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!
8 responses to “Radical by Association”
Great choice to go on your program on organising and hopefully you’ll meet some like-minded people (I recently joined the Labour Party and there is a right old range of people at their meetings, including some wild-eyed conspiracy theorists, unfortunately!!). I think sometimes we do have to make allowances for our friendships as things ebb and flow through our lives. But having principles that are aligned in general and deeply is important to you, so it’s important to maintain that and I get that.
Thank you Liz for role modeling for me an effort to find like-minded people even if some of them you do not find particularly commendable! Yes I hear you about making allowances – I feel like I have a couple of close friends who I expect a bit more from though I have other friends who I see a little less often and I’m more flexible with my standards then. Hope you are well and sending warmth and strength your way.
First, I confess: When I saw AWLOB i feel so familiar and fun but forgot what each letter stands for. So I searched your old article to review it. Will be remembering it for a while.
I really like the title. I thought about it today and think it’s probably associated with everyone. We know that if we seek validation from others, it’s going to cause problems. But on the other hand, i feel like it’s in our human nature that we are in search of something we don’t have. I agree with you that we can learn to have those things for ourselves (and cheers to you;)
For me, it’s important for me to figure out the boundaries with those people I admire or wanna be friends with. Sometimes they are great with what they do, but they aren’t really good friends to be with.
Recently i decide to end a close friendship because I suddenly realized it is more about the “radical association” more than true connection and support. I didn’t face the fact that my friend wasn’t supportive and we don’t have the same value anymore, for a long time. I tolerant a lot of bad behavior and emotions from her because i associate being friend with her is like the tv version of two best girls since college, and I associate her image with this artistic, well-read, and progressive, understanding person . But I forgot the simple and important value of mine: if this person is not kind and supportive to you, even if she is best at her work, most impressive and everything, then what’s the point of being friend and giving my friendship to her?
And later I realized how much peace and energy I got back after I let go of that unhealthy friendship. And then I found other friends, who I didn’t see as racial as her, are actually really impressive and great and kind. And I regret that I didn’t spend enough time to reach out and talk to those people.
Aw thank you for this thoughtful comment as always Xin! I appreciate you making space for both, like how we can seek validation and inspiration from others while also cultivating what we week within others in ourselves. Though I wonder if it felt difficult at all, I’m glad to hear you were able to separate yourself from that friend who you no longer found compatibility with. Your note about the bff from college is interesting and makes a lot of sense to me; it parallels how I feel like people often persist in romantic relationships just to match this image of the significant other even if the actual relationship is dissatisfying or mediocre. Thanks as always for sharing your own process with these things and I’m sending a lot of warmth and strength your way!
Ah that’s so true! I did see my friendship with her that way. Never realize that until you point out. I also thought everyone MUST have a best friend. Thank you. This is helpful. 😀
I think we can draw inspiration from others. We also have to recognize their faults too. I know sometimes I’m envious how of others. But of course, I don’t see how hard they worked for it or sacrificed for it. Believe it or not, I have relatives in the US who support Trump. When he visits, he doesn’t bring up politics and I don’t either.
In a sort of related point, sometimes family and friends may share a character flaw or weakness we have. We end up shunning them or being angry at them because they remind us of our own weakness.
You always bring up good questions at the end of your blog. I hope you’ll continue to find time to blog and overshare.
You raise many important points here Matt, thank you! I appreciate the importance of drawing inspiration from others and recognizing other’s faults, as well as how sometimes we react to traits in others that we see and don’t like within ourselves. I love the thoughtfulness and self-awareness that these points you raise entail. Thanks for validating the questions I raise at the end of my post and yes, I’m happy I’ve been able to blog pretty consistently lately and it looks like at least for now I’ll be able to keep doing so. (:
Thomas (do you prefer Thomas, Tom, Tommy?… did you just cringe?)
I should thank you for always making me think and reflect about things I should pay more attention to. I just read your latest entry and there are so many thoughts that are zipping around my head. I have to settle them down before I could write a semi-coherent response.
Have a great weekend!