No-One Owes You Friendship

The latest post from the wonderful Captain Awkward has spurred me into finally writing a post that’s been stewing in the back of my mind for months now.

I have a hard lesson for you. I had to learn it and a lot of people don’t seem to have learned it. It’s summarised in the title of this post – NO-ONE OWES YOU FRIENDSHIP.

You deserve friends, dear reader, you deserve to be loved and wanted and appreciated for the beautiful, unique, irreplaceable person that you are. You deserve to be surrounded by people who love you and are happy to see you, people who you love and whose company you enjoy. You deserve that and I hope you have it.

But if, now or in the future, you don’t, you can’t demand it of anyone. No-one owes you. No other person in the entire world has to love you or like you or be your friend. No person is obliged to take delight in you, to want to spend time with you or find you endearing.
No matter how many hobbies or interests you have in common, no matter how much DNA you share, no matter how many hours you have to spend together at college or Uni or work together anyway, no matter if you think they’re the best person in the world – no person is obliged to like you or want to spend time with you. Nothing you can say or do will mean a person has to be your friend and even someone who was your friend isn’t obliged to always stay your friend.

I know it’s scary but it’s true. It’s also kind of liberating.

Since nothing you do can make someone be friends with you, you can concentrate on just being the awesomest person you can be and then people will want to be your friend.

“BUT BUT… ” I hear you say, “But Liam, surely people do have obligations to each other, one is an island and all that?”
Well, yes. People owe you exactly what you owe them. They should treat you with respect and kindness because you are a person, they should help you with your struggles if they can and do what they can to see to your safety. They should respect your boundaries and your autonomy and treat you as a person with your own life beyond whatever circumstance they meet you in. You should try to do that for everyone you meet too. People who can’t treat you with respect and decency when you’re not their friend are not people you should become friends with, they are likely not very nice people.

We all want and deserve friendship. We are social creatures after all. But please don’t let your need for friendship turn into a sustained attempt to get friendship out of one particular person or group of people.
I’ve had people try to become my friend or assume that they are my friend because we have a few things in common and it isn’t fun. They tried to tell me that we were friends even though I didn’t feel it or that we should be friends even though I didn’t want to just because we had things in common. This made me really uncomfortable and I’ve had to get my actual friends to help me say “No, we are not friends. I’m sure you’re a nice person but you’re not my friend and I don’t want to be your friend. Please stop following me around”. It’s confusing and upsetting but I can see how easily I could have done much the same thing.

No-one owes you their friendship and nothing you can do will make someone be your friend. Someone not being your friend or not wanting to be your friend doesn’t mean they think you’re a bad person, just that they don’t want to be your friend. Maybe you look like someone else they used to know and didn’t like or maybe you talk too fast for them to understand you. Maybe they only want to have three friends and they’ve already got three. That’s on them. Just be the most awesome, most kind and respectful, wonderful YOU you can be and see if any friends come along.

“But what if someone doesn’t like me because of my disability / race / sexuality / trans status / gender / HIV status / accent / religion / nationality /etc? Once they know more about it / me, surely they’ll have to get over their prejudice and be my friend, right?”
That’s still on them. As much as it is awful that someone might miss out on being friends with the awesome person that is you because of a fact about yourself that you can’t change, they still don’t owe you friendship even if you try to teach them about it. And as you’re not a mind reader, you can’t be sure you have the whole picture. Does your workmate find your accent annoying or is he perhaps hard of hearing and literally cannot understand what you’re saying without extensive lip-reading? Is your friend avoiding you since your transition because she is transphobic or because she knows her parents are?
And if it turns out that their reasons for not being your friend are in fact based in prejudice and bigotry, here is a serious question for you – why do you want them to be your friend?

I know it’s scary. I know how easy it is to catastrophize and imagine yourself doomed to eternal friendlessness. It’s okay.
Just throw yourself into being an awesome person. Trust me on this. Even if you don’t make friends from it, you’ll still be awesome. But I bet you’ll make friends too.

Life Gets in the Way

To mix things up a bit, here’s some fiction.

I’m (slowly) working on a collection of short stories about the people who don’t become heroes. People who were given the chance to fight and, for all sorts of reasons, didn’t. I’m calling it “Quitters, Cowards and Idiots”.

