Have you ever been in a situation where things weren’t going well, but no one around you seemed to notice or acknowledge it? I think the high value we place on privacy and autonomy can cause a kind of social paralysis, where we’re not reacting honestly to what’s happening around us. Louis CK has a stand-up bit where he talks about a friend’s teenage country cousin seeing her first destitute homeless person in Manhattan, and how while the man didn’t register to Louie or his friend, the cousin got down on her knees to do a welfare check. The anecdote illustrates Louie’s embarrassment at the cousin’s reaction, and the internal revolt he feels at his own jaded inaction. Don’t we kind of do this a lot as a society? Certainly we can’t help everyone, and we tend to accept what we feel we can’t (or won’t) change. But what about when it comes to the people we’re close to in life, when we see something that doesn’t look right, or sense something’s wrong? It’s a minefield, and I’m not sure how to cross it without something getting blown up. I keep trying, though.
What if a close friend is about to marry someone with whom they’re clearly unhappy, or worse? What if someone you care about is abusing a substance that’s obviously causing problems in their life? Or maybe your best friend is about to make a decision that’s potentially financially ruinous, do you speak up? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about who I want to be in my friendships and how I define the responsibilities of being a close friend. I’ve told you in a previous post about my experience of being totally fucked up, about to fall off a cliff and no one spoke up. I found out later that some friends were afraid to challenge me and found me too defensive to take in their observations. Ugh. That’s definitely not who I want to be. Modeling is a powerful form of learning, and I think it’s the friend community’s job to do so. It all starts with being honest (sensing a theme yet?). How can we possibly, inside the vacuum of ourselves, see our lives clearly? I want to be able to depend on the people (my partner most of all) around me to give me a nudge if I seem to be missing important information. I want to be the kind of friend who looks out for my people, and never lies to them. Yes, this approach has cost me friendships. But I don’t know any other way.
It crystallized for me when I had a friend in a long term relationship where emotional and verbal abuse were occurring. As ever in abusive relationships, the situation deteriorated, and the friend began to hint at episodes where the abuse became physical. I knew my friend to be a staunch defender of her partner, claiming a thousand different excuses for his behavior. She accepted his abuse completely, and her personality began to wither from the pressure of keeping up appearances. I argued with myself for months about what to do, coming to a conclusion when I visualized the worst-case scenario–my friend dead or critically injured by her partner’s violence. The discomfort of living with that very real possibility and knowing I said nothing seemed unbearable. It made the idea of speaking openly about my fears for her safety into a plan. I knew if I didn’t speak up, she may have believed that what her partner was doing to her was ok, even accepted in her circle of friends. Because if no one says anything, aren’t we all in tacit approval?
While in the moment, my friend seemed to accept my feelings and even agree with them, I never heard from her again. I had risked losing the friendship. It came true, and I lived with it. Speaking up and not turning a blind eye toward violence had become a greater priority than maintaining harmony in our friendship. I made honesty in my friendships my practice, from that moment forward.
I just don’t see how we can call ourselves friends if we’re not actively looking out for each other. Being a private person is bullshit. So is not saying anything because you respect peoples’ ability to make their own decisions. I strongly believe that people have an absolute right to do what they like to themselves and their lives. But as a friend, I won’t clear the way for bad decisions, or help obscure dysfunctional situations to make people feel comfortable. Once I’ve spoken my mind, the rest is up to you. It’s your life, after all.