! What you described was so much me, and now that I understand that, maybe it won’t hurt anymore when I’m passed over or forgotten. I have been really behind on reading your blog, but this post reminded me why I love it so much!

    1. I’m really sorry you find yourself in that position. It sucks — I told my parents the other day that my entire, I’ve felt like “nobody wants to play with me.” It’s not that they don’t care, it’s just that in my case, it’s out of sight, out of mind. I can’t change how they treat me; I can only change how I treat others.

      You are not a substitute person to me. You are a friend, and I am delighted to interact with you whenever you like! 🙂

      1. Thank you, Charity. I consider you a friend, as well, and I’m so glad we’re friends! I still hate that it took me so many years to get up the nerve to ask you to be friends, but eh, whatever. At least we are now!

          1. You were always self-assured and knew exactly who you were. I see now that it was just an illusion (I just mean that you’re still figuring out who you are), but you were well-spoken as well and really funny and it was daunting.

          2. Or maybe I knew then what I have come to second guess now… who I truly am! 😉

            I need to be funny more often. I mean, I’m funny in real life but not so much in my blogging, and that is probably something that ought to change. 😀

  2. Well written, insightful post, Charity (as usual). I’ve never thought of friendship like this, though some of the arguments you make have merit – sometimes we pass through people’s lives because it’s what is needed at the time, and if it’s for the right purpose, it’s “meant to be.” Maybe because we needed to learn something or because they could help us through a difficult time, and even if that relationship doesn’t last, that doesn’t mean that person won’t always be important.

    It’s been a pleasure to get to know you these many years, and I’m looking forward to continuing that. And just so you know, you’re unique; no substitute person in you far as I’m concerned. 🙂

    1. I think the important thing is to look at everyone you encounter as important. If you do that, you may wind up with more long-term friends than you think! People appreciate being appreciated, so if we approached everyone with that kind of curiosity and enthusiasm… you never know.

      Well, thank you. I’m flattered. I’ve enjoyed getting to know you too.

  3. Wow. That was awesome, Charity. I’ve never seen the movie. I know my mom has. But “substitute person” is really a good description–I was that for most everybody as a kid. To the point where my parents actually said I needed to stop being friends with certain people, because they weren’t being true friends. I was just the substitute diversion. I’ve wondered why it was that way–why I didn’t have really good friends as a kid–but I’m actually grateful for it now, because it taught be to recognize the worthwhile ones, the ones to hold on to, if I can. Sometimes you do have to let people go–life has its changes, as you said. But at the same time, sometimes I can’t fathom how others can just “forget”. People are important. But I suppose that’s what makes us good substitutes, isn’t it?

    I’m going to have to check out that movie.

    1. It’s a sweet movie, sort of a dark comedy about a young man dead-set on killing himself until he hears that his father has died while visiting relatives in Kentucky. He must go back there and deal with the relatives and funeral arrangements — and along the way, meets Claire. It’s an unexpected delight of a film.

      Children are very fickle indeed. I had “friends” until a boy started coming to church, then my friends dumped me like a hot potato to play with him instead (we were 9!). I could look back on that experience as a negative one, but like you, it taught me to be more aware of what real friendship looks like. I’m sorry to say I have only infrequently found it, because most people are like ships passing in the night. I don’t think most people intend to “forget” us… they just do, because out of sight, out of mind. But that’s okay. Now and again we find someone who considers us to be a true friend and hangs in there for the long haul. If you have one or two true friends, being a substitute for other people isn’t a hardship.

      Hope you enjoy it! It’s quite funny, sweet, and sad… all the things a good movie should be.

  4. Ouch! I wish I could say that the two of us weren’t substitute persons. But I admit, I dropped the ball. Yes, 95 percent was my life spinning out of control at a dizzying pace…..still. Know you are loved by me ❤ ❤

  5. Charity, you are not a substitute person for me, and I hope you know that.

    But I know how it feels. I’ve been the substitute person for the majority of my life. The person people enjoy spending time with, but as soon as we’re apart, I’m forgotten. I’m used to it, and I don’t judge these people for it, not really. What I can’t do anymore, though, is be a shoulder to cry on, a rock in times of trouble, and then, when their lives are back together, watch them walk away without a backward glance. I’ve had that . . . too often, and it hurts too much to repeat.

    That’s why I love relationships that aren’t based on trials and troubles and woes. Those are the friendships that last because they’re not born out of adversity. I’ve had one friend where, somehow, the focus shifted from friendship to my helping and supporting her in her woes. Guess what? It didn’t work, and I got fed up and I haven’t heard from her in months, and I don’t care. It’s sad. It’s horrible. And I should feel bad, but I don’t because the stress levels of cheering her up after listening to her complaints are gone.

    The Lord brings us people when we need them, but I’m learning that I can’t fix people. And I shouldn’t feel like I need to, not anymore. I’m finding joy in making little connections to people, with no strings attached, just a fun time of socializing and energy. It’s awesome, and I love it, and because I have no expectations of bosom buddies, I don’t hold it against that person if I don’t hear from them for a few weeks or a month. I’ll be here when they remember me and want to see a movie or go bowling or mini golfing, or whatever.

    I can’t hold onto everyone. And now that I’ve realized that monumental truth, I’m much happier for it. 🙂

    1. Life has taught me that “substitute” relationships typically don’t last that long. They are brief, intense, intellectual love affairs that eventually simply fade away or blow up in your face. Considering we’ve been friends for most of 13 years, I think it’s safe to assume we’re not “substitute people” to each other.

      I’m sorry you’ve had to dealt with that. I know it’s hard. We form bonds through sharing emotional moments and when someone walks away from that, it’s like breaking a cord. Sometimes, I think people pull away after being helped through a crisis out of shame. It’s embarrassing in the aftermath to realize how much you have seen of their tattered life. Their dark period is out in the open, and suddenly they’re ashamed. They shouldn’t be, but … only a truly strong, secure person is “okay” with others seeing them for who they are, and their lives for what they entail.

      The older I get, the more I think it’s good to have one or two close friends that you can trust with your “bad times,” and a bunch of more casual friends just to have fun with. If you have no greater expectation than that, you will never be disappointed or discontent with them. 🙂

      1. Has it really been 13 years? Wow!!!!!

        I think you’ve hit the nail right on the head. People don’t like to admit that they need help, and when they’re forced to, after the crisis is passed, they will pull away. That’s exactly what happened, and I’m still going “huh?” more than 2 years later. I mean, I’m fine. I don’t see her any differently, but she sees herself and the situation and her friendship with me differently than she did before. I can’t fix her perception of the situation. It is what it is, and if she walks away, that’s what she does. I didn’t push her to do it, she did it to herself, and that makes it all the more tragic. Poor thing.

        I totally agree about the two or so very close friends and numerous acquaintances. Right now I have one truly close friend (duh!), and Caitlin, and I’m good with that number. I like doing things with other people, but I don’t feel burdened to have 10 besties. That would be soooooooo exhausting!!

        You are awesome, you know. Totally, unfailingly awesome! *hugs*

        1. If she is a Fi-user (and I know she is), she’s embarrassed that she needed your help, and that you saw a more vulnerable, emotional side of her. I wish I could say that will change, but only a mature ENFP can get over stuff like that.

          Well, thank you. So are you. *hugs*

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