Tag Archives: friendship

Just because a thing can’t be, doesn’t mean it’s not good.

Let me clarify. Imagine this. Boy meets girl: call them Dick and Sandra. Dick falls in love with Sandra. Dick marries Sandra.

Now Dick and Sandra both get ten years older. They are no longer as young as they were, and no longer as changeable. The selves they have by this time become, are more or less the selves that they’re always going to be. They’re reasonably content, but for whatever reason, the selves they’ve congealed into aren’t a very good match for each other. Oops.

At this point, inevitably, Dick meets Jane. Jane is a good match for Dick. Not just in a superficial way, either: they seem to have been made for each other, more than Dick and Sandra ever were. Dick complements Jane and Jane complements Dick. If Dick and Jane were together, they would probably improve each other, make each other holier, more fit for Heaven, and incidentally, more fit for earth, too.

And even though Dick and Sandra aren’t unhappy, exactly, Dick and Jane would be much happier. Together, they would probably make a more ideal marriage than Dick and Sandra ever will.

If nothing and nobody existed except for Dick and Jane, we could say truthfully that Dick and Jane ought to be together.

But Dick and Jane don’t exist in a vacuum.1 Things being what they are, if Dick decides to leave Sandra, it’s because he’s an asshole. Not because Sandra is a better match for him. She isn’t! Jane is! But, sorry bro, a vow is a vow. You didn’t stipulate, “Unless I meet someone better.”

But it’s not even just the vow. If Dick pursues Jane, he’ll be pursuing something that is objectively good; but he’ll be pursuing it at the expense of billion other objectively good things: his children’s welfare, his wife’s happiness, his own integrity, the integrity of Jane’s conscience, his reputation, Jane’s reputation, to name a few. And what generally happens, when you drop four good things to run after one other good thing, is that you lose all five —

or even vanish screaming into a misty crevasse — or maybe, what’s worse, you poison all five. It never ends well, no matter how fuzzy the feels when it begins.

It’s possible that the erotic/romantic union of two men is something like that. Maybe, somehow, in the abstract, unimaginably, it’s good! But not in this universe, or not at this time, or not while we are what we are. Maybe in the hereafter. Who knows?

But whether or not there will one day be a place for the erotic union of two men, the fact remains that, here and now, there is not. Here, now, for me, the decision to feed the eros I feel for Ryan will always be a bad decision. Maybe in the resurrection Dick gets to be with Jane. Or maybe in the Resurrection everybody gets to be with everybody, or nobody with nobody. Maybe, as a friend of mine once postulated, Heaven is one big orgy.

Then again, maybe maleness is such that my eros for Ryan is nothing but an illusion and a snare, something doomed from the very start to vanish in the light of reality like shadows before the sun. Maybe the convexity of the male body is an image of the convexity of the male soul (if there is such a thing as the male soul), and a man will never fit into a man the way a man fits into a woman, either in the body or out of it, either now or later.

If that’s the case, then any attempt to fit a man into a man is going to involve some distortion, some violence done to the personality.

How deep does gender go, anyway? St. Paul says that in Christ there is neither male nor female; and Christ himself says that in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage. But I can’t believe that in Heaven we’re all androgynous. Doesn’t the resurrection of the body mean that I will have a penis forever? Even, one day, a Glorified Penis?

I don’t know. I tend strongly towards the latter theory: that eros between men is intrinsically, and not only accidentally, consummationless; unfulfillable in principle, and therefore wrongheaded from the start. But I’ve got good and wise friends — I’m looking at you, Mr. Blanchard — whose experience and conclusions are different. That’s okay.

For me, this is mainly a matter of personal experience. When I give way to eros for a man, I feel less myself, not more. If I decide to gaze at Ryan as a man gazes at a woman, I will always feel like I am violating our friendship, and violating a part of my own masculinity besides. So I’m going to keep not doing it, until finally, if I’m right, the idea won’t even occur to me any more.

If I’m wrong, I’ve got a longer fight ahead of me than I thought. It’s a small price to pay for love.

