Accra Might Just Have a Sound Problem

When I first interrupted my schedule to write bullet points down for what would become this very blog post, I was sitting in the outdoor space of a very bougie café in Accra. Aesthetically, my surroundings were serene, full of enough vegetation to fill a garden. The little ornamentations from various cultures and eras should have seemed mismatched, but they came together well to form an artsy and antique vibe that ought to have inspired any patron to tap deeply into a sense of peace and calm. But from inside, where the confections display and the coffee machine were situated, employees of this establishment were jamming loudly to aggressively energetic Afrobeats music.

On any other day, this might have been just another personal annoyance. On this day, however, it was a struggle to hold myself back either from breaking down into tears or breaking out into screams. I held myself together and did neither. Instead, I spent a few minutes looking around and wondering if I was insane.

Somewhere to my left, another patron was deep in concentration, working on what I imagined to be some academic assignment. She alternated studiously between her laptop and a fat textbook with a level of focus I could only aspire to. She didn’t seem to have any qualms with the café’s music, aggravating my anxiety that perhaps my inability to function amidst sonic distraction was a personal deficiency. Then again, she had headphones on—probably serving her with whatever sounds she’d curated to help, rather than hinder, her own productivity. An effective strategy, except for those of us whose generative ability relies often on silence.

Natural preference for silence aside, circumstances within my household had cultivated within me, over the course of maybe a year, a nearly visceral abhorrence for too-loud music. A member of my household—one with admittedly deep psychological issues—had adopted a habit of blasting music on their unfortunately formidable loudspeaker at thought-drowning levels throughout their waking hours.

By the time I found myself at the bougie café, I had already spent at least one year trying to figure out how to do basic things such as sleep at night, nap in the daytime due to lack of sleep in the night-time, wake up at dawn to get writing done before work, and more, while loud music disrupted all my attempts to do these things. In seasons when I wasn’t required to go to an office, I found myself needing places to go every day—a café, a friend’s place—to get work done or otherwise preserve my sanity. And so every time I left my house to escape the noise, only to be met once more with noise, it inspired in a me a violent desire to yell, cry, or strangle someone.

The day I went to the bougie café was one of those days that I started out with no intentions to leave the house (or spend money, for that matter), but I had to do so anyway, due to unbearable frustration with the sonic terrorism in my house. I wanted a quiet space to think and write, and thus decided to place myself in a serene environment.

Only to be met with aesthetically incongruous, louder-than-necessary Afrobeats music.

The bougie café in question has actively marketed itself as somewhere people can go to work and concentrate. Visually, they’ve created a unique, conducive environment to do just that. Sonically, however—particularly on the day I was losing my mind—I feared they had lost the plot somewhat.

I was near tears as I called an employee’s attention and asked for the music to be turned down. Guilt for ruining someone else’s good time warred with the thought that as a paying customer, I had at least some right to say something if the environment wasn’t allowing me to achieve what I came there—and spent money—to do.

My heart rate, which had been building up to anxiety attack levels, slowed back down once the waiter fulfilled my request, and I finally had the presence of mind to write. And instead of working on the fiction piece I’d intended to tackle, I started to write this. Because I am truly concerned that Accra might have a sound problem. Or several.

City vs. Culture

Accra is obviously a city and as such, is plagued with the sounds of one. Since being traumatized by the situation in my household, I’ve become hypersensitive to the fact that Accra is rarely, if ever, quiet. There are bars in the night-time, construction work in the daytime, street preachers in the early morning, traffic in the afternoons and evenings, sounds from a primary school’s assembly at the top of the day, and do not get me started on the seemingly countless churches.

While it may be true that cities are generally louder than villages, suburbs and countrysides, I think there are certain things that are peculiar to Accra because of the culture of its people and what we allow to be considered normal. On an individual and social level, we do not pay critical attention to sound, and we treat sound culture with a nonchalance that gives birth to various types of dissonance and cacophony, both of which we continue not to care about as they are happening.

Sonic Mismatch

One type of dissonance is the case of the visual aesthetic not matching the sonic aesthetic.

In the past year, a new Mexican restaurant opened up in Labone. I have since patronized it once. (I still have not forgiven it for taking the spot of my formerly favorite café in the area, but that is another story.) I had ordered food by phone and was arriving to pick it up. Once I left my car, I was struck by sound much more powerfully than by sight. A DJ had set up station in the outdoor seating area, and was playing some of Afrobeats’ latest, greatest hits. Just like they might be doing in any other regular eatery in Accra.

