A portrait of pain: words from before the blog

This morning I remembered something I wrote about two years ago about friendships, relationships, and isolation. It was before I started writing in this space. The style is different, it’s really a journal entry, not something written for publication. It is also rather maudlin in places. For that I don’t apologise but ask that you understand it is a portrait of a moment in time. Is it true? No, in that it contains a lot of lies I told myself. Yes, in that it is how I felt. I was interested in a girl and she was not in me, I had had some struggles with my friends. And I was alone for a day in Spain. I have not edited it apart from grammar and spelling, it is what it is, it is a portrait of pain.

The words that would soothe this troubled mind, The ones I hunt for, search for, long for. The words I think will take away the pain, all the hurt. The words that will bring clarity out of confusion. The form of letters brought together in phrases and fragments and rarely, carefully, composed sentences that stop short of extended prose but lacks the beauty and grace to be poetry.

But it’s not the words that require attention. But the troubled mind. Torn between dreams of grandeur and doubts of inconsequence. A mind that won’t stand still. Not for a moment. That will not settle, that refuses to be stilled. A torment of thoughts and emotions meshed together. Thoughts that refuse to leave and emotions that I am not sure are there.

Dangling in my mind. Taunting my solitude. Tempering my calm, peaceful, afternoon. Beneath the trees in Girona’s historic quarter. As I ponder why do I need both isolation from people and affirmation from them of my worth? If, in fact, it is their approval I want. Because I am not certain that I am able to receive it. I am not sure that I have the capacity to believe that anyone would recognise anything of worth in me at all.

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Community is like swimming fully clothed

Black and white breakfast clubCommunity is one of those words that floats around. It fades in and out, it is always something that we seem to want more of and always something we perhaps take a little for granted. It is there when we don’t need it and not enough when we do.

It is not the fluffy comfortable stuff made up of laughs and inconsequential conversation, but nor is it just those chats that fall into the accountability category when we talk about our sin and where we’ve got it all wrong, and where we pledge to do better next time. I’ve been turning this one over for a while, several years kind of a while.

Last week I sent out an email, I invited some friends around for dinner. And the problematic word in that sentence is some. On Saturday we ate food, we threw popcorn at each other and we played Jungle Speed. But I was wrestling with an awkwardness and was ill at ease. I’m not very good at curating social space, it doesn’t come naturally it causes me to fret and fear, it encourages the anxieties of social isolation and the vulnerable liminality between the invite and the acceptance.

I’d not invited all of my friends, and there was some ad hoc rationality constructed. Mostly I’d set a number in my head and stuck to that. There was no exclusion intended, but I think it was felt. And the irony was that this vague idea of community was what prompted my rare foray into social organisation.

I have a hunch that we’re not always very good at finding that line between the organised spiritual and the casual friendship, the space where the hard questions get asked. I want to be known by people who do not shy away from saying the difficult things. I want to be known by people who can ask why I didn’t invite certain people, who can kindly, carefully, question my actions.

Church makes a grand play for providing community, where else are the young and the elderly, the rich and the poor, the South American, South African and South Korean stood side by side? It makes the play but doesn’t always follow through, it has the potential, but not always the result. Sometimes I am at my most lonely when I am in the biggest crowds. And it concerns me how frequently those large crowds are in church.

Community is something I long after. Maybe it is the absence of more permanent relationships that prompt the searching, maybe if I had what I thought would fulfil me I would not be frustrated that nothing else quite made do.

And then are the times when I need a smack round the head, when I need grabbing by my ankles and some sense shaken into me and my maudlin mood shaken off. Tonight Lauren Dubinsky did that for me:

Community is not accountability to sinless-ness. Jesus has already given us that.

Community is the people who surround you that ease your burdens.

Community is the people who fight the same battles that you do; laugh when you laugh, cry when you cry.

Community is the people who are in the exact same predicament you are in. All the same struggles, all the same questions.

Community is the group of people where, when you enter the room, you can collapse on the sofa and not care if the way you’re sitting makes you look like you have a double chin.

A beautiful story follows, if you didn’t before, pause now to read it all, but it draws to an end with this: Community is just… life. Willing to give, willing to receive. Willing to believe that we are all equal, and no one moves forward without the other.

It threw me over the edge and forced some perspective into my myopic vision. I’d been fretting over social gatherings and awkward subsets and limited invites, all of my own creation. I’d been frustrated that the community I wanted to be a part of was not forming in the ways that I would like. I got a little angry when things didn’t go my way.

