This isn’t about god or religion, but it’s about life. Today I felt like taking a critical look at some everyday things.
I’m a socially awkward person. Let me just get that out of the way. This is important to know because I recognize that how I act influences how people respond to me. Yet I think what I’m about to talk about is an experience shared by many people, from may perspectives, regardless of their social prowess. I’m talking about that moment when something that’s important to you is dismissed by people you trust, or are learning to trust. It’s that moment when you’re told to be silent. Only some of us know what it’s like to be actively marginalized. Only some of us have been told to our faces that we aren’t good enough or that the things we care about don’t matter. That hurts. However I think all of us, unequivocally, know what it’s like to simply be brushed aside.
For me, the bad feelings that result from having my concerns dismissed have had a tendency to build up because they almost always revolve around the same thing, namely, my inability to recognize a safe audience.
There is a difference between the people we are politely social with and the people with whom we are free to express our political views. There is a difference between the parishioners who sit next to us on the pew, and the friend to whom we express our innermost doubts. The difference is safety. Our friends may not always agree with us, they may in fact challenge our views and beliefs more stridently because they are not an unconcerned stranger, but a self-proclaimed guardian of our well-being. Caring about how a person’s thoughts impact the rest of their lives is part of friendship. Friends bother because they care. We allow our friends to bother us, to probe and ask questions about what we might usually consider private matters, because we know that we are safe with them. They will not use what we have to say against us, to score points or elevate themselves as better human beings. They will not use what they know about our inner world to manipulate or expose us. They will not seek to silence us, but will understand that, most of the time, we say what we say out of need. And they will respect that need. Our friends are the people with whom we are safe.
There are, however, degrees of friendship, and degrees of safety, and I have often struggled to know how my friendships are measured.
I fall for people easily, not just romantically, but platonically too. It took one conversation on a two-hour bus ride for me to be enamored of my partner. It takes only a couple conversations for me to think of people as friends. Part of this is because I don’t really know how to small talk. When I say ‘conversation,’ what I often mean is, ‘bi-lateral conference on the state of the Western world,’ ‘ruminations on spirituality as it relates to trends in American church membership,’ or ‘treatise on gender-neutral child-rearing.’ These are the kinds of conversations I have with people, and after about two of them, I consider the participants to be friends. This isn’t always a good move. In fact, as I skim over the words I’ve just written, I wonder why this strategy hasn’t backfired more.
Still, it’s not enough to be my ‘friend.’ You become a ‘good friend’ when I share myself with you. You are a good friend when I expand the conversation beyond the academic argument I’ve had waiting in the wings for just this occasion, and get personal. When I move beyond ‘ruminations on spirituality’ and tell you not only that I don’t go to church, but about the heart-clenching awkwardness I feel at every Friday night family worship, you are a good friend. When I move beyond ‘gender-neutral child-rearing’ and tell you about how the oversexualization of adolescent relationships meant that I–a tom boy–had all my close friends driven away from me by teasing and significant glances from older children, and adults, who couldn’t grasp that our friendship was simply friendship, you are a good friend. When I stop dredging up statistics about race and start to tell you how I was surrounded by girls in the locker room and had my hair patted despite me telling them to stop, and how sometimes I still hate my hair, and wonder if I might have a better sense of self I’d lived in a place where people looked like me, then, we are good friends.
But sometimes I tell these things too soon. I fall fast. I fall for interesting minds and good speech. I fall for the friends of friends I’ve already made. I fall for people I want to fall for me.
It is often when I have fallen too fast, when I have opened up too much or revealed more than the relationship requires that I am told to be silent. It’s usually not that pointed though.
I shared a video that meant a lot to me with those girls I’d just been at that party with. One said she didn’t like the style of music. Another shrugged. A third said, in more words, that it seemed like an unnessary specialty project. Three minutes of boring music to them was months of disappointment and bitterness for me, because the wounds surrounding the topic of video were still fresh, and I’m not a quick healer.
When David and I lived with his relatives I spoke without my race-filter for weeks before I realized that marriage ties did not make our shared home a safe space for me to air my feelings. “I’ve never heard anyone talk so much about race until you moved into this house,” she said. “I don’t want to think about it. I just want to treat everyone the same.” Good for you, I thought. But we’re not the same, we have different struggles and experiences and now I know you don’t care to even think about mine.
Let it go. What’s the big deal? I didn’t see the point. Um…okay. Yeah, whatever you say. All phrases that add up to a plea for silence when what we desire from those we call ‘friend’ is to be heard.
The problem with falling fast is that it’s dangerous. Falling fast often means circumventing safe-gaurds and leaping over boundaries that were originally set up to protect us from overexposing ourselves to others before we have determined they are deserving of our trust. I’ve had fantastic luck with falling fast, but there is always the risk that I may open up myself too soon, and share too much with people who aren’t safe, who will use what I say to score points, who won’t respect my need to say it, and who do not guard my well-being.
I cannot choose how I feel about people. I love them. And after two good conversations I might very well love you too. However, I can choose how I behave. I may fall fast, but I’m not without a parachute, and that parachute is time. It’s not the fault of those girls that that party that they didn’t like my video. I had only known them a couple weeks, and the timing wasn’t exactly the ideal. It’s not the fault of David’s relative that I let my guard down too soon, or chucked my filter too fast. The deep disappointment I felt in those moments was–as disappointment usually is–the result of unrealistic expectations. Wanted the girls to like me. I wanted to be open and unfiltered with my new relative because I thought that’s what our relationship was supposed to be like. But people aren’t elements we can bend to our expectations. Some people fall fast, some people fall slow, some people never fall at all, and sometimes we connect with people on planes that are completely unexpected. We cannot always predict how relationships will progress, but we can set healthy boundaries, and realistic expectations. We can open our parachute and enjoy the view as we land. ♦