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

Trends That Terrify Me Among [Redacted] Men

It’s time to admit that I’m terrified of [redacted] men, even through second-hand contact. Sometimes, I feel like if I have to encounter another woman’s story of suffering at the hands of a [redacted] man, I will scream my way into a cave and shatter the rocks with the sound of my voice. Because the stories are far, far too similar, and even worse, they seem to be everywhere I turn. It has become one of my deepest fears that I will end up in the same situation.


For Next Time.

For Next Time: A list dedicated to Akotowaa, from The Spider Kid. 

  1. You will not conflate your desire to be loved by a person, with any actual love for the person. You will not project your desire to be wanted onto any human being.
  2. If a person decides they want you, you will let them show it. If they don’t show it, you will let it go. You will remember that you are wanted, regardless, by a God who will never stop wanting you.
  3. You will not entertain indifference to the point of trauma. You will see signs of disinterest for what they are, and you will leave when you are repeatedly told, in words or otherwise, that you must go.
  4. You will not try to convince yourself that love is present when it will not be confessed at any opportunity.
  5. You will remember that you must only allow yourself to fall in love with a person, and not the version of the person you wish they were or would become.
  6. You will not mistake scientific intrigue regarding your most unusual qualities, for love.
  7. You will not mistake someone’s love for your works, talents, or performance, for love of your person.
  8. You will not mistake admiration for your personal virtues, for love.
  9. You will not mistake someone’s interest in fulfilling their sexual desires through you, for love.
  10. You will not believe that your sexuality deems you incapable of developing and thriving in the kinds of relationships that may bring you fulfillment.
  11. You will not allow yourself to believe that your psychological conditions prevent you either from being loved or loving well.
  12. You will not mistake somebody’s unwillingness to let you kill yourself, for love.
  13. You will not decide to owe your life, love, presence or ultimate allegiance to whoever stops you from killing yourself.
  14. You will refuse to hold onto guilt, self-deprecation, or feelings of unworthiness when anyone presents you with the fruits of kindness or love. You will throw “worthy” out the window and remove “deserve” from your lexicon. If you were saved by grace, you can live by it. If you can accept and give thanks for what the son of God did for you, you can accept and give thanks for what a human chooses to do for you. You will not allow bad feelings towards yourself to corrupt or define your relationships.
  15. You will not consider it your responsibility to heal a person, fix their situations, be their unpaid therapist, do their emotional work, or try to do anything that is God’s responsibility alone, or theirs. You will do only the labor that God tells you to. You will be instrument, but never instrumentalist.
  16. You will not regard the end of any relationship as the end of your life as you believe it ought to be.
  17. You will not walk away from any failed relationship with the feeling that you are unlovable. (Because it is not true.)
  18. You will not walk away from any failed relationship feeling that you can never be understood. (Because you know that this is not true.)
  19. You will not assume that the person someone is with you is the same person they would be without you. People are always evolving, when they give themselves permission.
  20. You will not assume that the person you are with someone is the same person you will be without them. You are always evolving, if you give yourself permission.

With all my love,

The Spider Kid. 🕸