I was worrying about whether I stood a chance at building the relationships I wanted, relationships I imagine I need.

All I was doing was trying to turn the community that I have into the community that I want.

Last year I wrote that: “Community is the gradual unravelling of the layers that we shroud our innermost being with. It’s the place where we find the courage to bare our souls. It’s the people with whom we can share the things that hurt more than the words we muster can convey.”

And yes, I suppose it is, but I think it is also where the layers of clothes stick together like swimming in the river fully clothed. Community is not only where the good stuff happens, where the spiritual impartation, the rebuking and correcting, the admonishing and training in righteousness, community is where we sometimes don’t manage to do so much of that.

We are in community, we are swimming together, but frequently we are swimming fully clothed.

Friendship with the other

I’ve always had lots of female friends. There’s something about using the word female over girl that immediately takes the romantic assumption from the form of words and convinces me it is as simple as that. Because at most points in my life my closest friendships have been with girls.

Yet when I suggested yesterday that maybe this wasn’t always the most ideal situation it prompted a deluge of justification for why they are healthy, important and biblically directed. I call four direct messages a deluge. In the early days of the life of this blog I wrote about how friendship can get in the way, and I stand by those thoughts but maybe I am trying to reduce relationships to a simple form that cannot hold them.

I reflect on the nature of the many friendships I’ve had and cherished. Of the girls at school who in hindsight treated me a bit like their non-gay, gay best friend, the non threatening bridge into the male gender who they’d pepper with questions and attempts to reassure themselves of their attractiveness and possibilities for romance.

I think about the friend who as we walked told me she now liked the man who’s advances she had previously rebuffed.

Of the lady who made me nearly cry with her insight to my character. And I only liked her more.

Perhaps I ponder why it was a certain girl was sure I was interested in her because of how I chose to spend my time.

The friends I’ll meet for dinner and not think twice. Until later and the encounter is replayed in my head and the doubts begin to fester as to the status of our friendship.

The two girls I spent a whole day with not so long ago. Friendship I enjoyed without pressure or the need to act up to impress or to be one of the guys.

I could blame it on my family and their friends, my sisters, their friends and the almost entirely female friendship pool I grew up surrounded by. On my darker more sombre days I wonder if I play certain cards to keep emotionally detached: enough friendship to sate my loneliness, but not too much to ever cause a rupture of unease. I opt for the easier option in the short term even if it becomes more complicated as life roles on.

Last night I listened to Rowan Williams, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, pontificate on the nature of personhood and how a proper grasp of this moves us beyond a focus on the individual and towards a fuller and healthier understanding of each other. The bearded wonder was at his cerebral best, which meant I didn’t understand too much, and quotes from Lossky, Spaemann, Sennett and Augustine provided some needed light relief. Maybe once I’ve had a chance to listen to the audio again, read the transcript and rubbed my head a little more, grown some more facial hair and accumulated the subsequent wisdom I might record some more thought through reflections.

He said something along these lines: “What makes me a person… I stand in the middle of a network of relations, the point at which all the lines cross.”

So whether the relationships are clarified, confused, distorted or direct, it is the patchwork quilt which we inhabit that makes up much of what defines as a person rather than any anatomical structure.

He also said:

Last summer I wrote a couple of posts while reading Alan and Debra Hirsch’s Untamed and explored the idea of otherness and the need for a deep ‘I-thou’ relationship with each other that fully values the other as something different to yourself. The differences that lie between us are what makes it so important that we grow closer together. We understand each other better by a life that is lived together.

In Christian theology we are used to referring to the otherness of God but we need to get better at embracing the otherness of each other. There’s a tendency to want us all to be alike, custom built, unique in the eyes of God but conformed by the power of the church.

Of course there’s confusion, misdirected emotions, ambiguity over whether you like someone or they like you. And it’s easy to see the tortured web we weave and opt for the clarity of straight lines. Boundaries and definitions, what is in and what is out. What is allowed and what is not. What is inappropriate and leads towards sin and what is healthy, positive and life affirming.

But here’s the thing. Risk is life affirming. Have you ever felt fully alive playing it safe?

Ambiguity is the love child of a universe embracing both chaos and wonder. Otherness is the gift of a God that wants us to get better not become the same. A wise lady put it like this: “Rules lack the grace required for the complexity and nuances of human interaction”.