1 Because if they did, they’d asphyxiate and/or explode. Bam!

So okay, let’s say my and Ryan’s friendship is like that: let’s say it’s made of steel underneath, and the other bits have just got to fall away. What about the eros — does that fall away, too?

Even if the answer is “no”, I’ll take it. What’s the alternative? Drop him because the friendship isn’t worth the price? I complained to somebody once, in the earlier days of my gayness, that it seemed like every time I got close to a guy, this sort of thing would rear its head.1 His advice boiled down to, “Maybe stop getting close to guys, then.” That was the last time I asked him for advice.

That’s not the case, by the way: it doesn’t happen that way with everybody. With some guys, it’s all friendship and no eros. Lord, I love those friendships, they’re like spring, they’re like cool water! And then with some, it’s all eros and no friendship. Yech, no thank you. When the eros evaporates like cheap body spray, there’s nothing left but greasy residue.

eros-body-spray

And then with some guys it’s clearly a friendship, but with some kind of semi-permanent foreign element, a live-in enemy, something I have to guard against and occasionally struggle against. That’s how it was with Sal, but I refused to feed the eros, until it finally got starved and, I’m pretty sure, dropped away completely. Kind of like rubber band ligation for hemorrhoids.

If Ryan were a priest and I were a single woman, or if he were a nun and I were a bachelor, and we were flat out in love with each other, that would be different. It’d be asking for trouble. The most we could hope for would be to maintain a permanent and painful state of suspension. The relationship would have no possible consummation.

When I say consummation, I mean that moment when a thing becomes what it is, when the truth of the thing breaks out, when the bud opens. Where lovers are concerned, the seed is eros and the fruits are many — marriage, children, diapers I guess, who knows what other mysteries. This is why, the first time a husband and wife have sex, we say that they have consummated the marriage: they’ve taken a concrete and irrevocable step into the domain of marriage, and can now begin to flower in earnest.

But what is the consummation of a friendship? I don’t know if there is one. If marriage is an orchid, with a bud that becomes a blossom, maybe friendship is an oak tree, whose purpose is not so much fruit as it is the deepening of roots, the widening of trunks, the recording of every passing year by adding another ring.

Oaks have acorns, of course, and friendship does have its fruits: things like old inside jokes, maybe. But the point is that the orchid and the oak are different organisms, two different kinds of tihngs. The more the orchid becomes itself, the more it tends towards the blossom; the more the oak becomes itself, the deeper its roots go.

An orchid is supposed to be delicate and voluptuous; but if an oak is delicate and voluptuous, then it’s not a very good oak. What’s good in a friendship, in other words, might be bad in a romantic relationship, and vice versa.

Then this is the question: can the relationship of two men ever be an orchid, or is such a relationship always an oak? If two men think their relationship is an orchid, are they just plain wrong, because that’s impossible? When I fell for S., was I an orchid for real? Or was I just an oak with an identity crisis?

1 Heh.

“It wasn’t that I thought you would freak out.” I’ve just, unthinkably!, told Ryan G. that I’m attracted to him, and now I am explaining why I didn’t tell him before. “I just thought you might start to…I don’t know…”

“Keep my distance?” Ryan says it with a grimace, like it is the stupidest idea in the world. Not that I am stupid for thinking that it might happen, but that he would have to be an idiot to do it.

“Well, you know,” I say. “Not that you would want to keep your distance, but you might decide that it wouldn’t be good for me to see too much of you, because maybe I’ll get worse.”

He grimaces again: another stupid idea, but I’m glad he thinks it’s stupid, even if I don’t understand why yet. “No, I’m not going to do that,” he says. “I’m not going to have any kind of agenda in hanging out with you, or not hanging out with you. I’m just going to hang out with you because I like hanging out with you, and if you like hanging out with me, then we’ll keep hanging out.”

This conversation is not going how I thought. For someone who I’m pretty sure has never had an openly gay friend before, Ryan is proceeding with a surprising amount of confidence, plunging surefooted as a mountain goat into what I thought was a dark landscape full of cliffs. If he were confused and disoriented, I would be, too. Instead, the matter-of-fact way he’s laying it all out makes me wonder why I was so worried.