But as soon as I stepped into the restaurant proper, it was obvious that this wasn’t any other regular eatery in Accra. I was impressed by the striking, distinctive Mexican-themed decor. Vibrant, consistent, and excellent for visual and aesthetic marketing. The playlist immediately struck me as blatantly incongruous. The next thought that followed was: I’m probably the only person in here who even gives a damn about sonic congruity. The waiters who weren’t busy at the moment—and even some who were—were having the time of their lives to the DJ’s set.

While the employees’ joy was entertaining to witness, I considered how much more impressed I would have been if the first sounds I ever heard from this Mexican restaurant were some dangerously sexy Spanish guitar riffs. It wouldn’t have to be Mariachi music. It wouldn’t even have to be strictly Mexican. If I’d walked in to Snow tha Product spitting bars over the speakers, or even the delightful weirdness of Rosalía, my mind would have been blown. I allowed myself to consider that maybe this particular DJ was there by special request for an anomalous event, and that maybe if I came on another day, there would be evidence of equal effort put into the curation of sound as to the visual and culinary themes. Alas, due in part to lack of funds, I haven’t been back since.

On the day I nearly lost my mind in the bougie café, it wasn’t just the volume that got to me. It was also the fact that the music wasn’t making sense according to the visual environment nor to the reasons the patrons were there. A cursory glance around the place would show you people looking intently into laptops or books, or talking to each other. There are places in Accra we go to jam, and this café was never designed to be one of them.

It seems to me that various new and bougie establishments in Accra are throwing a lot of energy into being visually attractive and Instagrammable, and may not be throwing nearly enough energy into sonically aligning with their own chosen brand/vibe, or the needs of their clientele.

Another type of dissonance is the case of sonic interludes actively disrupting the current or appropriate emotional energy.

As a poetry lover and performer, I have personal beef with DJs who do not pay attention to vibe and context when playing for events like poetry shows or album launches. It just doesn’t make sense for me to be regaled with some heartfelt original track about daddy issues and, sandwiched between that and the next emotionally packed performance about re-learning how to breathe post-trauma, the DJ is regaling me with a track about what some guy will do if he catches some girl’s backside. When I hear a devastating poem about sexual exploitation, I want to have the minute before the next poem to just digest and meditate on the content I just consumed. But the DJ will choose that moment to disrupt my emotional processing by playing some dancehall track that the current context simply will not allow me to enjoy.

Imagine what it would be like if we curated the sound accompanying our events—with the informed cooperation of the DJs working that event—to actually fit the event? Imagine a culture in which sound workers found it an exciting challenge to pick the next most appropriate song based on the mood after a performance. Imagine what would happen if it was normal for sound workers to think on their feet and be as creative as they possibly can because they enjoy the work they are (hopefully!) getting paid for and want to dutifully serve the people they are responsible for entertaining.

There are some experiences that would be more immersive and emotionally congruent if we attached greater care and creativity to the music we choose to play, and where, and when.

The Louder, the Litter

A few months ago, I visited my friend in Mamprobi, and on (or around) the same street, there were four different churches, all of which all seemed to be in competition over who could be the most obnoxiously loud on the same night. Perhaps each wanted to show the others that their congregation was the most turnt that night. (I thought of this as a joke, but, you know, I wouldn’t put it past them.) Dreadful cacophony.

In my experience, if any city at all can give Accra a run for its money, it has to be Kumasi, at least on a weekend. Good luck trying to convince me that I won’t find a new funeral after every twenty steps in that city on any given Saturday. But here is the weirder thing: based on my observation, the idea of a loudspeaker system operating at balanced levels is utterly unacceptable. The preacher isn’t spewing the word of God until he’s screeching so hard that the mic is giving feedback, and you can’t pick out a single individual word from the sonic slush besides “Hallelujah!” and “Amen!” The four-person worship team isn’t worshipping well enough until there is literal distortion occurring on an otherwise perfectly good sound system. You will hear the sounds of a stadium-sized megachurch, and upon investigating the source of the sound, discover it to be a single room whose congregation is less than eighty people. There seems to be only one rule for the mixer or DJ (if there is one on duty): make everything louder.

In both Accra and Kumasi, we have very warped ideas of appropriate levels. To some extent, I would imagine it is because many people in charge of sound are not particularly trained to handle sound. Not everyone who knows songs also knows the technicalities of operating a complicated mixer. But beyond that, it’s the culture. We have become used to everything always being loud, and so that has become the accepted, unquestioned way to do sound. If it ain’t loud, it ain’t lit.

Zoning is also a problem. Because even the areas that are meant to be residential aren’t immune from the churches, restaurants and bars. It does not seem to be built into our culture to consider whether people will be trying to unwind or to sleep when we feel like screaming to a deity whom we apparently assume to be hard of hearing. And I am certain the seven people at a certain restaurant on a weeknight do not need the music turned up as though a dance party of hundreds is taking place. I have to wonder if the people running such establishments want to create the illusion that their venues are several times busier than they truly are at a given moment.