I could seek clarity from every friendship I form with a girl. We could have a contract, it could be laid out whether or not we were pursuing anything other than friendship. There could be defined steps and processes, it could be recorded and audited, inspected and refined. It would remove the confusion that haunts as you lie in bed at night and wonder the precise meaning of the final words, or intent behind the body language you thought might convey something approaching affection.

It would also destroy the beauty that forms as you approach someone else, hesitant, faltering, nervous. If I knew all the answers I would ask no questions, and if I did not question the nature of the other I would not know just how different it is yet how alike we are. If I am only affirmed in my personhood by relationships with others, that relationship, whatever form it might take has to come before any determination of where it might end.

Ambiguity is part of the fun. Let’s enjoy it, and not run away scared.

Quarter life crisis – a community called love

One of the things that I’ve highlighted as a defining feature for the lives of plenty of people in their twenties is a lack of commitments. This can take the form of getting married and having families later, changing jobs frequently, and being unable, or unwilling, to buy a house. The composite effect of these trends is a generation that is transient and is always open to change. But moreover, change is championed as a good in and of itself, decisions that could tie you down are delayed in order to be able to change at a moment’s notice.

I don’t think this is all bad, I think there are in fact very good things to be said for an attitude that is willing to experiment, and a flexibility to change when that is necessary. But it can also have a corrosive effect. It can shun stability as boring or constricting, it can limit the depth of relationships, and it stands in the way of developing community.

We’re so open to change that we no longer know what holds us together.

In the absence of married and family life, not only is permanence a luxury, but community is harder to form. I may have plenty of friends, I may have a diary full of social activities, and facebook notifications inviting me to more, but am I part of a community that invests in each other and cares and grows.

There is something about being part of a family unit that makes the development of community easier. And as you grow older and more people shift into that camp the remaining options become sparser. This is on top of the life in a city such as London where people frequently work long hours, commute considerable distances, live far apart and have hectic social lives. Where in this space does the energy and capacity for community?

A contradiction is at work here, I want to be a part of something, I want to know people and I want to be known. But I don’t always make the sacrifices necessary to make that happen. I tick the box to say that I want it but my priorities tell a different tale. We turn creating community into a purpose that we can reduce to defined functions and complete. We will spend time with people, we will eat together, we will be accountable to one another. We will do so much while still failing to build a community of love.

There are two things that mimic community but in my experience tend to fall short. The first is friendship groups and social activity and the second are church small groups. I think they come at the need from two different directions, friendships are built on time and communal activity, small groups based on defined purpose and structured meeting.

And we avoid intentionality, whether it’s in friendships or in church small groups. We like things to go with the flow, intentionality in friendship seems forced, and our church groups are too often simply a secondary reprise of the Sunday before. We can do a lot of stuff, whether it’s social or spiritual activity, but that doesn’t by itself translate to community.

I’m beginning to think that the starting point for developing an authentic community is a willingness to prioritise, so that while other things will make their calls on our life, the community to which we commit does not suffer. The social dimension of the gospel means that we cannot live out our faith alone, or in narrow silos unconcerned with each other. It needs an integrated space where we may live different lives, and work out our own stories but we can come together, and in doing that the stories of our life will always be changed.

Community for introverts

I like to have time on my own. And sometimes that means I find church awkward, because it is built around community. The building of relationships, the time spent sharing experiences, the aura of accountability and the torturous after-church process of mingling. I’m an introvert.

I want to be part of an honest, open and growing community. It’s going to be tough.

But introversion isn’t an excuse, it’s not enough to say that I find forming relationships difficult, or that I express my emotions more easily to anyone on these pages than to a friend sat across the table from me.

Credit: Jill Donnelly

I am done pretending that I need to be someone else. I am done trying to be the centre of attention, the hub of social groups, the person who is always the last to leave. Because when I try to do these things I find that I am not the centre of attention, I don’t have the glue that brings groups together and it’s just a paranoid fear of missing out that causes me to stick around until the pub closes.

Trying to be someone who I am not has shown up my weakness rather than my strength.

Recently quite a bit has been written about the role of introverts in the church, how they are sidelined by the nature and activities of church, how they are relegated as second class pew fodder, while the extroverts run the show. There is a sort of begrudging acknowledgement of the worth of an introvert’s preferences, a nod to the value of times of silence and solitude. But they are the optional extras of church life, by their very nature they do not come to the fore in the collective life of the congregation.

So I find myself in a tight spot. I want to be a part of a community. I want to know and I want to be known. I want people to look into my life and tell me what they see, I want the heartache of difficulties embraced together and I want the joy of celebrating when we overcome. But I don’t want to do it on the terms that I’m told it needs to be done.