“It’d be different if you were a girl,” he says. Keep going, I’m thinking, tell me more! Because I had imagined that every time I hugged him he’d be watching to see if I held on a fraction of a second too long, every time I looked at him he’d be checking to make sure I didn’t look into his eyes too deeply, or too creepily, or something, I don’t know. But it turns out that those are my anxieties, not his. “Why would it be different?” I ask.

“Because when a guy and a girl spend a lot of time together, the natural thing that happens is that they are going to be more attracted to each other,” he says, “because men and women are supposed to be attracted to each other.”

I chew on this for a minute. “I think I get you,” I say. “You mean the more you do a thing, the closer it gets to being the thing it’s supposed to be.” He nods. “And we’re supposed to be friends,” I say. He nods again. “So the more time we spend together, the better friends we are,” I conclude. He nods one more time, smiling because I’ve got it now.

I’m still not sure. He thinks friendship is like a shoe that you have to break in, and that you break it in by wearing it. But I am thinking it is like a car engine: I’m imagining it low on oil, some idiot sitting in the driver’s seat on a cold New England morning and revving and revving the accelerator, not bothering to let it warm up first, redlining it before it’s even left the driveway, bits and pieces flaking off and jamming up the works until the whole things seizes to a shrieking halt.

Is that what I’m doing? Yeah, Ryan, between two straight men, friendship is the thing that naturally happens, and the more time they spend together, the closer they get to that natural thing. But is that how it is when one of the men is gay?

I want to see through to the truth of this, but I can’t, because I’m too much inside myself. William Lynch says, of the mentally ill, that they are ill because their imaginations have stopped working correctly. They can no longer picture a world that is not dominated by their fears and regrets; they are locked in the darkness of their own solipsism. That is how it is with me, now. I can see my own perspective, but no other.

So the only way out is the imagination of a friend, someone who sees what I cannot see, sits outside the cave of my skull and yells in a description of the view from outside.

I see myself briefly from Ryan’s perspective. Feelings are not facts, goes the mantra, so I imagine the view from outside of my own buzzing mosquito-net of a brain. Forget who I am to myself: who am I to Ryan? I am his friend. We laugh together, drink together, work out together, watch TV together, and make hilarious jokes about horrendous problems together.

Privately, inside my mosquito net, things are different. I am anxious about Ryan, and sometimes jealous, and a little confused. I am tempted to think that these things are the whole reality of our friendship.

But are these things real, even inside my own skull? In fact, I realize, these things buzz louder when Ryan is not here. When we are in the same room, those thoughts — if they surface at all — seem like the most stupid nonsense. Instead of seeming like the whole reality, these things barely seem real at all.

Which, in the end, they are not. As we practice friendship, the unreal bits — the anxiety, the suspicion, the jealousy — begin to fall away, like rust. Eventually the only thing left is the steel structure underneath, the framework that was there all along.

I am trying to answer the question of whether a man can fall in love with another man. Last time, I talked about when I did, in fact, fall in love with S.; which might or might not mean that the answer is exactly “yes”. On to the next part of the story.

Ryan had just invited me to spend the weekend at the beach house his family had rented, which was perfect, because I had just come out to the entire world, and on Facebook no less; and even though I felt tremendously light and happy, I also felt like there was steam coming out of my ears. So a weekend at the beach with a good friend, with no internet or phone service, sounded like just the thing.

Except I was also terrified of the idea. Because the past few months with Ryan were the first time since falling for S. that I had bonded this deeply with another man; and even though I would’ve cut off a finger to stop it from happening again, I could see the warning signs. The jealousy when he’d spend too much time with our other friends; the desire to tell him everything that was going on in my head at all times; the disproportionate pain at the smallest of perceived slights. I knew how this ended.

A couple of days before the trip was supposed to happen, I went to Ryan’s place in a semi-panic, determined to say something but with no clear idea what it would be; but, as so often happens with big decisions, when the time arrived, I found out I had already decided. Over his kitchen table and a glass of Jameson, I told him I had reservations about the trip; and explained that, even though I was really glad we were friends, it wasn’t always easy to be around him; and explained that this was because I was attracted to him.

F★cking hell, what did I just do!

