friends for all seasons

friendship ali SOMThis dovetails a bit from the last blog post I’ve written, but this is less about awful housemates I can’t currently escape and more about the people I choose to spend my time with.

Friends have meant so much to me. I’ve grown up to value them even over family (more out of necessity). I’ve read plenty of books on friendship.

But as I grow older, I’m starting to see how I need to redefine what friendships and relationships mean to me–and to be more flexible as life changes us all.

The Marriage Plot

While I was away adventuring and examining a new place to live–which you can read about if you’re a patron of my blog at Patreon–I had a conversation with my friend about the limits of relationships, about how American culture has made marriage to be this panacea for all emotional fulfillment. “Leave and cleave” is the evangelical phrase that I grew up with.

You drop all your friends except the married ones, and your spouse is your best friend. I’m not against the latter (even if I don’t find it to be necessary), but I am against the former.

While I was in church, I remember two friendships with fellow musicians, both men, that ended up with jealous spouses. And I understand the jealousy–it’s what we’ve all been taught. As a woman, you should be the only person to satisfy every need your husband has.

And that’s setting up everyone for failure.

I’ve grown to realize that we can’t really fulfill every emotional desire for our partners. It’s a lot of unnatural, ungodly pressure to glorify a human being like this. On top of this, shouldn’t we be personally responsible for our own happiness and fulfillment?

Our Blessed Multifacetedness

I do hope if and when I marry that my spouse has his own friends, of all genders. It’s not to say I’d transcend jealousy, but people are so multi-faceted, and we’re only going to get some of their natural glimmer. Other people will shine through and catch different sides, bringing out sides that no one else can.

There’s an oft-quoted passage of some book or essay about the friendship of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S Lewis, where one of them remarked about how they loved when other people joined them for conversation, because they could experience other sides of the person that they couldn’t necessarily bring out. I believe there was something about how the other laughed differently around other friends.

It’s a loving tribute to friendship, and it shows how secure that person feels. They don’t feel responsible to be that 360-light that can shine through their friend completely. They take joy in knowing their friend differently through the eyes of other people.

Really Knowing People

One thing that’s been coming up for me is how I treat my friends. Lately, we’re all running in similar circles, and in spiritual circles, usually you’re talking about heavy stuff.

I’ve been going through heavy things, and I’m glad to have friends that have been able to bear my burdens. I sometimes tire of talking of the same struggles over and over. It ends up being this script that I blindly follow and have memorized–I’ll show my wounds and you show me yours.

How I’m wired (which I just mistyped as weird), I like going deep with people. But I really can’t do that with everyone. There are definitely people in my life where we keep it light and laugh (yet it’s not that I don’t keep it light and laugh with closer friends, either).

The problem is when I go with that script of sharing burdens, and the script is flipped to sharing about other things, sometimes I stumble in not seeing my friend as a whole, complex person.

Recently, I had one of those moments where I was conversing with a friend, and I really wasn’t hearing what they were really saying.  It was turning into a conversation about differing ideologies and where we were on different parts of our life journeys.

The important part of the conversation was that this was more of a very strongly worded treatise of how this person saw life and themselves. Granted, it’s not one I fully agree with for a number of reasons, but the conversation would have been a lot shorter and more meaningful if I had just acknowledged where they were–which is really all they wanted.

Of course, people don’t ever outright say, “Please acknowledge me where I am on my journey.” But I’m old enough and wise enough to see when that’s necessary. I only wish I had recognized this plea sooner than later. But I had been so used to talking about certain things…when the script was flipped, I lost my footing.

Sometimes, it’s really not about being right, but about being a good listener.

An Old Capricorn Habit

This year, I’ve really had to learn how to hold my tongue and listen more. I’m so exuberant with my support and my advice, it’s like tsunami waves. Most people don’t want or need that sort of torrential support.

I’ve gone through a lot of hard stuff in my life, so I’ve gleaned a lot of wisdom, a lot of it seemingly beyond my years. And the knee-jerk advice-giving that I tend to give is usually spot on.

But. If the person isn’t ready to hear what you have to say, it’s something I must acknowledge.

What most people want is to be fully seen and heard. Recently, I even looked up articles on how to be a good friend without dumping loads of unsolicited advice.

Maybe it’s a little scary to just let someone’s words of heartache, confusion, anger, or sorrow just wash over you. Of course, if you care about your friend, you want lessen their suffering.

If you just listen, are you doing enough? Sometimes, it doesn’t feel like it. You see your friend going down a familiar road of heartbreak, and you can only offer that you’ll be here for them.

We can only be responsible for our own personal journeys.

We can walk alongside people through certain parts of their lives, which is always a privilege, not a right. But ultimately, we can’t make people take the steps towards their own salvation.

