Friendship

I’m not a good friend for everyone.

Before you jump to my aid, hear me out.

Some people are active friends. They reach out often, they make plans often, they try to keep in touch with their friends on a regular basis. They throw parties. They attend parties. They do brunch. They hold social events. They are ever just around the corner, waiting to ask how your day’s been, how you’re holding up, whether you’d like to come over for tea or drinks or just to chat. They are always happy to hear from you, always happy to be a supportive shoulder, to lend an ear for the worries and stresses of the day. They make you feel important and valued. They make you feel like someone is paying attention, someone is watching out for you, someone is in your corner.

Some people are passive friends. You don’t hear from them for months at a time – sometimes even years – but once in a while, out of the blue, they poke in to see how you’re doing. Often, it’s at exactly the right time and you wonder if they’re maybe a little bit psychic. They don’t go to parties. They rarely make more than a cursory appearance at social events. Sometimes they even have fun at said events, but they usually go home early. But when you do get them to yourself for a few hours, you are reminded of the wonderfully deep and meaningful connection you have with them. It can feel like all the time that’s passed since the last time you saw them was no more than the blink of an eye; like you just pick up right where you left off. They fill you up with love and warm feeling to last the coming months, then send you on your way.

I wonder if you can guess which kind of friend I am.

One can make all sorts of arguments about what sorts of people these friends are; what sorts of dividing lines they fall to either side of. Introverts and extroverts. Socialites and homebodies. I’m sure every system that classifies people into groups has some measure for this trait. But I’m just looking at friendship, so I’m not going to get into that other stuff. I’m going to stick with active and passive friends.

There is no right way or wrong way to be. As with everything else in life, there are just people. Messy, imperfect humans, flailing about trying to get their needs met while doing as little damage as they can to those around them. There are no bad guys in this story, just a bunch of good guys with hurt feelings.

I’m a very passive friend. My social requirements are generally met if I see another human being that I know and like for about an hour a week. Maybe more like 6 hours a week if I’m particularly lonely and down-in-the-dumps. I’m perfectly content to putter around with my cat (formerly cats; hopefully soon to be cats again; but for now, cat) and do my yarncrafting and play my video games and poke about on the internet. I find small talk difficult and grating. If I reach out, it’s for a reason. Either I’ve had cause to believe that someone I love is in need of a friendly poke, or I’m in need of something that I know my friend can provide. I am generally very low-maintenance. As long as my needs are being met, I don’t require much interaction. And since my experience is the only experience I can use to understand the world around me, I tend to assume (as we all do) that my loved ones’ needs are about the same as mine… unless they tell me otherwise.

See, there’s a trade-off with passive friends and active friends. Active friends are always there for you in the moment, yes, but because that’s how they operate, they are often spread much more thinly than passive friends and so the amount of emotional distress they can tolerate on a case-by-case basis might not be as great. They’re wonderful to go to when you’ve had a bad day, when you’re just feeling off right now, or you’re worried about work, or any of the myriad stresses we deal with day-to-day. Not “little” stresses, but more routine ones.

Passive friends tend not to interact with those stresses, but when your significant other breaks up with you or your parent has gone into hospital or your world feels like it’s falling apart, that’s where passive friends tend to shine. Passive friends prioritize their emotional energy and tend to choose to spend it when it is most needed. As a passive friend, I pride myself on being ready and available at a moment’s notice if my loved ones really need me. So while I might forget to wish you happy birthday (which, yes, is shitty, and I’m sorry), if you were to call me tomorrow and tell me your dog was dying and you just needed someone to sit with you, I would be there. Need a ride to the airport at 3am because of a family emergency? I’m on it. But if I’m to be that friend – the one you can count on in a crisis to get done whatever needs getting done, the one who will drag herself out of bed at ungodly hours for no other reason than my love for you – I can’t also be the friend who texts every fortnight just to ask how you’re doing.

Because those grand gestures of friendship… they are costly. I do them gladly because I love my friends, but my reality is such that even just adding one extra errand on any given day’s itinerary might be enough to bankrupt my energy reserves for the week. Because, see, active friends and passive friends are doing roughly the same quantity of emotional labour; they’re just pacing it differently.

Now as it turns out, the whole ‘active/passive’ thing is a false dichotomy from the get-go, as are any dichotomies which attempt to categorize humans. This trait (like all the rest) exists on a scale or a spectrum, and any one individual may shift their position on the spectrum from moment to moment based on any number of variables. Sometimes a life-long passive friend reaches a point in their own life where things are too tenuous for them to really ‘show up’ for anyone, and they become a more active friend for a while. Sometimes a normally active friend settles down into a quieter period and needs some time to themselves for introspection, but they’re still ready to go to bat for their loved ones if needed. I am not always a passive friend; it’s just where I am most comfortable.