Public/Personal Border Erosion

I go swimming semi-regularly at a sports complex in Accra. The outdoor pool area is fitted with loudspeakers, which are always on when I go swimming. The playlist is never updated, and I suspect it is one single USB that is never removed from its port because nobody cares enough. You can hear the music as soon as you walk into the complex. You can hear it when you are lounging in the pool chairs, and even when you are underwater.

One day, I was training as usual, and a young man showed up with his own portable loudspeaker. Music was already playing on the complex’s sound system, but even so, this young man saw fit to turn up his own music over it. He placed his portable speaker at the pool’s edge when he was in the water, and beside his pool chair when he was out of it. For as long as I remained at the complex, I was forced to listen to hip-hop that did not appeal to me, and which clashed on multiple levels with the Afrobeats blaring from the complex’s speakers.

I was struck with true, genuine wonder, that anyone of sound mind could go out in public, into a facility that other people were also paying to use, and take it for granted that a) everyone else wouldn’t mind listening to whatever it was he liked to listen to, and b) that even if there was already loud music playing in this communal area, there was nothing wrong with playing more loud music, simply because he felt like it. The sheer bafflement was so great that it stopped me from walking over to have a conversation about sonic etiquette and common sense. I simply could not believe it was happening.

A couple of months ago, on a flight back to Ghana after a writing workshop, I sat, among several other returning Ghanaians, at the boarding gate in Ethiopia’s Bole International Airport. My flights were red-eyes, and having had very little sleep on my first flight—which had taken off at midnight—I was looking forward to dozing off during my layover at Addis Ababa. Despite the gross discomfort of boarding gate seating, my efforts were proving almost successful, until a middle-aged Ghanaian gentleman seated at the same gate decided that he was in the mood for throwback pop music. This meant that for the remainder of my layover, I—and everyone else at this section of the boarding gate—was subjected to a soundtrack consisting of Destiny’s Child, Sean Paul, Mariah Carey, Nelly and the like, from this gentleman’s oddly loud smartphone. Mind you, this occurred between the hours of five and seven-thirty in the morning, when the airport itself hadn’t fully decided to be awake.

Even on a personal level, consideration of other people’s volume/sound preferences just isn’t embedded into our culture. People play their personal sounds on speaker mode, without particular concern about disturbing anybody else. You do what you want with your volume first, and then if there’s anybody who has a problem with it, the onus is apparently on them to tell you to adjust your volume, whereas good etiquette would have things the other way round. I haven’t been able to figure out why Accra’s culture is like this.

A friend was recently telling me that their South African friend, faced with the country’s load-shedding challenges, had resolved to get a generator. In order to do so, this person was required to write to the manager of the property/estate to inform the neighbors and ensure that they were comfortable with the level of noise that the new generator would surely produce. I heard that and thought to myself, “Wow. What a concept!”


A Few Things About Suicide

This post has been sitting in my WordPress drafts for maybe 2 years now. Something must have triggered me to want to address certain misconceptions on this issue. However, since I composed most of these notes so long ago, I can no longer remember what the trigger was.

I’m drawing from personal experience here, so it should go without saying that I do not speak definitively for everyone who’s ever had a suicidal thought.

Here are my observations:

Suicide makes sense in the mind of the depressed-suicidal.

In my experience, it is quite a grave mistake to think that a depressed-suicidal brain is operating on the very same logic/reasoning that the same person’s healthy (i.e. not-depressed) brain operates on. The reality is, they may be on completely different poles. The healthy version of me thinks back to the depressed-suicidal version of me and simply cannot understand why she was so close to voluntarily leaving this world. On the other hand, the depressed-suicidal version of me could not remember at all what it was like when she was healthy; when the thought of suicide would have seemed completely uncalled-for. It is like my healthy and mentally ill selves are two different people.

If someone’s suicidal tendencies don’t make sense to you, I think it would be wise to consider that healthy and mentally ill minds work very differently, before you pass judgment or try to use logic to change a suicidal person’s thoughts (that is, when you aren’t a mental health professional yourself).

I know, from experience also, that suicide, to the depressed-suicidal brain, can continue to make sense and look like a viable option even if a person has experienced first-hand grief from someone else’s suicide. In the middle of the deepest grief, when depression is also playing a role, you can be as stricken and as horrified as ever by a loved one’s death and still think, “Yes, I understand why they did what they did. I’d have done it too.”

Suicide is often a lot more selfless than it is selfish, at least to the depressed-suicidal brain.