We can share our own stories. We can offer support. We can empathize. We can ask how we can be of help. We can even ask if we can offer some advice.

But that’s about it.

And this is the gift of healthy boundaries. We can be full of compassion while we understand where the other person ends and where we begin.

The Magic Eye of Friendship

I have this point, where if I’m about six months into anything, I’ll start to really see someone, or a job, or a living situation, for what it is. Sometimes it takes longer, but the truth of things start to comes out.

Usually after this six-month period, the gossamer gauze of perfection fades as reality comes to the fore. And then I see how I haven’t really see this entity in its entirety. I see how I may have glorified it and put it on a pedestal.

Now the imperfections are sometimes ones that I can’t really justify in even tolerating, let alone accepting. I had bent my neck up too high, lost in the glare in the limelight of idolization.

When I start to look through my relationships, like it’s some magic eye picture, and the real image of how things are starts to emerge.

So many times, I don’t like what I see.

I’m learning how intolerant I am, but also how far I’ve come in my own journey of maturation. And this goes back to the idea of using the same ole scripts with friends. We’re all evolving and learning, and there’s a dynamism that I forget about.

And maybe because this is something I’ve been learning to do with myself, one lesson I’m learning is to integrate these disparate parts and learning to love them–if I can.

Another lesson would be to start seeing people, places, and things as they are, without the gloss of forlorn hopes and the dross of desperate dreams.

You have a misunderstanding, or a debate that goes on far too long–and it’s not even what’s being discussed, but how. There’s a condescending tone, or there’s an intransigence, or a lack of grace. Or the person is manipulative or downright mean.

So a couple of questions will arise, mainly: Do I like what I’m seeing here about this person, or do I like myself when I’m with this person?

All Kinds of Friends for All Kinds of Seasons

People are complicated. We’re all carrying things that we don’t like to even acknowledge, but then those unspoken things influence how we see ourselves and each other. Some of those things fit like codependent LEGO blocks. Sometimes their jut out like spikes on a tire. And sometimes, they don’t bother us at all.

Not everyone can be our besties. Not everyone will ever earn the right to know us deeply.

And that’s OK.

We have friends we just do things with. We have friends we can call at 3am in the morning when disaster has struck. We have friends we bare our souls to. We have friends we just shoot the shit with.

We have friends who are drinking buddies, travel buddies, fellow parents, colleagues…

I still love the MySpace term, “activity partner.”

One thing that has been so tough for me to learn, as someone who is practically an open book is that not everyone should read my story; and that I also won’t be able to read everyone’s story.

Going slowly with people, letting them reveal themselves to me…to savor the unfolding of the unread pages and chapters…it really engenders real, well-earned trust–on both sides.

I shouldn’t ever rush this process, because I may skip over things that I should have seen earlier.

Again, that reveal may uncover some non-negotiable traits. We may have to walk back or away from each other.

And that’s OK.

We can respectfully adjust our expectations and boundaries, but that usually involves a level of detachment that I sometimes still struggle with.

Open Hands

Whomever comes in my life now, I try to hold with open hands. I can’t hold onto anyone, and no one can hold onto me.

Life happens, so often. Our journeys switch gears and routes and focus. We change. Our desires change.

But the beauty of how we’re all different means that there are so many ways to be friends, to love each other, to be there for each other.

I don’t have to aim for intimacy every time.

But I can always aim to be kind, to be a good listener, and to make sure I leave people better than how I found them.

Redefining My Priorities

As I learn how to become more healthily detached from people, places, and things, I’m starting to place friendship in a more sober-minded, less exalted place. Friends are important, but they aren’t my panacea for my life’s issues.

This has probably come a deeper sense of self-reliance. I’ve been in a place of forced solitude since I work from home and currently don’t have extra funds to go out.

I’ve also learned to lean on my spiritual support team–which involves entities like angels and guides–tireless beings who are always here for me. I could always lean on them more.

Even though I may only have a few close friends, I feel encouraged to expand who I’m friends with and to keep a looser, open hand.

I want to see people eye-to-eye: not as people to be worshipped because I have some sick friend crush on them; or people to be disdained because they don’t meet my friendship needs.

The equanimity and blessed diversity of friendship.

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A Lenten Season of Self-Kindness

Lent SOMSo I was gonna give up Twitter for Lent.

I never grew up with Lent being a part of my Christian faith journey. Non-denominational, evangelical churches are not about High Church/mainline church traditions, or the Christian calendar, except for Christmas and Easter. I was exposed to Lent while attending a Covenant church in Chicago. The Covenant Church–specifically the Evangelical Covenant Church–is a Swedish offshoot of the Lutheran church. Hello, mainline church.