Here’s a peculiar little thing: we value people who are popular and surrounded by others, but we also value travelling light – living with the freedom and the flexibility to move on whenever the next thing comes along. We have made peering over the fence to check if the grass is any greener into an art form. We have embraced superficiality with considerable sophistry.

And often I find that crowds are just another place to hide from people. So maybe our tendency to have lots of people around us is a way to limit how well any one person will know us. When we make to leave our send off will be packed to the rafters but our life will be empty very soon after.

I know that everyone relates differently, for some they can handles having hundreds of friends, for others even a few is a taxing endeavour. So maybe I shouldn’t judge, perhaps I should keep out of this, instead sort out my own life out and leave everyone else to worry about theirs. But that’s just the problem, we hide behind propriety and make great play of our difference as an excuse for our deficiencies; we let each person go about their life in their own way.

And we miss the chance to do it together. Because community means compromise. The giving of the self to serve others, the joining together with people who are not the same. The learning together, the loving each other, the living that brings each of us to life.

I wish I had a ten point plan: community building for introverts. I could market it to the disenfranchised half of the church. But I don’t have that. All I’ve got is a bunch of friends I want to know better, and who I want to know me better.

And maybe, just maybe, one day at a time the layers that disguise us all will give way to a ragged, radical, community.

When love and life collide

Friends are the people we want to be around. But it is not always that easy, it’s not all about a smooth road which veers to our every whim. Because maybe, friendship is fundamentally about conflict.

I want to do something. Someone else wants to do something else. We search for harmony in our relationships, but the life we live pays testament that it is conflict and not harmony that usually wins the day.

It can be mundane, it can be trivial, it can be easy and it can be hard. It could be what to do with a final Saturday in the summer sun. Or maybe who we include in certain activities.

The practicalities will often be verbalised, the differences clear. But many of the areas of conflict will go unspoken, they will simmer under the surface. We will continue as though there is no disagreement, that everything is hunky dory.

But I am committed to getting through it. And I am determined to not let my tendency for isolation to let me flee from challenging situations.

I’ve been away with my friends a couple of times over the summer and each time the fun and harmony was sprinkled with a dose of conflict. And perhaps I was more to blame than most for the disruption. While I may not have handled the specific situations particularly well, they did cause me to think about how much space we allow for conflict in our friendships.

There’s a memorable line in the film “Good Will Hunting” when Sean is telling Will about his relationship with his wife: ‘The little idiosyncrasies that only I know about: that’s what made her my wife. Oh she had the goods on me too, she knew all about my little peccadilloes. People call these things imperfections, but they’re not. Ah, that’s the good stuff.’

We think that the best a relationship can be is one with complete harmony and an absence of problems. This simply misses the point. We live in a world where relationships are broken and we are fuelled by selfishness and greed. If our pursuit of relationships, both romantic and platonic does not take this into account we will end up both disappointed and spurred on to build a facade of perfection that does not exist.

Maybe because we have a certain intentionality in romantic relationships we accept the need to ‘get through conflict’, but even this misses the point that it is a never ending challenge. Things do not get better once you’ve argued and made up once. But in friendships there is rarely the acknowledgement of the need for hard graft.

It also seems a bit too eager, to go into a group of friends and start off the conversation. And you can come across as the fun police, especially if you want to say something unpopular. But sometimes these things need to be said, there needs to be room for the dissenting opinion to be voiced. Because it is just in the circumstances that it is not given space that peer pressure takes its toll. When other people are doing something or saying something and you just go along for the ride.

There’s two different categories of conflict here, there are those which are based on subjective preferences, where some form of compromise needs to be found between people with myriad different opinions and views. There’s often not a solid right or a wrong thing to be done. Should we go to the beach or the park on a sunny day?

But there is a second category, and within the church sometimes we consider ourselves exempt from this. We live under the assumption that in our interaction with the wider world we have to be on our guard against temptation, but among our church friends all is fine.

I think I am more tempted to behave in a manner dishonouring to God around Christians. Maybe it is because I don’t take such care, but also because to suggest that something is wrong is not only about my beliefs and values, but I am explicitly questioning theirs.

So how do we create the space for these kind of conversations to take place? How do we let ourselves be challenged when we are behaving in an inconsiderate way, are we too protective of being in the right that we squash any challenges before they are spoken?

Friends with benefits

Except, what sort of friends don’t come with benefits?