Except it was really easy, and no fissures opened in the earth, and he wasn’t even particularly surprised. “Yeah,” he said, “when you told me you were gay a few months ago, it occurred to me that maybe this could happen. And I asked myself, ‘Am I okay with that? Can I deal with that?’ And I figured, Yeah, I can deal with that.”

And my head exploded, and confetti and gratitude and brains and relief flew everywhere, and the conversation continued.

I’m working on a real post or several, but in the meantime, I am going to piggyback off of Mudblood Catholic’s 100th post. What a post. Here are the bits that made me nod and grin the hardest. [Indented bits are him, other bits are me.]

The trouble about discussing sexuality — and this is not peculiar to gay sexuality — is that it involves you in nearly everything. There’s a sense in which sexuality is the crossroads of our being: every level of our self is involved in it at once.

Yes, totally. That’s why it’s actually fortuitous that the culture at large is in such a lather about homosexuality: we’re being forced to confront all sorts of things that have never been quite this urgent before. What’s marriage? What’s sex for? Are men different from women, and if so, how?

The common Catholic tactic of implying that giving up sex shouldn’t be such a big deal to someone who isn’t selfishly hedonistic, betrays a woefully shallow outlook on sex and sexuality. Yes, there are other modes of experiencing and expressing love; yes, we don’t “need” sex the way we need food and drink; that isn’t the point. The need to love and be loved as a specifically incarnate being, the need to give of oneself, and the need to create, are real needs of the human person; and erotic love — truly or falsely — holds out the promise of all three.

I plead guilty. Not very long ago, I was all “What’s the big deal, guys, it’s just SEX”. But the thing about sex is that it’s never just sex. For me — a guy from a big Catholic family, who got somehow remarkably and providentially plugged into a big Catholic community, that’s magically full of tolerant-yet-orthodox people — for me to say “Dude, celibacy ain’t no thang” is about as fair as a silver-spooned ivy-leagued trust-fund kid telling a panhandler “Have you tried working harder?”

God is remarkably prosaic…the practice of prayer and taking part in the sacraments have a very unspectacular appearance. But they are of the essence. Prayer is our lungs; the Eucharist is our heart; Confession is our immune system.

A lot of the authors I’ve read seem to imply that, once you have some solid friendships under your belt, you stop being lonely and don’t want a partner any more. To that, I have to respectfully cry bullshit. Loneliness is a feature of all human life, and, yes, being the single one in a group of predominantly married friends can exacerbate that instead of helping. You need friends because intimate friendship is something that every person needs to be a healthy person, not because they act collectively as some kind of surrogate spouse.

True that. It’s probably unavoidable, at some stage in the journey, to use your friends as a collective, surrogate spouse, but that can’t be the end.

“Father, I wore those weird shoes with the individual toes.”
“This problem is beyond me, my child.”

Sexuality involves more than just the urge to make; it also involves the more specific urge to beget — to be a mother or a father. The fight of the LGBT movement for adoption rights is not just about making a political point about equality; I think it is linked to this far deeper desire.

Yeah, Gabriel, wow. Who woulda thought a brony could be such a mensch?

An earnest gay reader1 wonders how to comport himself at the gym:

My first instinct is to say, “Okay, simple. It’s an occasion of sin for you, so even if you’re okay in the locker room, forget the shower or sauna, or even the pool sometimes. Even if that means you have to drive home all sweaty and stink up your car.”

But then — motivated probably by equal parts pragmatism and desire to feel like I fit in as one of the normal men rather than a leper, even if it’s only in my own mind…all of this bouncing around in my head and pounding heart and hormones…I get sick of running through that script while a straight…guy just skips that whole drama and uses the facilities for their intended use without stressing out.

It’s a big deal. It reminds me of one of the differences in experience between gay guys and straight guys that Brent Bailey points to: how

those gender-specific environments that provide a relaxing, head-clearing respite from sexual temptation for straight people (like locker rooms or all-male Bible studies) are sometimes the most confusing and charged environments for me.

Yeah, me too! This is one of those things that make homosexuality a heavier cross than it would be if it were just about not-having-sex-with-men.