One of the most popular arguments against suicide is that it’s such a selfish move on the part of the committer. But in the mind of the depressed-suicidal, getting rid of themselves is literally the best thing they can imagine themselves doing for their loved ones and, perhaps, for themselves. It may seem, to them, better for their loved ones if they weren’t there at all than to be there and be a constant source of disappointment; or a drain on money and resources; or a person who simply cannot find it in them ever to do what their loved ones expect of them.

There’s another way suicide may not be selfish: when the self-centered problems may not be the only problems driving an individual to feel the way they do. One may be driven towards suicide by a hopelessness about the world in general.

I often hear people argue along the lines of, “Other people have it worse than you.” While that would almost certainly be true, it only reinforces the ugliness of the world that someone else would even have to live in so many worse conditions than the suicidal person does. So the knowledge that others have it worse does not necessarily decrease a suicidal person’s willingness to die; in fact, it may do just the opposite.

(Just as an aside, I think it’s its own type of sickness to expect demand that someone be grateful because of someone else’s suffering. I can see where it comes from, but to me, it reflects a profound lack of human empathy.)

Suicide isn’t quite always an attempt to solve any problems. Instead, it may be what happens when one feels that there aren’t any solutions.

Another anti-suicide cliché goes along the lines of “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Well. Sometimes, in the mind of the depressed-suicidal, the problem isn’t quite temporary at all. Or at least, it’s only as temporary as the span of their own life. But the thing is, many suicidal people aren’t actually looking to use killing themselves as a solution to a problem. Resorting to suicide may be an acknowledgement that there aren’t any solutions to their problems. And if there aren’t solutions, it can make all the sense in a world to a depressed-suicidal brain that they might as well not keep dealing with the problems at all.



Thoughts on Friendship, Crisis, Trauma, and Need

Note #1: No matter how many times I have tried to rewrite this piece, it always comes out sounding theoretical and abstract, and I think I have to accept that I may not have enough skill to express my thoughts on this topic in any simpler form.

Note #2: I’ve found myself unable to speak on this theme without heavy reference to The Four Loves, by C.S. Lewis. It’s one of the best books I have ever read and what I’ve found inside it, I’ve never found anywhere else. I quote and reference it so much not because it gave me my ideas, but because I was the first time I found my ideas on this theme reflected back at me in extraordinarily coherent form.

There’s a popular narrative about Friendship that is centred on the idea of “being there for” someone/each other. Often, the connotation is that one’s availability during someone else’s crisis is not only the ultimate test of their friendship, but the essential reason for that friendship in the first place. It makes me uncomfortable. It’s like we’ve reduced the concept of a friend to “the person I can go to when (something in) my world is falling apart,” and if any other benefits come with that fundamental service, that’s just a happy accident. A logical conclusion from this would be that the fundamental pillars of friendship are directly related to crisis, or trauma, or usefulness. (Here, I mean “usefulness” in the sense that is closest to “utilitarian”— the idea that you must be able to provide some practical service to someone for your friendship to be valuable.)

I can definitely see how the “friend = someone who’s there for you” narrative is useful—but more often lately, I have been preoccupied with the ways it is not. It’s not that I see no truth in it. My issue is that this should not be considered the fundamental aspect of Friendship.

I think the key tenet of a healthy friendship is something I’ve chosen to call “That Which is Shared,” a thing I find even harder to properly define than C.S. Lewis did. It’s that thing (or several things) that friends share which makes them “kindred.” A thing that is largely external to the personhood of those friends, but which, nevertheless, becomes the bonding factor between them. I don’t think friendship should fundamentally be about service, or need to/for each other, but instead, about that connection. And I think, at least based on personal experience, that the over-emphasis on service/need is what makes many friendships fail.

There is a whole host of Friendship-adjacent phenomena that are often confused for Friendship itself. Among them are Affection, Companionship, and Alliance. Every single one of these either can or ought to be part of the “matrix of Friendship,” but if a friendship is to be built or maintained on a healthy foundation, I believe that none of them must overshadow That Which is Shared.

Take Affection. Loosely speaking, Affection is a feeling of fondness towards another. Emphasis on the word “feeling.” Another type of love that is reliant on feeling is Eros (erotic love). Loosely speaking, Eros is a feeling of intense romantic/sexual attraction towards another. Friendship, however, is not a type of love that is defined by one’s feelings for a person. Certainly, friends may naturally feel affection for each other, but this is not the same thing as Friendship itself. And while friends can love each other erotically and erotic partners can be friends, Eros, Affection and Friendship are still different types of love. For anyone who wants to better understand why I say so, even while I acknowledge that it’s rare for the individual types of love to exist in isolation, I strongly suggest reading The Four Loves. For now, though, here’s my clarification: A feeling of affection towards a person does not automatically make them your friend. Conversely, in the absence of any particular feeling of affection, a friend does not suddenly cease to be a friend. The reason: Friendship is based on That Which is Shared, not on feelings. (And That Which is Shared is generally external to the individuals’ own personhood.)

