Today I did something that I rarely (if ever) do, and it was, well, hard.
I told an old friend I was disappointed in him.
The moment for the acknowledgement began innocently enough. I received an email from him which had a short blurb telling me about a friend he had known from childhood who had grown into a teenage wild child, and who eventually ended up incarcerated as an adult. My friend had discovered his whereabouts, and he wanted to share that revelation with me.
The email was a nice nod to me that something we had mulled over in conversation in the past mattered enough to him that he wanted to share it with me. It was a nice note for any other occasion, but it was a note that bothered me because I hadn’t heard from him in probably a year prior to receiving it, and for someone who once was a pretty serious friend, it was a note that felt saccharin and surfacy.
While I don’t want to ramble about the dynamics of this relationship, this friend was a very close friend a number of years ago, but he moved away to take a job. We remained good friends after his departure, but I came to know that he returned periodically to Albuquerque, and when he did, I never heard from him. I was perplexed by that behavior in him, but I stuffed it. And I just let things slide.
And our email exchanges went from involving and engaging to shallow and suspended.
I had a choice back at that time to confront my friend and deal with the issue, or to stay in silence and accept his actions, whether they bothered me or not. I chose to avoid an incident and to let my friend evade me. And in that decision, I chose to lose a friend by anesthesia.
I am sad it has taken me so long to realize that in any healthy relationship there is conflict, and it is conflict which allows you to grow together with someone else.
Reflecting on experiences over the last year, I realize I am one of those people who usually flees conflict at all costs because I have believed all my life that if I challenged and countered someone about something they did to me, or said to me, or said about me, they might reject me. I somehow came to believe that engaging in conflict was generally a precursor to losing a friendship, and I am one who clings so tightly to those friends that I find.
Somewhere down the line, I learned (or taught myself) that if I didn’t fight with people I cared about, I wouldn’t lose their approval or their love, and the relationship would remain in tact. And somewhere in that formulation, I overlooked the reality that if you don’t engage people you care about on a closer, more confrontative level, you’re relationship won’t be able to put down roots and deepen into intimacy.
I realize now that my take on conflict and confrontations has been pretty much all wrong. I’m realizing some new things.
Part of loving someone else requires that you can face conflict with them head on, and in doing so, still be graceful enough to deal with issues without attacking the other. Love confronts. It says “You matter enough to me that I want to deal with this problem between us.” If we face conflict but forego the fight, what are we saying to the other person about them, and ourselves? “I do not value you enough to be honest with you.”
Authenticity requires testing. If you are so scared that you cannot open a can of worms with someone else, you ultimately will not really grow to know who they truly are, and to be able to let them know who in reality you are.
For someone like me, who has spent much of his life standing by in silence hoping that accommodation would produce more intimacy with others, I realize that accommodation can only take you so far.
The truth is, if someone rejects me because I bring up an issue with them (an issue which would most likely not be petty, since I am not prone to just making up grievances), then they probably were not a friend worth having anyways.
Part of being loving is acknowledging the possibility of rejection- and accepting it. We have to embrace careful confrontation and even risk rejection if we want to go deeper with another human being.
Dealing with conflict is fertilizer in any relationship, though, if we can climb over expectations of rejection or loss of approval. If you and I can get through the “shoveling the crap” parts- exposing grievances, airing aches, and trying to mutually determine what happened in a situation, and why it hurt one or both parties- that conversation and process provides clarification and understanding that allows a relationship to strengthen- if it is not buried in a deluge of dung.
Ultimately, we are simply much more prone to fight for those that we can fight with, because if we can have conflicts with someone and resolve them with the relationship in tact, we have live at a new level of intimacy.
I emailed my friend back after I got his note today, sending a short reply, thanking him for sharing about his old buddy with me. And then I also included two brief sentences that were so hard to write, telling him I was disappointed with his curious appearance after his long absence, and how our friendship wasn’t what it used to be.
It was even harder to hit the “Send” button, launching that message into cyberspace, and ultimately into his mind.
An invitation for confrontation.
But I sent it.
Through confronted conflict comes opportunities to change, and to grow, and to move forward in friendship. The alternative- what I have been realizing as typically the M.O. of my life- is a losing way to deal with relationships and to find intimacy and to strengthen your identity.
The inability to face and to deal with conflicts will keep you living, barely, on the surface of life.
In your life, chance conflict, or stay shallow.
Me, I am going to try and confront more, and acquiesce less. The best things- and people- in life are worth fighting about, and fighting for.