I tend to think a lot about the people I have relationships with: what do I like about this person? What purpose does our relationship serve? How much time do I want to devote to this friendship? As someone who obsesses about having enough time to fanboy my favorite books and pop stars living a values-based life, I try my best to prioritize people who care about and act in ways that embody compassion for others, social justice, and other qualities I find admirable. My close friends know that I am very picky about who I spend time with, and I always say I would rather spend time on my own doing things that align with my values than hanging out with people just for the sake of it.
Reflecting on 2019, I noticed that I obsessed over a couple of people even when they did not align with all my values. For example, I fantasized about AWLOB, the labor organizer who led me on and then ghosted me. I also felt drawn to my female friend L, a radical queen who hates white supremacy and vocalizes her passion for racial justice in iconic ways. Both of these people did not communicate with me particularly well, though I still felt attracted to them and spent more time on them than I should have. Why the heck did I do that when I say that I care about my values? Am I a fraud who actually does not have red hair, does not stan BlackPink, and does not over disclose about his life on the internet?
This pattern of mine reminds me of this passage from Caroline Knapp’s magnificent memoir Appetites, when she talks about trying to fill her sense of self during her 20s with external measures of success like thinness, clothes, and then, men:
“Obsessions with men loomed large in those years, too, particularly with men who seemed to possess qualities I coveted but felt I lacked, men who might imbue me by association with power and competence, as if such attributes were contagious. These relationships were uniformly destructive (at least for me) and uniformly consuming, such an edge of desperation to them, such a compelling need to have someone fill in the blanks where anorexia used to be…”
This quote resonates with me because I think I spent so much time on AWLOB and L because I craved being radical by association. As a therapist and researcher and mentor who spends a lot of time working with people on the individual level, I often think – am I fighting systemic injustice enough? Am I really changing oppressive systems? – and these two people represented an answer to those existential questions. Of course, if I can get a labor organizer to keep crushing on me, then I must be radically left enough. Of course, if I can maintain a friendship with this racial justice warrior who calls out white people and complicit people of color like wildfire, then I must be doing my fair share to fight racism. Even though these people wounded me in varying degrees, I persisted in my yearning for them, perhaps in part to compensate for some insecurity I felt in myself.
After both of these people exited my life, I realized: I can be more radical on my own. I don’t need AWLOB or L to prove my passion for social justice. I feel like part of valuing social justice is recognizing that I’ll always have more growth to do anyway. So, I applied for and got accepted into a fellowship program in DC that trains people on how to organize. And I’m reading more books about anti-capitalism and other social justice concepts and applying them to the work I do. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to be friends or to associate with people who share similar values, like of course my closest friends also care about social justice and demonstrate that through how they engage with the world. But I want to spend time with people who both share core values and can care about me and support me, not just people who can talk the talk of social justice yet fail to practice it with the people in their actual lives.
The complexity of why we spend time with the people we spend time with reminds me of a different friend I initiated an indefinite break with. This friend, when she moved to a more isolated area, met her boyfriend and then prioritized spending most of her time with him as well as spending a lot of time with his friends. I wish this friend the best and she is a compassionate, empathetic, amazing human, but I do not want her lifestyle – and I won’t have her lifestyle, because I know how to satisfy my soul without a man. Even though I love my closest friends and our friendships, if one of our bonds were to end, I’d grieve, and I’d still be able to live a meaningful life because that’s the life I’ve made for myself.
How much do we draw inspiration from those we are close with and how much do we draw inspiration from ourselves? To what extent do our loved ones serve as reflections of ourselves and to what extent should we keep close or turn away people whose values or lifestyles clash with our own? I don’t think these questions come with easy or neat answers, and I imagine I’ll contemplate them throughout my life. I’d love to hear your thoughts and reactions to them as well as general reactions to this post. Until next time!