One time, I gave up chocolate. It was the one year that my co-worker brought into the office Frango Mints chocolates from Marshall Fields. Assorted flavors. Yet I resisted. I have tried to give up cursing. That didn’t really work. I can’t remember how long I lasted. Although, I can say that it’s not necessarily about being successful. No, my inner perfectionist would love to wear a badge of honor that says that I made it through a chocolate-free Lent. From what I understand, it’s more about the forty-day journey of temptation and reliance on God’s power and strength while embracing one’s frailty and humanity.

Or something like that.

After a few years of giving up church of all kinds, I’m back in church, doing a bit of social media for an emerging not-church service on Saturday nights as well as the actual church. Oops. Probably can’t give up Twitter–’tis my (volunteer) job.

But I haven’t tweeted since Tuesday (Mardi Gras), which is fine, I guess. Right now, I’m working on some technical writing and I have to learn about some technology and read pages and pages of text just to write one page of text. And right now, I would be twitter-bitching my way through this, without any sort of response from my followers.

And that’s actually what I want to give up, for good–this need for a response.

I’ve been on Twitter since 2008 (I think?) and it’s exposed some things about me. I have this human flaw, though: I want to connect with other human beings. I have another one: I want to share what’s going on with me. Twitter may or may not let those “flaws” flourish. Lately, I’d say it’s made my humanness feel like it’s a flaw altogether. It’s not.

Within the past six months, I have endured so many excruciatingly painful, dehumanizing events, with increasing intensity and insanity. The cliche of “the dark night of the soul” doesn’t even come close to describing what’s gone on and goes on. It’s more like camping out in the valley of the shadow of death. I’ll be grateful when this indefinite camping trip is over, and I’ll be grateful about how I’m even stronger and more resilient. Oh, I can’t wait for the glory of hindsight. I can see many silver linings which are almost enough to distract me like a toddler is distracted by a shiny object from the godawfulness of life. But I cannot give anymore public dispatches from my time there. As immediately accessible Twitter has been for sharing these things, what has not been healthy for me is taking the abysmal silence that my candor draws at all personally, or taking it at all.

This week, I read an excellent article in the The New York Times, “How to Be a Friend in Deed,” about how people are so godawful at helping people who are in crisis, and how not to be one of those godawful people. And there are so many people who suck at this, more than those who don’t. This confirmed what I experienced in grad school and afterwards. So maybe instead of insanely thinking that people will change their responses, can change. But I can only change so much.

As a writer, I was wondering why I couldn’t convey my suffering in some compelling, actionable way, even as I came to grips that I did need, and still need, help. It’s not just Twitter. It’s even meaningful Facebook groups that are created for this very type of support. I could deconstruct this, especially along racial lines, but there’s nothing that I can do about my melanin count. I could talk about the cult of personality, about popularity, about beauty about how all of these inane things that I have no control over and have nothing to do with me. I continue to drop my bucket into an empty well and hope that somehow, some day, I’ll draw water.

What can I do about it? Share the suffering offline, with way fewer people–probably with as many people that I can count on one hand. I have that many people and I don’t need to expand that number. Keep taking one foot in front of the other, even though almost every day, I see absolutely no point in doing so. Be my own best cheerleader, and be OK with being my own cheerleader, especially when I am alone.

So I’ll be back on Twitter in a bit, because I do need to to bitch about the minutiae and detritus about life, just not my actual life. The transparency that I’ve lead my life with has gotten me more enemies than friends. Transparency is valuable, but costly. And there really is nothing wrong with having a little more opacity, a little more mystery, a little more safety.

Social media can be the worst listener, the most inconsistent therapist, and the flakiest best friend. And it wasn’t always this way. I grew up with this medium throughout my whole adult life (since 1997). Throughout the past two decades, it’s grown increasingly fractured because there are more and more people using it. Sure, it’s an early adopter’s lament.  Still, all that means is that I can use this goofy medium for what it is good for in my life right now: livetweeting shows, learning about all sorts of things, breaking news, watching celebrities self-immolate by their own words, and shooting the shit.

Adjusting those pesky expectations–or not having any at all: this would be my nirvana. Instead of abolishing Twitter for forty days, I can just let it be what it is. I can use Lent as a way to start something new and healthy for myself, as a season of self-inquiry. How can I keep and better value my depth for myself? How can I engender true and safe reciprocity of sharing in healthier ways with better kept boundaries? How can I vanquish the overshare demons? Not to sound like Gwyneth Paltrow, but how I can be more conscious online, instead of just mindlessly typing things?

The past few months have been a long lesson in learning how to be less severe with myself, and then, being less severe with others. And that is good, so very good. It is a goodness I hope to continue to be lead and purified by. This censoring isn’t a deprivation, but a necessary practice and celebration of self-kindness.

If you do practice Lent, I pray it’s one of new-found self-compassion, self-love, and boundless grace.

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