Deep down, we know this. We know that friendship requires something more than, or other than, “I like you.” That is how come we know to put emphasis on the importance of finding things to “bond” over. Affection, Eros, and other types of personal attractions operate on the basis of “I like you” or “We like each other.” Friendship, however, operates on the basis of “We both like this thing.”

Say, for instance, that someone is kind. That quality is integral to who they are—part of their person—and may attract you towards them. It may make you like them. But it’s not a bonding factor. It’s great as an attracting factor, but attracting factors are not necessarily the things that make one think, “My God. This person and I are kindred spirits.”

An illustration of “I like you” love vs. “We both like this thing” love.

For Companionship, think along the lines of people whom you share space with, usually because you engage in the same activity. For instance, imagine I keep meeting a certain person in a particular dining hall at 7:30 a.m. because we both have 8 a.m. classes. We see each other so much that it becomes established routine that we eat breakfast together at 7:30 a.m. We keep each other company, maybe even walk to our respective classes together afterwards, until the point where our routes diverge. We are companions, which does not necessarily make us friends. Here’s what my man Lewis has to say about Companionship and Friendship:

“Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden).”

(Lewis, 1960, p. 83)

So imagine, one day during breakfast, that Doctor Who comes up in conversation, and it turns out that, not only are we both fans of the show, but we like it for the same reasons, are biased towards the same incarnation of the Doctor, and are superficially confused as to why our favorite Doctor isn’t everyone’s favorite Doctor. You see, the more we have in common (i.e., That Which is Shared), the more material there is on which to base our friendship.

The Doctor Who example is fairly shallow, which I think makes the illustration a bit easier to understand. But That Which is Shared can also be several layers more abstract than one’s disposition towards a TV show. The thing that makes people feel like kindred spirits may be the fact that they have common ideas of what justice entails; or who/what God is; or their specific interests in the ways race intersects with class. That Which is Shared is fundamentally a question about how the Friends relate to “truths” that are individually important to them. To reference Lewis again, the thing that binds is more internal, more intangible, than outwardly obvious. It’s not even a “Do you see the same truth?” as much as a “Do you care about the same truth?” And that interest in the same questions is a binding factor, regardless of whether the friends in question agree about the answers (Lewis, 1960, p. 84).

Now, on to Alliance, the most important for me to disentangle, because my frustration at the conflation between this and Friendship is what motivated me to write this in the first place. “Alliance,” here, is the word I am using to refer to the type of service we might expect from those who are important to us in times of trauma, crisis, or times of need. For this one, I’m going straight to quotation:

“A Friend will, to be sure, prove himself to be also an ally when alliance becomes necessary; will lend or give when we are in need, nurse us in sickness, stand up for us among our enemies, do what he can for our widows and orphans. But such good offices are not the stuff of Friendship. The occasions for them are almost interruptions. They are in one way relevant to it, in another not. Relevant, because you would be a false friend if you would not do them when the need arose; irrelevant, because the role of benefactor always remains accidental, even a little alien, to that of Friend. It is almost embarrassing. For Friendship is utterly free from Affection’s need to be needed. We are sorry that any gift or loan or night-watching should have been necessary — and now, for heaven’s sake, let us forget all about it and go back to the things we really want to do or talk of together. Even gratitude is no enrichment to this love. The stereotyped ‘Don’t mention it’ here expresses what we really feel. The mark of perfect Friendship is not that help will be given when the pinch comes (of course it will), but that, having been given, it makes no difference at all. It was a distraction, an anomaly. It was a horrible waste of the time, always too short, that we had together. Perhaps we had only a couple of hours in which to talk and, God bless us, twenty minutes of it has had to be devoted to affairs!”

(Lewis, 1960, p. 89)

I think it could change a lot about how we relate to each other if popular discourse chose to emphasize That Which is Shared as the definition of Friendship, as opposed to “who is there for whom.”

I’ve been worried lately that I’ve accidentally developed some sort of saviour complex. For nearly a decade now, nearly all of my relationships with individuals I have referred to as my best friends have felt like rescue missions, where, more often than not, I feel like I’ve been placed in the role of the rescuer. (Don’t get me wrong—sometimes, my primary expectations of my friends have put them in inappropriate rescuer roles as well.)

