And so here we are at the point when I am finally asserting that when it comes to friendships, you have to be as fussy as with romantic partners. Man, I have been through so much “fun”, and way too many games!
There is a big difference though with romantic partners. Evaluating romantic partners is relatively straightforward. This is especially true if you find yourself in a situation where you can reliably get to know lots of potential romantic partners in a non-romantic context. However trying to evaluate potential friends has been for me a logistical nightmare.
Just say no?
This is what makes evaluating romantic partners relatively straightforward. You just say “no”! If anyone expresses any romantic, or potentially romantic interest in your life before you have reliably assessed their character, you just diplomatically turn them down. Also, you are only “auditioning” for one position in your life, in that you are only looking for just one spouse. However, with friendships the situation is so much more nuanced. Obviously you are not looking for just one friend. Different people could possibly fit into your life in one complex intermingled jumble, like a mosaic, but fluid, with boundaries constantly changing, growing, shrinking and interactions with different friends overlapping and influencing one another. Trying to juggle so many people in friendship is a lot more complex than only having to deal with one person romantically, although of course romantic relationships have more than enough complexities of their own! Some people have written whole blogs about them!
Furthermore, if you turn someone down romantically, it is quite open and shut. Someone either is your romantic partner or interest – or they are not! Not so with friendships! Just because someone might not be what you are looking for in a best friend does not mean that you cannot be friends with them at all; there are different levels of friendship. There might be someone with whom you don’t think it appropriate to have any kind of friendship at all. And yet that still does not mean that you cannot be friendly towards them: be kind, be polite, acknowledge them as human beings. And yet there are some people where even this is not appropriate. I’m not talking about Mr TDA. After all, there I have desperately tried to make amends! Rather I am talking about people whose character has been so uncompelling that it is not prudent to even try to demonstrate the slightest friendliness towards them. So there are so many potential levels of friendship, and any one person could potentially fit into your life on any one of those levels.
So this then has been my huge difficulty with friendships. OK, let’s acknowledge that we are going to “two year” our friends the same way we “two year” romantic interests. What does that mean in practice while we are still “two yearing” someone? What level of friendliness can we reliably demonstrate? How about when we have reliably assessed someone? What then is appropriate to show them in friendship?
To be honest, even just analysing it like this makes it seem so simple:
Firstly work out a general level of friendliness that you can offer everyone “for free” without making yourself feel too vulnerable, or needing anyone to reciprocate. Offer this to people while you are still getting to know them. After you have reliably found out someone’s values and character, work out whatever level of friendship that individual could belong to in your life, and then treat them accordingly!
And yet I have been so confused by this issue in the past. And I have not always made the right decision. It has taken me a while to truly appreciate that there are nuances of friendship and even friendliness. In my not too distant past I was just too trigger happy about disposing of people altogether from my life and “unfriending” them when they annoyed me. Back then it was all or nothing. Now it is so clear that someone might never be destined to be my best friend, and yet I can still congratulate them on their birthday, I can still send them good wishes whenever something positive happens in their life. Now with the benefit of hindsight I know that I would not have “unfriended” the vast majority of people that I did unfriend. And you know what? Even as I was unfriending those people I knew the time would come when I would look back on those “unfriendings” with regret. And yet I felt so emotionally weak then. It was as if I had to prune those friendships for the sake of my own emotional strength, even for sheer survival. That said, there are still some people that I would unfriend, even block, for the sake of sheer prudence.
Well this one paragraph has completely upended my whole argument for this post, which was going to be about how difficult it is to manage this whole friendship thing! (Because thinking of it this way, it seems kinda straightforward!) In fact, I had already drafted out a further paragraph about how awkward it is to negotiate friendships…*
An argument I can definitely maintain in this post though is that I believe that we should be extremely fussy with our close friends, almost ridiculously fussy, just as I believe that we should be fussy with our potential spouses, admitting though the proviso that we should not reject people altogether just because they cannot be our closest friends.
With spouses, we only need to find one outstanding individual. And to be honest, even finding even that one outstanding individual is apparently close to impossible. So to find a whole group of people to be your circle of friends who are all living at this outstanding level of character is…hard. But you know what, I’ve reached the point where I am just fed up. If insisting on outstanding character and pursuit of Christlikeness from my closest friends means that I have to remain “friends-single” regarding close friendships just as I am chronically “relationship-single” then so be it. Why is this? As with marriage, I think it is unrealistic and in fact unbiblical for any of us to think of a close friendships as somewhere where we will be doing all the giving but not needing anything back in return. This is a close friendship precisely because I will need to make huge withdrawals from it, even as I plan to invest hugely into it. And just as with marriages, in exactly the same way, if we are not sufficiently fussy about our friends, then we will not be able to make the big withdrawals that we need to make from those friendships. Or we might make huge withdrawals, but they do not really nourish us as individuals the way we need to be nourished.
