Recently, it has come to my attention that you and I do not see eye to eye on a concern of no small importance to me. Although it has been a long time coming – perhaps our initial shift away from each other arrived much earlier than either one of us would like to admit – I finally must acknowledge the damage that could still happen – that might be happening under our very eyes.
The writer and philosopher C.S. Lewis once proclaimed that friendship begins when we see ourselves in another person: “What! You too? I thought I was the only one.” I recall that moment when you and I first met — that instant of, I think I know something about this person, and I think she knows something about me.
Since that ah-ha moment decades ago, we have shared experiences big and small: we have known happiness, pain, boredom, fear, and, perhaps most importantly, contentment. We have made each other laugh and held each other while we cried. Perhaps to a stranger on the street, we appeared more like The Odd Couple than not — one extroverted, one introverted; one drawn to business, the other to the arts. But underneath those secondary differences, we were certainly much more alike than not, as evidenced by our shared race, gender, age, and class. Additionally, the circumstances of our lives — geography, social circles, and employment — acted as the glue which brought and held us together.
As friendships between women tend to be, ours grew and evolved as our lives changed — we supported each other through professional starts and restarts, marriages, pregnancies, miscarriages, and childbirths. After the sleepless years with colicky newborns came the years of tears and tantrums, then the years of themed birthday parties and even more tears, and now the teenage years, where what were once theoretical considerations of empty nesting suddenly seem so very real. And while our friendship was powerful and, I hope, mutually-rewarding, now that we are in this state of flux, I am beginning to realize that it was not even remotely unique.
What is friendship, after all, if nothing more than convenience and shared lifestyles? On the face of it, it seems obvious, and yet I believe we all go to great lenghts to disprove that notion: we like to believe that we have a “diverse” group of friends — friends with different ethnicities, different skin colors, different sexual orientations. Our friends are geographically diverse or (maybe) socioeconomically diverse. But, at the basest level of human interaction, is it possible that we all want friends who share our worldview? Don’t we want to see in our friends what we believe to be the best in ourselves — namely, our generosity and our adaptability? Our empathy and our kindness? Is that not, ultimately, what draws friends together, the spirit of the yogic “namaste?”
A quick Google search for “friendship” returned 14 synonyms, and at least 6 fully support the idea of friendship as agreement or commonality: camaraderie, comradeship, fellow feeling, understanding, harmony, and unity. This idea might possibly have its roots as early as the Greek philosophers, the idea that “a friend is a single soul dwelling in two bodies,” thus cementing what appears to be a basic tenet of a Western European understanding of friendship: that friends tend to like the same things, think the same way, and view the world similarly.
What happens, then, when a friendship built on convenience and common interests develops an ideological fissure? Nothing about our circumstances has changed. Neither our gender nor our class has changed, and certainly not our race. But our worldview? I think that has changed, and I fear I have made a grave mistake: I have mistaken friendship for blind allegiance. I have mistaken shared experiences for shared beliefs. We have grown through the years, and I believed that we would always grow together. Now that we have grown apart, I am left feeling a bit unmoored.
The problem is that these different outlooks pit us in an argument that seems, to me, akin to arguing whether or not oxygen is necessary for human survival. I understand this particular disagreement to be about something so enormous, with such far-reaching consequences and implications, that to be on opposing sides makes me feel like we have moved to different planets. Can a friendship like ours sustain this level of intense disagreement? Can you forgive me for being righteous? Can I forgive you for being resistant?
I remember a supervisor I had long ago. She was a strong woman in a position of leadership, and she gave me many reasons to admire her. And yet, I found her dogmatic. She seemed unable to acknowledge what I consider a fundamental tenet of leadership: there is no single right way. There are, instead, many ways that might work for some people and in some times, and it is the mark of a true great leader to be able to understand those differences and act accordingly.
I recall that person now, after many years, because she reminds me that no matter how informed humans are, no matter how well-educated, well-read, well-traveled, or experienced, it is both a blessing and a curse that we are forever tethered to a single set of eyeballs through which to see the world for an entire lifetime. We simply cannot poke our eyeballs out and see the world through those of someone else. (Oh, that we could, tho!) No matter how much time I spend reading or thinking about other people’s lives, I still layer my own experiences and limitations on top of those stories. The story is never “theirs,” as the receiver must, in receiving the story, make it his or her own. And, medically-lifesaving transplants aside, it is likewise impossible for humans to exchange hearts for the day, or brains, in order to see “from the inside” what makes another person tick. No matter how much I want you — or anyone — to see the world “my way,” there is no way for me to make that happen. It is neither my right nor my responsibility to change your worldview. You must do that on your own.
Humans are, by definition, extremely selfish and self-absorbed primates. We have evolved to have a greater awareness of other persons, yes, and to feel pain for misery that doesn’t immediately impact us, or to feel fear even in the absence of imminent mortality. But our awareness of others can, by definition, only go so far. There is a point at which our experiences constrain and restrict us even when or even if we try to push beyond them. Of course, it is not easy to acknowledge our limitations in this way. Most of us likely would eschew any understanding of friendship that places our own egos in the foreground. We focus instead on all the things that we do FOR other people: we bring casseroles when someone is ill, we offer to share carpool duties, we pick up the slack at the office. But when we do these things, when we share ourselves in these ways, do we do so because of an assumption that the same will be given to us in return? Do we engage in these socially-acceptable (even socially-mandated) ways of being and living without bothering to seek a true connection to each other? Do we take the time to listen and really hear each other, to know each other as unique souls and not just pawns in our own personal chess games of life?
Part of what unmoors me today is that I feel like you have simply chosen to ignore my latest offerings in this world. In addition to me wanting you to see things “my way,” I also want you to appreciate and recognize all of my newfound opinions and convictions. Even more revealing? I want you to validate them.
I can conjecture why you are resistant to my new ideas—are you fearful? do I force you to examine your own pain? — but at the end of the day, all I know is that I feel pain. I feel pain that someone with whom I have entrusted so much — not just my own physical and emotional well-being but that of my family members — is no longer trustworthy of my ideas, my inspirations, my struggles. And I say that not as an attack on your character, but as the logical result of our current state: how can I trust you with my most basic wishes, desires, and fears when you have already turned away from the changes in myself that I have showed you so far?
But is not my fear of trusting you only problematic of how I myself have unrealistic expectations of our friendship? If I expect you to be grateful for my growth and my changes, don’t I owe you the same courtesies? How can I actively mistrust you yet still expect that you will find me trustworthy? Perhaps you feel abandoned because my views have, in fact, changed to look quite different from your own?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. I am struggling with them today on paper because I have been struggling with them in my head for longer than feels comfortable. We disagree. And in this time of national turbulence, of fake news and echo chambers, I do NOT want to be the person who turns away from disagreement. I want to stay in this uncomfortable space; I want to redefine our friendship. Because while it is true that our past friendship was built on shared experiences, I believe a template for our friendship in the years to come could encompass much more. If ever I had a friend for whom I would fight, you are that friend. Will you fight with me? Will you be grateful for my offerings, while reminding me that I must be grateful for yours?