The thing that defined these relationships is, I think, what happens when the function of Alliance is allowed to overshadow everything else—the kinship, the shared things, the regular old joy of platonic connection. The result is often a type of co-dependency. In these relationships, I was not playing—or feeling—the role of a friend often enough. Instead, closer role descriptions would fall in the park range of therapist, parent, babysitter, medical professional, or Christ himself. In retrospect, it’s no wonder at all that these “friendships” failed.

This year, I have been forced, by circumstances in my life, to consider that maybe my consecutive rescue mission friendships have created a pattern that I had started to follow without thinking, like muscle memory. That maybe I had begun to unconsciously gravitate towards people I felt “needed” me, for reasons beyond the basic, yet beautiful, tenet of Friendship. I have been forced to ask myself why I feel such a strong sense of responsibility to solve problems that are not mine to solve, but rather those of a professional, a guardian, or the troubled individuals themselves. And then, even when I act on this sense of responsibility, I have had to ask myself why it leaves me feeling so exhausted, so unbalanced, and so unfulfilled in the thing I am calling a friendship.

But this—the point of this whole essay—is why: Because when it comes to my idea of Friendship, I have been focused on the wrong fundamental things, attached to a misconception.

When a friendship becomes centred on crisis, need and trauma, what happens to the friendship in the absence of those things? If the friendship is based on That Which is Shared, the friendship ought to get healthier in the absence of crisis and trauma. If the relationship was, in fact, based on those dependencies, however, in the absence of them, the relationship fizzles out and disappears, perhaps forever, or perhaps until the next dependency arises. And that, my dears, is not Friendship. It is something else entirely. (And this, by the way, is not a value judgement. I’m not saying that being someone’s helper is either better or worse than being their friend; I’m just saying that being someone’s helper is a different sort of relationship from friendship.)

To be very clear, at the expense of repetitiveness: It’s not like friends have no responsibility whatsoever to each other in times of trauma, crisis, and need. However, this ought not to be their primary function as friends.

The process of realizing this, even cognitively, has been like therapy for myself. But, thanks to the power of habit, it feels like it’s going to take a little longer for me to deep it enough that it transforms my very actions, and helps me to gravitate towards healthy friendships, rather than co-dependent ones. Learning real-life lessons can be painful, and applying them can be extremely difficult—but we move, regardless.

Conclusion: Human beings are flawed, and moments of dependency will always arise. But they ought to be regarded, to paraphrase Lewis, as “interruptions” to Friendship, not the definition of it. May he who has a mental health diagnosis gain access to mental health resources, and may they spare those who ought to be their Friends from taking on the role of therapist. May she who requires financial assistance find gainful means of income so that her status as a debtor to her friends does not overshadow her importance as a friend to them. May they who have attachment issues be granted the means and resources to work through that trauma and not subject those who would be their friends to unhealthy demands borne of their own insecurity.

Selah. 🕸

My Thoughts on Relationships

Over the past couple of years, I’ve broken, repaired, and been broken by a handful of relationships. To say that it’s been painful and dramatic for most parties involved would be an understatement. In any case, one consequence of all my personal relationship drama is that I’ve been thinking more deeply about how relationships function. I’ve come to a few conclusions, which might very well change again in the future. Regardless, here they are.

The first is the one I came to the quickest and perhaps the one I believe the most: Attraction is very much illogical.

I think, for most of my life, that I have unconsciously believed the opposite. Now that I think about it, this might have come from conflating the concepts of liking and attraction. They’re related, but not synonymous, as far as I can tell.

To like someone means that there is an inherently positive feeling within you regarding the person that you like. One usually begins to like someone else for some reason (a personality characteristic, for example), after they have gotten to know them to some degree. Liking is logical in the sense that, if you genuinely like somebody, you will be able to come up with reasons why.

Attraction, however, is another matter. It’s that factor, often primal and unexplained, that draws one person to another. One does not need to know nearly anything about a person before they can experience attraction towards them. Attraction may initially draw people together; once they are together, they might subsequently start finding logical reasons to actually like each other. Liking can lead to attraction, of course, especially of the sexual kind, but it is not a prerequisite to attraction. You can be attracted to someone you’ve never spoken a word to, and who may not even align with what you consider your “type.” Hence my belief that attraction is mostly illogical.

It is probably clear by now, but just in case: I am speaking of attraction in the broadest interpersonal sense, not just the sexual one.

As a gray-ace person, I experience a lot of strong attractions that are far from sexual. For me, this means that it often manifests in the form of almost absurdly intense friendships. My attraction to someone provokes me to start a friendship, then it proceeds to color that friendship with something close to obsession, on my part. This has happened to me with most of my best friends, and my most recent ex-best friend, Joshua, was no exception.