It is not selfish to say that physically speaking, “I am a human being, my body needs food.” In fact, it is only by adequately nourishing my body and getting enough sleep and water that I can serve other people and serve God the way I should. So in the same way, it is not selfish for me to say that emotionally I need external wisdom and encouragement that originate from outside myself. For me to be able to function most effectively for society, for my family, for my God and for myself I need to nourish my body and myself physically and emotionally with good wholesome food, not junk food. Some friendships are junk food friendships; they weaken us from being the best we can be. This is why we have to insist on nourishing our souls with the most wholesome of friendships, to be the best that we have been called to be.
This is why we have to recognise our “junk-food” friends, and recognise that there can be no true nourishment to our souls from deep interaction with these people, even as we seek to still be friendly towards them and show them the love of Christ. We can invest as much into their lives as we can afford, as we think prudent, but all the same we should know that if we tried to nourish ourselves from these friendships, we would just be reaping a harvest of junk food. Some of these people are even highly toxic, and would only poison us with their attitudes, their anger, their negativity, their self-centredness. You would not eat poison just because there was nothing else in your cupboard, would you?! Rather, you would go hungry. So if we were to invest our time and effort with the hope of ever being able to get back that support and encouragement which is in no way a luxury for any of us but rather desperately necessary, it is only ever prudent to do this with the most outstanding people with beautiful character who can truly help us to grow in excellence. Otherwise it is better to go “hungry”. Crucially, unlike poison, human beings can change their fundamental nature and someone previously toxic can become sweet and genuinely nourishing. However, it takes time. The question is where someone will be in terms of their character when I need to need to make a big withdrawal from the friendship and I need to find myself nourished by their character. If they are not yet at a place where their character can sustain me then I will need friends who are there , even if these first ones are growing as fast as they can in the right direction. Remember that this is not being selfish, or even self-righteous. This is just a pragmatic statement of fact, which is as ultimately unremarkable as it is to say that my body needs food.
So I’ve finally found someone who is clearly super-excelling in terms of character! Hallelujah! A close friend at last! What if that same someone evaluates me and thinks that I am not good enough for their friendship?! What if they can point to huge glaring gaps in my character, and say “Tosin, I’m not convinced that your character is sufficiently excellent, that you are truly pursuing Christ as much as you say you are”? (Gulp!) I hope that in that scenario I would be able to point out factors of my life, and identify the fruits of the consistent pursuit of excellence in my life that has now spanned at least a decade and a half. I hope that they would be persuaded by that. But ultimately, if I really respect someone and they refuse to be persuaded about the sincerity of my character, what can I do? I can only release them and wish them the best in life and move on.
Churches and church related things are my ongoing headache regarding this issue. I simply have not been able to work out a way of evaluating a church or pastor without actually making myself subject to that church or pastor by attending the church. This seems to be the nature of church – that that first time you walk into a gathering literally on a wing and a prayer. This means that you are so vulnerable to whoever they might turn out to be or whatever character they might truly cultivate behind all that fluent “Christianese” and those endless smiles. However, just as with relationships, this character only tends to reliably reveal itself after some considerable time has elapsed, when you might already have made significant investments into the church, for instance of time, effort and money (investments which you definitely would not have made if you had known that ultimately, they would turn out to be “not all that”). The one thing I have learned regarding church is that the single most important person to evaluate is the pastor. If there is a way to reliably “two year” a pastor that anyone can think of, without actually having to attend their church, then please share it in the comments!
* A now redundant paragraph?! [It is as awkward as learning to speak a brand new language when you have been fluent in another language for your entire life. Actually, it is even more awkward, because when you are learning a new language at least someone will tell you what the rules are. Here you have to determine for yourself what the rules are or should be, which in practice often means constantly re-evaluating, re-assessing, re-thinking and re-calibrating rules which you have only just defined for yourself. In a way it often seems easier to stick with decisions or “rules” that you know to be flat-out wrong or wholly inadequate than to keep yourself in this state of constant mental turmoil.]