At the same time, though, let’s not imagine we’re weirder than we are. It’s true that straight guys don’t have to worry about arousal in all-male settings, but that doesn’t mean these settings are totally easy for them, either. A few examples:

  • I’ve seen straight guys put on an extra layer of machismo at a poker game just so as to appear dudely enough for the other dudes, until eventually you’ve got masks interacting with masks instead of people talking to people.
  • I’ve also seen guys panic briefly in the locker room because they accidentally had their head turned in my direction and they think that I might think that they were looking at me and MAYBE I WILL THINK THEY ARE GAY.2
  • And guys everywhere, gay or straight, are subject to body envy. I think it’s at least as spiritually and emotionally unhealthy to envy another man’s body, as Men’s Health and their ilk constantly encourage us to do, as it is to lust after another man’s body.

All this is a subset of a larger truth. Time after time, intimate conversation with my straight friends has confirmed that they and I want, fear, love, and worry about the same things as I do. Sometimes the only difference is my residual fear that the things I feel are somehow icky because they’re somehow gay; when it usually turns out they’re not gay so much as male, and not male so much as human.

So, you might feel unsettled when you’re in the locker room, but at least you don’t have to feel unsettled about feeling unsettled. It’s not just you. Peace of heart in all situations is something to shoot for, but most of us aren’t there yet.

1 Standard disclaimer: as is my policy, I obtained the explicit permission of the reader in question before deciding to write this piece.
2 Which is all pretty dopey. It reminds me of what Brett & Kate McKay have to say about what happened to male friendships when people started getting freaked out about The Gay Thing.

“True friendship,” says C. S. Lewis, “is the least jealous of loves.” We in the SSA crowd, or anyway the neurotic crowd, or maybe just the human crowd, hear that and cringe, because so many of us are such amateurs at friendship, amateurs in every sense: we dabble in it, we’re fascinated by it to the point of obsession, and our talent for it is decidedly imperfect.

True friendship? Most of us have scraps of it, but our actual friendships seem to exist on the perpetual verge of collapse, held together by duct tape and desperate good intentions; and jealousy intrudes, painfully, over and over. How well we know the signs of its approach, and how powerless we feel to stop it!

Like any amateur, I sometimes watch the experts — are there friendship experts? — to see how it’s done.

I noticed that my friends A and B had a tendency to express their fondness for each other via insults. “Ah ha!” said my crafty little lizard brain. “This is what friends do! I, too, will insult A, and let’s see whether we become better friends because of it.”

So I tried it out, but something went wrong. When I insulted A, he looked faintly hurt, and instead of responding with an insult of his own (as I had seen him do to B), he laughed uncomfortably and said, “Ah, yeah, you’re probably right.”

Waitwaitwait, cancel, retreat, abort! That isn’t what I meant at all. But this is what comes of being crafy, especially of being crafty where friendship is concerned: your friends get hurt and you look mean.

I understood belatedly what A and B’s insults had meant. It wasn’t that they had made a conscious decision to express friendship via insults, nor was it that insults are the universal language of male friendship. This was just the particular shape their friendship had developed, slowly and organically, over the years of its evolution.

And my appropriation of their particular brand of camaraderie suddenly looked grotesque and desperate, because, unfortunately, it was.

I was driving to work and this particular scene came back to me — you know that horrible splurch you get when you suddenly remember something grotesque and desperate that you’ve done?1 — but, thankfully, I also remembered that bit from Lewis’ Four Loves:

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. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s reaction to a specifically Caroline joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him ‘to myself’ now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald. Hence true Friendship is the least jealous of loves.2

I’ve seen this in the way only J. will shout when only M. makes a particularly asinine point, or only L. will cackle when only C. is crass in his exactly C.-like flavor of crassness. It’s also evident in the way, if M. and I find ourselves in a room without the accustomed presence of J., we suddenly won’t know what to say to each other: J. turns out to have been a bridge between us, a way for us to enjoy each other. Lacking him, we have to find other ways.