It was during my relationship with Joshua (we were best friends for four years) that I really began to understand how illogical attraction is. I liked him, of course, and I could provide several reasons why: he was gentle, extremely kind, a fantastic listener, had good taste in art, phenomenal musical talent and singing voice even if he refused to believe it, and most importantly for me, he understood me better than anyone ever had before. Creatively and intellectually, we were good with each other. Emotionally, however, we were not.

There was a near-perpetual friction in our relationship. It got to a point where I felt like I was constantly angry at him about something, whether it was his general inertia, his noncommunicative tendencies, his chronic forgetfulness, or just indifference to my mood and emotional needs. Besides, I was almost always giving more than I was getting.

Hindsight is 2020, isn’t it? I loved him more than anyone else in the world, but it was obvious from at least two years into the friendship, even to both of us, that we should not have been best friends. The latter two years of our friendship was punctuated with Joshua frequently telling me that I needed to leave him, and me thinking I needed to leave him but refusing to. I refused to because I was desperately, illogically, attracted to him.

Despite how unhealthy and unbalanced our friendship was, I wanted him—specifically him—as my best friend. There were at least two other people in my life that would probabaly have been much healthier besties for me—one of whom is my current bestie (love you, sis!)—but I wanted him. And there is no logical reason why. All the reasons that I liked him did not make up for the fact that our friendship made me stressed out and miserable. I was attracted to him to the full extent that an ace person can be attracted to somebody: you want to get as close to them as possible (and leave sex completely out of it).

Why do people stay with people that are bad for them? With people that frustrate them out of their minds? Why do people keep going back to other people despite warning signs that are impossible to ignore? Whatever it is that draws people to others in the absence of reasonable explanation is what I understand as attraction. It’s value-neutral, automatic, unintentional. Who we are attracted to doesn’t have to make sense.

Of course, the other side of the coin is that who we aren’t attracted to doesn’t have to make sense, either. I have met a lot of people that seem, on surface level, like they should be compatible with me—similar interests, talented, generally quite nice—but I have no interest in being intentionally friends with them. And it’s really not their fault, nor is it mine. (I don’t experience sexual attraction the way allosexual people do, but I imagine that sexual attraction functions quite similarly.)

This is almost too obvious to even spell out, but most people don’t want to sleep with everysingle person of the gender(s) they’re attracted to. You may have people in your life of those genders that you love dearly with all your heart, but it wouldn’t even cross your mind to consider having sex with them. And “catching feelings” doesn’t always work like it does on Disney Channel, where the besties-for-years almost always end up being romantically attracted to each other. It’s assumed (I know this from experience) that when allosexual people who are generally attracted to each other’s genders spend enough time together, they will inevitably end up catching feelings. But the simple truth is: People are just not attracted to who they are not attracted to.

I was never sexually attracted to Joshua, and, as far as I know, he was never sexually attracted to me. (I have no idea how things would have turned out between us if that had been the case. My guess is either catastrophic decimation or transcendental devotion, no in-between.) If you asked me why not, I couldn’t tell you. I liked him more than enough to make the gray in my gray-aceness pop all the way out, but it did not. If you asked him why not (and I have), he wouldn’t be able to tell you either. We are currently not speaking, but when we were, I found out that he couldn’t explain why he wasn’t romantically (or even generally, really) attracted to me, nor why he was attracted to his girlfriend.

I’m talking a lot, and I’ve only used one relationship in my life as an illustration, but I think I’ve made my point to satisfaction.

Another thing I now believe strongly about relationships is this: We are different people with different people. C.S. Lewis explained it briefly but eloquently in The Four Loves, one of my favorite nonfiction books:

“Lamb says somewhere that if, of three friends (A, B, and C), A should die, then B loses not only A but ‘A’s part in C’, while C loses not only A but ‘A’s part in B’. In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets.”

-C.S. Lewis, “The Four Loves”

I believe this strong influence of friends on each other is true for at least most people. As a highly suggestible person, I probably experience it to exaggerated degrees, which has helped me notice it more. I may discover, for example, that if I spend much time with a particularly funny friend, it becomes part of my personality to not only make more jokes (especially around them), but the jokes I make would fit well into their brand of humor.

Of course, the friendship influence can be a lot subtler and more general. A friend may unconsciously influence another to be kinder, or crueler; more creative, or more logistical; more spiritual, or less—and so on.

I want to modify my central statement a bit, because “We are different people with different people” strikes me, even now, as an exaggeration. It would be more truthful to say that each person we are in relationship with might magnify a different part of our character. It is not that we change and literally become different people; it is more like something that is already inside us grows big enough to temporarily obscure other things within us. Some of my friends/acquaintances may know me predominantly as a cynic, others predominantly as a creative person, others as predominantly Africanist, or predominantly Christian, etc.