I started off this bit of writing saying that I’m not a good friend for everyone, and here’s why:

Some people need their friends to be a baseline-level of active or passive. For some people, having friends who fall below this threshold might feel uncomfortably close to times when they were mistreated by others. Friends who are too passive might make some people feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for. Friends who are too active might make some people feel pestered, harried, or pressured. These feelings are real and valid, even if the intentions of the friend in question don’t line up with those feelings.

I am not a good friend for people who need baseline-active friends. And while it pains me to say goodbye to friendships I’ve relied on as the cornerstone of my social life for many years, I realize that letting go is the better option.

I mean, that makes it sound like I had a choice. I didn’t, in the moment. The choice I have is a retrospective one: I can choose to feel cruelly and unjustly cast aside (and believe me, I did choose that, for a time) or I can choose to feel that those friendships had simply run their course. The latter choice gets easier the more time passes, the more the pain ebbs away. Time heals, etc.

A word of warning, though: learn who your friends are, and how they operate. Know their style of friendship, and adjust your own friendship needs accordingly. You probably can’t bring a huge, life-changing revelation to an active friend – who’s probably already got about 10 other people’s various ‘mundane’ crises on the go already – without seriously burning out your friend. You similarly can’t expect to have a daily or weekly chat with a passive friend, unless it’s a specifically negotiated and agreed-upon ritual that you have set up together. Be aware, also, of what you need from your friends. If a certain level of passive or active friendship is intolerable, then it’s okay to not be friends with someone who has that friendship style.

I know I’m not the first to put these thoughts into words, and I surely won’t be the last. But maybe someone somewhere in my small circle of influence will find them helpful.

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Black, White, and Gray

There’s a kind of comfort in the stark, unyielding nature of the black-and-white. Sometimes when you’ve been hurt, it feels good to cast the person who hurt you as the Bad Guy, to strip them of nuance and think of them only in terms of the pain they caused you. Sometimes it feels like it’s necessary, especially when there’s a part of you that still wants their attention, that still desperately seeks validation and approval from them. In order to silence that longing, you make a caricature of them in your mind: a two-dimensional cartoon villain so irredeemable that even the most naive and forgiving parts of you can’t possibly continue to want anything from them.

The black-and-white is a place to pass through, though; it’s not a place to live. It’s an in-between world we escape to when we’re hurting, a world where real people can’t follow – you go there alone, with only the specters and ghosts of the impacts others have had on you for company. Sometimes you need that solitude. Sometimes you need to give yourself permission to not care about other people’s feelings so that you can focus on yourself and on healing the wounds others have inflicted on you. Spend too much time there, though, and you might start to think that’s all other people are – the sum of the cuts and bruises they’ve given you.

Real people exist in their own realities, completely irrespective of yours. They are made up of more than just the parts you’re able to see and touch and interact with. To think otherwise is to walk a dangerous line: if you reduce others to only those qualities that affect you, then you have stopped seeing them as human and have begun to think of them as the supporting cast in your own personal story. You reduce your capacity to connect with others, and you reduce the size and depth and breadth of your own world. You reduce yourself.

Leaving the black-and-white behind and coming back to the real world lowers the emotional contrast and lets the gray seep back in. Reality and time both work to dull the edges of your pain. The person who hurt you is just a person again: flawed, imperfect, human; and so are you.

That black-and-white world might be necessary sometimes, but it’s not always good. We tend to be at our most hostile, self-centered, and irrational while we’re there, and since we’re fundamentally disconnected from others, we often hurt them without even realizing we’re doing it. Hurt people hurt people, as they say: the more we’re hurting, the more myopic we tend to be about the injuries we inflict on those around us.

If my life was a book with me as the protagonist, then this past year would be one of its darkest chapters so far. I didn’t just lose a relationship. I lost myself. I lost a community. I lost friends. I lost a sense of connection I’d spent a year trying to foster. For the first time since adolescence, I had the feeling that death would be better than the pain I was in. It’s been a really shitty half-dozen months.

I was very hurt, and I inflicted a lot of pain in turn. I’m not proud of that. But I’m also not planning to hold it against myself, either. For all the times I’ve forgiven other people’s selfish, irrational behaviour because I knew they were hurting, I’m also going to forgive my own. I deserve that consideration, if not from anyone else, then at least from myself.

To those I’ve hurt: I am sorry for causing you pain.

I don’t need your forgiveness, though, because I’ve already forgiven myself.