But the other part of that picture is a part we can’t see: ourselves. Cue Walker Percy:

Why is it that in your entire lifetime you will never be able to size yourself up as you can size up somebody else — or size up Saturn — in a ten-second look?”3

We don’t know our own part in the peculiar lattice of relations that exists between us and our friends, but make no mistake — we do have such a part. Whatever my opinion of myself, I am irreplaceable to them as each of them is to me. My own face will suddenly take on an expression that is characteristically Steve, and my friends will notice, but I won’t have the faintest idea about it; if I did, that would spoil it.

That’s how it works. We are not only for ourselves. The list of things I know about myself is not the same as the list of things my friends know about me. I am not even the best lover of myself, since I can never see in myself that very Steveness that is exactly what my friends love about me. I will never be able to see it. But I know it is there, because there are those that love me; so I don’t have to worry about it terribly much.

In other words, I have only to be myself; which (and this is the part they never tell you) I can only do when I am paying attention to the peculiarly lovable selves of everybody else.

1 This often happens while I’m driving.4 If you ever see me suddenly wince in traffic, that’s probably why.
2 From The Four Loves. Context is here.
3 This is from Percy’s Lost In the Cosmos, also known as The Best Book For Weirdos To Read To Feel Less Like Weirdos. The context is here.
4 Which is one reason why I sometimes listen to Savant and/or Skrillex when I’m driving. Did you know, if you turn the dubstep up loud enough, you can’t think of anything at all?

J. and I have been driving for four hours or so, with C. asleep in the back seat. Even though the setup is perfect, we haven’t had a single DMC1 yet, just a stream of banter as we find the places where our senses of humor fit together. Is something wrong, or is this good? Is this how friends are?

There are some things you can ruin just by thinking about them too hard. All we have to do for friendship, maybe, is to put in motion the heavenly mechanism that already exists in us; when we scheme, when we calculate, we ruin all.

With J. it wasn’t like that. I didn’t pursue him or suck up to him or emulate him or seek him out or employ any of the hundred tricks I had so often used to Make Friendship Happen. I just did what I did, and found that he and I had unexpectedly fallen into step. The greatest blessings are the ones we don’t expect.

There in the car, I had the impulse to bring up something heavy, something personal. It was a manipulative instinct: if I could get him talking about something that he wouldn’t talk to just anyone about, it would be another confirmation (I always wanted more!) that we were Really Friends. A forced bond is better than no bond at all, and if you bond with somebody, that makes it less likely that they’ll leave you behind.

But I decided not to manipulate. It was pure grace, or a nudge from my long-suffering angel, that made me remember something Father T had just told me about patience.

Patience means not only being willing to wait for the end of something, but staying alongside it the whole time: not just waiting for the fruit of the tree, but watching as it grows, loving the dirt and the sap and the rain, rejoicing in the bud and the blossom as well as the apple; not only because they are necessary precursors, but because they too are ends, are good.

And I remembered how, in dirty church basements, I and the other support-groupers would tell each other all our old shames and fears, wring ourselves dry, try to get it all out in an effort to know and be known, understand and be understood. How it helped, and how it missed the point.

It’s a great blessing to find that you can speak the unspeakable and not be reviled. But only time makes friends out of strangers; and at the end of the night, or the month, or the year, we hardly knew each other any better than at the start.

You’d think our secrets would make us most ourselves, but they turn out to be the same as everybody else’s. Everyone hurts in the same ways, everyone debases themselves in the same squalid rituals that every priest has heard and absolved and forgotten ten million times.

What we really own, and what makes us delight in our friends, are those sparks of self that dance along our surfaces: the unrepeatable gesture, the characteristic chortle, the way that only he will react to something that only you would think of saying.

It takes time. I settle back, grin, and belt out the chorus to the Zeppelin song on the radio. We grow so slowly! But patience is another kind of joy.

My dear friend A. recently revealed to me that she’s bisexual, or whatever you want to call it — I’m no more comfortable with that term than I am with the term “gay,” but you know what I mean. I’m pretty sure female homosexuality is a whole different beast from the male variety, but some of the stuff is just Human Stuff.

Anyway, A. said I should feel free to publish some of our exchanges here. I didn’t even ask her, she just suggested it. Ain’t that generous? Even in the middle of all the hurt and confusion she’s passing through, she wants to help everybody she can. What a lady.

