Faith Gong: Invisible Friends

There are seven people who live in our house, and then there are the ones you can’t see.

I learned long ago never to use the words “imaginary friends” to describe these beings of light and air. No; they are very REAL, so the proper term is “invisible friends.”

Invisible friends first showed up sometime during the first three years of my eldest daughter’s life, although I’m not sure whether they appeared during the 20 months when she was an only child, or the following year when she was a de facto only child, with only one infant sister for company. What I do remember quite clearly is one particular lunchtime in our bungalow in Berkeley, California, when this daughter announced that her friends were coming for lunch. Could I please set places at the table for them?

Of course I could! Thrilled that my toddler was demonstrating such an active imagination, I asked, “Who are you expecting.”

“Oh,” she lisped, “Pak, Pook, Lion, Lo-Lo, Lemon, and Orange.”

This was when it hit me that an active imagination might be a mixed blessing (and it’s been hitting me almost daily ever since), but I played along. I set six extra places for lunch, and obediently opened the door and greeted six invisible guests when my daughter called out that they had arrived. 

The daughters that followed had equally vivid imaginations, but blessedly fewer invisible friends. While my eldest daughter’s original six companions faded quickly into family lore, her siblings selected sidekicks that have continued to hang around well into middle- and late-elementary school. 

I’ve never seen any of these friends in the flesh — they are, after all, invisible — but they’re quite visible to my daughters. So I’ve seen drawings of CeCe-SoSo and GiGi, both of whom have aged over the years in their portraits, but who maintain their red hair and freckles. 

Nor are the invisible friends always human: My third daughter has a tumultuous, Calvin-and-Hobbes-like relationship with a mountain lion named Astrid. I’ve seen drawings of Astrid, too; like Hobbes the tiger, she is a prominent character in this daughter’s series of graphic novellas. Astrid travels out West every so often to visit her parents, who are film stars, but we always know she’s back when my daughter drops suddenly to the ground and screams, “Astrid, I told you not to pounce!”

Just the other night, when I went in to say goodnight to my second daughter, she asked, “Mommy, can this lion sleep with me tonight?”

I couldn’t see any lion, and I’m a more worn and weary mother than I was twelve years ago, but there was really only one response possible: “Of course, as long as it doesn’t keep you awake.”

Having lived so many years with my daughters’ invisible friends, I started to wonder whether I had any invisible friends of my own. The other morning, as I was preparing for another day, I realized that they’d been with me all along, two of them trailing me for most of my life: Guilt and Doubt.

Guilt pounces on me throughout the day, and growls in my ear, “You’re not investing enough in your children/husband/friends and relations. Your house is filthy and your garden is full of pests and weeds. And when was the last time you really exercised? Why are you so lazy?!?”

Doubt crawls into my bed at night and whispers, “What if you’ve invested yourself in the wrong things? Wouldn’t you like to focus more on your writing and less on your family? Is this really ‘just a season’ or are you using your children as an excuse because you’re afraid? What if you die with a drawer full of unfinished and unpublished manuscripts?!?”

I’m only one person, but I have a feeling that many adults share Guilt and Doubt as their invisible friends — along with Fear, Regret, Shame, and a host of others. 

Adults have much to learn from children, and it turns out that nearly thirteen years of parenting my visible children have taught me a thing or two about how to handle invisible friends. 

The first thing is not to pretend that they’re imaginary. Invisible, yes; nobody can see my Guilt and my Doubt, and you may be surprised to learn that they follow me everywhere, but they are very real. They can’t be denied or stuffed down by force of will, or they’ll just turn up again.

Once we’ve acknowledged the reality of these invisible friends, we should treat them with courtesy and get to know them. Invite them to lunch, set a few extra places at the table, and listen to what they have to say. But — and this is the key thing — we don’t have to believe everything they have to say. These are friends, after all, not deities. Do you agree with and believe everything your visible friends say? Me neither.

So I can be polite to my Guilt and Doubt, but still question them. “Is that really true?” I ask as I pour them another cup of tea. “Is that a fact or an opinion? Please cite your source.” Maybe they have some valid points to make, or maybe they’re entirely delusional; either way, you won’t know unless you examine them in the light. 

Just as my firstborn daughter’s six invisible friends faded gradually into memory, so will our adult invisible friends when we cease to give them total power over us. 

Finally — and this is my favorite part — we can use our invisible friends to create things of beauty and truth. My daughters have incorporated their invisible friends into art and writing. Why shouldn’t I do the same? Once our invisible friends like Guilt, Doubt, Fear, Regret, and Shame no longer wield power over us, we are free to turn our experiences with them into art that encourages others — art we make with words, with paint, with our lives. If you question whether beauty can come out of such things, consider that some of the world’s most jaw-dropping sculpture began as mud or formless stone. And, although I’d never compare this column to Michelangelo’s David, I must give my two old friends Guilt and Shame some credit for inspiring these words. 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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