If they don’t are they really your friends? I’ve talked a lot about romance and relationships over recent weeks, but I want to pop across the fence to explore emotions of perhaps a more challenging, and certainly less spoken of, kind. Those you share with your friends.

I give a lot of time in my head to thinking about someone who I might be interested in and rarely a second thought about who I class as my friends. And while romance is a messy business at least it has a clarity and definition that is largely missing with friendship.

A romantic relationship can be clouded with confusion and aching with fragile emotions, but the emotions are identified and the parties to the relationship are hopefully limited. And although people talk about falling in love and stumbling into something as though it happens by accident, I suspect there is always an element of intentionality involved.

I recently read “Safe People” by Henry McCloud and John Townsend. I was slightly suspicious as it is what I would class as a ‘counselling book’. And it is. But all the same they make some very challenging points. How much thought do we really give to the affect the people around us have, do they help us grow, do they stretch us, force us to be better, do they cause us to love ourselves or love each other? Do they ask for our service or help us serve?

I’m aware that I’m probably not what they would describe as a Safe Person. I am too self centred, I am too concerned about getting everything right. I use friendships for what I can get out of them rather than what I can give. On occasion I want to rescue, and on others I am the one in need of help.

But then again, I’m not sure any of us are completely safe. I think each of us tend towards narcissism at times. Each of us lack the strength of character to love completely and selflessly.

Friendship is too accidental, too often it’s just the people we happen to be around. For me it sometimes comes down to who will have me. And that’s not left me feeling able to be picky.

I don’t think it’s about dumping our current crop and trading them in for better models. Otherwise the scrapheap would be overflowing.

So how do we grow safe together?

We write a story together. We learn that we are not just living for the moment, that it’s not just about the enjoyment of now, but about the place where we are heading.

I want my friends to make me a better person. I want them to call me out when I am an idiot, and love me when I am falling to pieces. I want to laugh with them, I want them to cry with me, I want to know that even when my worst sides turn to face the world they will not walk away.

But what is the destination? What is the script of the story we write? And perhaps most challenging of all, who are we letting do the writing? Throw me your thoughts, we’ve got a little way to travel with this topic. Next time I’ll pick back up on the idea of conflict, and how this comes into play.

Please talk among yourselves…

Because I’m leaving on a jet plane.

I’m off on holiday, and I need it. A week in the sun, with little else to do but read and relax, and maybe play a few overly competitive family board games.

I’ve got a couple of posts lined up on handling conflict, especially between friends. However, bus diversions, flying haribo and Jungle Speed conspired last night to prevent me finishing them up and scheduling them for while I’m away. Instead I’m jotting a few thoughts as I hurtle towards Gatwick amid the awakening dawn.

Friendships are tough. I touched on a similar theme in relation to our expectations of romantic relationships, but friendships will not always be easy going. And if they are you’re probably not giving enough to them. I struggle with that, I want things to fall into place without disagreement or discord. But the melee of emotions and personalities will always bring differences to the surface.

So the question to ponder while I’m away, and that’s a hint to offer your thoughts in the comments below, is where do we go from there?

Do we flee from conflict, either to perpetually form new friendships or retreat into ourselves offering less of ourselves to each nascent friendship that emerges?

Do we fight for what is right, and can we ever know where subjective differences and objective rights and wrongs start and end? To put that another way, are we standing up for personal preference or something of value which is shared?

I like things nice and ordered, I prefer to calculate cost and benefit, but should such equations ever be applied to friendships? Isn’t that a bit too clinical, lacking in compassion? But I also get the idea that some people are good for you and others less so.

So where does fighting for friendship and forbearing with others give way staying in a situation that is unhealthy? I’m taking McCould and Townsend’s book ‘Safe People’ with me and it’s all about this, so I’m sure I’ll have some thoughts to share on my return but for now, I’ll just say it’s a tough one.

For someone inclined not to invest in friendships enough I shudder at the thought of pulling away because I know it would just exacerbate my introversion. I got cross with some friends on Sunday, maybe I had a point, I still think I do, but I obscured any valid comment with my aggression and undue personal hostility. The challenge for me is to continue to give more to friendships despite the challenges, but I want to know when it is also necessary to withdraw, maybe for the good of multiple people.

So there you go, the thoughts that hit the keyboard on a train at 4.30am. I cannot say enough how much your comments are a vital part of this blog, so talk among yourselves for the next week…

Postscript: I accidentally picked up the wrong bottle when going for some apple juice, and I discovered the wonder that is Copella apple and mint juice.