(Of course, if you feel like letting me publish your exchanges with me, let me know; otherwise I consider them strictly off limits.)

Here’s a bit from a recent email, with A.’s bits as block quotes.

You said another crush ended when you became close with the person, and had to deal with jealousy more rarely. That is why I’m writing again. I have had that kind of crush on my roommate [...] since I was a freshman.

Oh, that’s really hard, and it’s a long time! I don’t mean it’s unusual that it should last that long; unfortunately, when we have these kinds of relationships where we are actually close to the person and not just wishing we were, this can last quite a long time. I dunno if I will ever not have a little bit of a crush on [...], but it does seem to lessen with every year that I know him, probably because my “crushed identity” (I like the way you put it) has been growing bit by bit during that time.

As long as it leans toward idealization, it’s miserable but not as bad as it could be—because lately I think my crushed identity is trying to grow back a little, and it wants to achieve that with anger. Anger is so unacceptable, and so hard to control. She hasn’t done a thing to deserve it, and she always notices it. So then I turn it inward, and just get angry at myself — not a good option either.

Huh. Hm. Yes, I think I understand. You want to assert yourself, to show her that you’re not just some kind of imperfect copy of her but are your own self — but all she’s done to provoke this is to be her own self. Anger is really hard. I definitely get like this sometimes around one of my friends, and I think this is a helpful insight that you have. I guess the question is what would be a healthy way to focus that anger.

Recently we almost had a fight for the first time (this girl is one of my best friends.) She had talked to me less, being depressed herself. I reacted with hurt, and then with desperation, and then smothered her with attention and increasingly desperate and clumsy attempts to make her smile, which she (probably rightly) interpreted as anger, and stayed away from me. Eventually I did the grown-up thing and told her that I idealize her, etc, and she took it very well, told me there was no reason to be insecure, etc, and we are fine again.

Oh, well, good for you! I do recognize this situation, and you handled it considerably better than I did at your age.

But I don’t want it to happen again, and every day it’s close to spiraling out of control.

Is it possible to limit your contact with her for a while? I find that, with certain friends of mine, if I am making a point to see them all the time and going out of my way to talk to them, and things like that, these flare-ups take longer to die down. I don’t mean you actually have to avoid the person — and of course, since she’s your roommate, that would be impossible — I just mean making a positive effort to focus on the other people in your life for a while. If you do that, you could consider telling [...] that that’s what you’re going to try to do, so she won’t think you’re mad at her — if you think that conversation would be okay to have. On the other hand, if that conversation sounds like a weird idea, then it probably is.

I know the feeling of not-wanting-it-to-happen-again. The truth is that it very well might happen again, but will probably be not as bad next time, because you will recognize it earlier and deal with it better. I say this because I find that thinking to myself “THIS MUST NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN” puts me under a lot of stress and can make things worse — whereas saying, “Okay, this could happen again, but I’ll keep a watch on myself if I’m in a situation where it’s likely, and it probably won’t be as bad this time” can help me keep calm.

Anyway, help! I need to learn to separate my own identity from [...]’s, I need to learn to let her alone a little bit, and not be so paranoid about her attentions, ultimately, not to care so much about what she thinks of me. It’s exhausting! And I need to keep anger out of the mix entirely.

Last part first — “keeping anger out of the mix entirely” is kind of the same thing as saying “this must never happen again”. If you think about it that way, it’ll be easier to freak out when you start to feel anger, because you’ll go “Oh no, HERE IT IS AGAIN!” So, I don’t think you can keep anger out entirely, or at least not right away. You can get better at recognizing what triggers the anger, and where it comes from, and who or what exactly you’re angry at, and that’ll help to diffuse the anger a lot.

About separating your own identity from [...]‘s — yeah, I understand what you mean. I think Other People can be the most helpful for this. In my life I have obsessions that come and go, but then I also have friends who are old standbys, who make me feel comfortable and at peace. Those friendships are easy to take for granted sometimes, because the obsessive friendships are more exciting and dramatic. But I find that when I spend time with those people, it re-centers me and reminds me, “Oh, I actually am somebody, with characteristics, and a way of speaking, and things that I like — all these things that have no reference at all to [the person I'm obsessed with].” That’s really, really helpful, and sometimes you need to make a positive effort to spend time with those people even when you aren’t really excited about doing so.