This one is about Izaak Silverstein, a young man living in our future maybe a hundred years from now and how he fell out of activism.

Life Gets in the Way

If you’ve ever moved far away from friends and family and promised to keep in touch, you’ll know how it happened. That promise is almost always broken quickly and awkwardly and those “left behind” don’t understand that it was an entirely unintentional breach of their trust. It just happens.

We humans promise more than we can give and yet knowing this we all expect exactly what we’re owed from each other. As if we are the only one in the world who ever lets the phone keep ringing or says “Oh dear I just found your email in the spam box three weeks late!” As if no one else has ever committed themselves to two events on the same night and forgotten one or found themselves too busy or too drunk or too asleep to call home at the expected time. We are fallible and we each know it but find it so hard to accept that everyone else is fallible too.

My parents never quite lost the feeling that I was deliberately avoiding them after I started University. I said I’d email every week, phone twice a week and text in between. I didn’t keep that up even for my first term. They even added me on social networking sites as a “friend” and checked hopelessly for updates, wanting news that I was okay (or perhaps that I wasn’t) and a way to feel close to me despite the physical distance between us. Life, of course, got in the way of keeping in contact. It’s what life does.

And that’s how it happened. Life got in the way. And just like I know my parents sit around their too large dinner table and sigh that their kids just don’t seem to want to see them any more, so I know exactly how I am being spoken of by those I left behind in The Movement and what assumptions they are making about me and all those who leave.

I often wish that I had left, actually. I wish that there was a day when I had said “I am leaving and I’m not coming back”. There wasn’t one – rather than leave I slowly stopped turning up – and if I were to go back now to leave properly I’m sure many people there would have no idea who I was anyway.

Graduating was part of it. Job-hunting. Even dating and taking that Yiddish class came into it. Just other things to do. Other things that were important like shopping for food and turning up in shul every now and then. Life getting in the way.

Unlike some people I could mention but won’t, I’ve never really been Izaak-who-works-for-the-movement or Izaak-who-puts-all-his-time-into-the-movement. I’m Izaak-who-has-a-life, Izaak-who-needs-to-work-to-eat, Izaak-who-wants-to-see-his-mother-at-least-occasionally. I’m Izaak not “some guy who is big in The Movement”. I never wanted to be that kind of guy and I never was – and some people chose to see that as a lack of commitment. I didn’t see it that way. I still don’t.

I think The Movement is doing important and necessary work and that what I did to help when I was still a part of it may turn out to be the most important and significant work I ever do, the most useful thing I ever do with my life. It really might be. Yet… other things can be more important in the moment.

I’ve seen people make themselves sick by working too hard for this, I’ve seen personal relationships fall apart and people losing their homes through not paying their rent on time putting too much money and time and energy into this work. I get it, it’s important, I believe that too but is it really worth ruining your life over?

It probably is, actually. Many people would die for this cause, many have. We can’t afford to let the Earth start another war against our friends in the next star system but neither should anyone be asked to risk losing everything to stop that from happening. We have homes and families and empty stomachs to think of and I wish no one considered us weak for sometimes finding those things more pressing and urgent than preventing a war that hasn’t started yet.

I know that many in The Movement consider those of us who stop attending meetings to be cowards – too afraid to give everything we have. And, yes, that’s what we’re scared of but it’s not cowardice. It’s pragmatism.

And it’s mainly because of that pragmatism that I left. Life got in the way. I’m getting married next Spring, war or no war, but few friends from that long period of my life will be there. The ones that are will be those who left by the sheer force of pragmatism and the in-the-moment necessity to do other things, those who perpetually say that they might attend next week. The others would not begrudge the lack of an invite but will be too busy to attend, maybe too busy to reply. Saving The World can do that to you. If they do reply, they will enquire whether I will attend a meeting next week or if they’ll see me at the next rally and I will say “Maybe”.

I am human and flawed and I care passionately about stopping the war but more than that, though I know it’s trivial in comparison, I care about Izaak Silverstein and his home and his job and his Yiddish class where he met the woman he’s going to marry. I care about his parents and siblings and coming home for Hanukkah, I care about his car insurance and getting his broken TV fixed in time for the Olympics.

Like any other person, I care firstly about myself and my family and if that makes me a coward, then so be it.