I am intense, I am obsessive, and I am prone to addiction (and I believe one can be addicted to a person). So imagine me in an intense friendship for several years, how my understanding of myself may become so tied to the other person, influenced by them, to some extent constructed around them. And then, almost suddenly, I am ungraciously extricated from the relationship. “Unmoored” would be an understatement! The consequence of such a breakup is that, for a long time, I cannot figure out who the hell I am even though I’ve known myself all my life, and neither can I figure out why this is the case. (Clarity is often delayed in the presence of overwhelming emotions, as I suspect you know.)

A small but important part of what I’m trying to say is that losing someone is pretty literally like losing a part of yourself.

Yet another thing I believe is that it is so much easier to accept someone with all their sins when you are not the one whom they sinned against in the past.

I have a friend whom I have sinned against and who has sinned against me. Our sins against each other have had repercussions that may linger still, even though we have since reconciled.

Before we reconciled, in a season when I harbored tons of anger and bitterness towards them, they were still making new friends. At least one of those new friends had heard my version of the story of how my friend had grieved me. But if I thought that would dissuade this person from making friends with my old friend, I was mercifully wrong. Their friendship grew, even though this person and I had been on good terms; even though they knew that the friend they were making was on bad terms with me.

I don’t think it hit me until very recently, just how personal emotions are. The intellect can grasp facts and fact-like statements without provoking visceral reactions. If I tell somebody my story of how someone hurt me, they might think, “OMG, that’s awful! I’m so sorry that happened to you.” But my story will likely not make them automatically as homicidal as I am towards the bad guy in my narrative. (Just as a caveat, though, I personally have no tolerance for rapists, and so if someone has sexually violated a person I know, I will feel homicidal towards that person even though I was not the one sinned against. Pray for me if you want.)

When my friendship with Joshua ended, I told some of my friends, perhaps a bit too briefly or incoherently, how he had hurt me. And after I did that, to go on the TL, for instance, and see all my friends—whom I thought loved me—interacting with Joshua on the TL like my heart wasn’t in the worst shape it had ever been, almost drove me mad. My expectation was that, if those who loved me found out that someone had grieved me, they would henceforth behave towards that person as though they were the ones personally grieved.

LMAO. I got jokes, innit.

Even speaking for myself, I would probably have very little issue making friends with someone whom I know has a history of broken relationships (whether of familial, platonic or romantic natures) behind them. It is especially easy when I don’t personally know whoever it is they have a broken relationship with. And, as illustrated earlier, it also seems easy for people who do personally know the person who was sinned against. Writing this, I can think of several people who have gone ahead and built friendships with people I have temporarily severed from my life.

I’m having to learn to accept this as one of the things I cannot control, no matter how it hurts.

Last one for this post: It is very difficult to maintain meaningful friendships with people whom you don’t feel like you can be your full self around.

If you think about this, this is related to the point about us being different people around different people.

It is most often unintentional, when we make people feel like they can’t be their full selves around us. What happens is, we make assumptions of our friends based on what we know about them—sometimes accurate, sometimes false. A friend might have an active sex life, for example, but feel like they can’t express their sensual side around me because I am celibate. Or perhaps someone who is accustomed to casual swearing may find themselves stilting their own words around a friend who is personally committed to Christian-like purity in their language. These things are not exclusively from fear of judgment, I think; sometimes, it’s just vague discomfort or self-consciousness.

I suspect this is why people compartmentalize friendships: they are comfortable with certain friends about certain things, and not about the rest. So you have your cinema-buddy friends, which may be different from your book club friends, who may be different in turn from your party squad, your study buddies, your church friends, etc. I don’t think I have ever gotten used to the idea of compartmentalizing friendships, though—for better or worse, I don’t even know.

I have had to ask myself why I am able to maintain close friendships with very select people at any given time, while being around other friends for too long tends to exhaust me. This phenomenon is one of the answers I’ve come up with: I might like a certain person immensely, hut if I don’t feel like I can be my full self around them, we are probably not going to have a very intimate relationship. Besides, I feel like I can sense when someone doesn’t feel fully comfortable around me. Such feelings have an energy that pervade the air.

This, I think, is why being around certain people energizes me. It takes a lot of energy to hold back various parts of yourself at a time, hence the exhaustion. Conversely, the freedom of releasing all those restrained parts in the presence of someone else is immensely relieving. A lifted weight you might not even have been aware that you were carrying.

Kindred spirits are hard to come by. And besties—true besties—are downright blessings.

-Akotz the Spider Kid