Is this the same exact problem I wrote to you about before? I forget. It seems new.

I forget too. And I forget whether I’m saying the exact same things. I don’t think it matters, either way. Occasionally I’ll have some fantabulous epiphany, and then find in my journal that I had the same exact epiphany six years ago. Oops. What most people need is to realize the same things over and over, until they really sink in.

Love and prayers,
Steve

“Oh, stop crying already.” It’s twenty years ago, but I remember the exact tone of my father’s voice, equal parts impatience and disgust. To me, crying is something that happens, not something I can decide to do or not do, so his command makes me burn with all the anger of which a nine-year-old is capable, which is a frightening amount. But there’s nobody I can tell about any of this.

It’s eighteen years ago. I am auditioning for a play that our church group is putting on. The woman in charge has me read a line or two in front of everyone. I’m profoundly self-conscious, but I do it anyway. She takes me aside later and asks if I’m okay. Even though she’s someone I know and like and trust, I can’t say something as simple as That was really hard for me, because as soon as I open my mouth, I feel the danger of tears — not just a trickle but an explosion. So I say, Yeah, it’s nothing.

When she goes away, I wonder for the first time: why is it that whenever I try to tell someone what’s wrong, the tears dam up in my head until it’s a choice between silence and total breakdown — even when it’s something small? What’s wrong with me?

It’s thirteen years ago, my first year of college. I’m standing alone in my dorm room and facing for the hundredth time the feeling of separateness: I don’t fit in here, don’t fit in anywhere, and it’s somehow all my fault. By now I should have learned the rules, but it’s too late to start.

I start to cry, and then, disgusted and impatient, I yell at myself: Stop it. Stop crying. I slap myself in the face two or three times, because sometimes that helps me stop. Soon I stop.

It’s nine years ago, my last year of college. I’m in Sal’s room, confessing to him how alone I am, how separate, what a fake and a poser and a general failure at being anything that anyone would recognize as a human being.

I hate the way my voice is starting to shake, I hate that the tears are coming. I must sound so pathetic. I can’t stand for him to watch me anymore, so I get up and run out. I catch a glimpse of his face, but I can’t look for too long. Nobody should see this.

It’s five years ago. I’ve gotten together the necessary money and resolve, and I find myself at a campground in rural Virginia, participating in the 27th Journey Into Manhood weekend — still in disbelief that I’ve subjected myself to such manifest kookery, still wildly expectant, still wondering how I’m going to explain this one to my friends.

I watch other men scream and howl, weep and claw at the ground, come face to face with the things they never let themselves feel before. When it’s my turn, I do it too.

The weekend is over, and I feel as empty and fresh as a new wineskin. For the next few weeks I keep bursting into tears at unpredictable moments. I don’t mind. It feels good to cry; it feels clean.

It’s nine months ago. I am on the porch, spilling my guts to my roommate S.: how living here with him and C. was supposed to was supposed to be my chance to finally be normal, and how it all went wrong instead. How I’ve got to move out because I can’t control my fears, my feelings of exclusion, my jealousy. I apologize for my tears, which are flowing freely now.

He looks at me and says, Hey, come on. It’s me.

So I blow my nose and we keep talking. Soon I’m feeling at peace, like the reservoir is drained, no more pressure left behind the dam. He gives me a hug and, because by this time it’s past two, I let the poor bastard get some sleep.

It’s three days ago. I am sitting around the kitchen table with two good friends. We’re drinking cheap beer and leftover wine. We all have to get up in the morning, but nobody feels like leaving.

It’s hard to believe how easy it is to talk with them, how much we have in common, even if the specifics differ. I tell them how it used to be for me; how it still is for so many men I know; how I would have once given anything for a night like this; how grateful I still am that such nights are not only possible now, but practically commonplace.

At one point I notice that I’m crying, but that’s okay — that is what people do when they are very happy or very sad.

Next moment we are all laughing again.