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On shitty friendships

"Lately I've been imagining a life of showing up for others, celebrating them, when they reach certain milestones. And then those people never showing up to celebrate mine."

“I don’t want to be a shitty friend to you,” he said. I paused.

A few weeks earlier, I had invited the people I loved most to celebrate a milestone in my relationship with my partner, a move towards formalizing our commitment. I’m not sure what I expected. A significant proportion of those invited were what many would identify as “conservative” Catholics. Some had already expressed discomfort with our relationship, despite my having told them that we weren’t planning on getting married and my vocal commitment at the time to seek to live by Church teaching. A part of me did fear they wouldn’t come to our little celebration, but I wasn’t emotionally prepared for the reality of it. I showed up at the brewery to celebrate, and, struck by the close friends who chose not to come, I felt like I had been slapped in the face a dozen times.

The Celebration

I had grown up a very “conservative” Catholic myself. I desperately wanted to be a “good Catholic man,” to live by my Church’s teachings in a way that was full and integrative. I think this is partly what drove my intense commitment to friendship and community in my late teens and early twenties. I saw these as the only possible spaces for love, intimacy, and commitment. I structured my life around hospitality, a home shared with others, and a commitment to show up for my friends. It was a life I really liked. It was a life I loved. I loved my friends. I celebrated them. Birthdays, promotions, engagements, weddings, births. Their joys were my joys.

Then I invited them to celebrate me. The memory of it still makes my stomach turn. I heard from a number of attendees who couldn’t make it but wanted to share that they were happy for us and that they loved us. Then I heard about the attendees who had discussed amongst each other whether celebrating a commitment between my partner and me (not even a marriage, mind you) would involve “complicity in sin.”

Josh fell in that latter group. He chose not to come, out of his moral discomfort. We had no contact for a few weeks after the celebration. When he texted me, asking to get a drink or coffee, I was still hurt but had cooled off from the anger. I still valued our history as friends and wanted to be able to have some kind of positive relationship. I proposed cocktails.

Drinks

It’s hard for me to underscore how much Josh is a good person. He’d supported me through very difficult times in my life. He’s generous to an extent that can be irresponsible at times. He tries.

He asked me how things were going in my relationship. I knew he didn’t approve of same-sex relationships generally. But I shared anyways. I talked about questions for the future. I imagined the possibility of adopting children. That possibility caused something to happen on Josh’s face, a slight grimace creeping at the edges of a smile that seemed a bit performative. I felt a discomfort breaking out at his seams.

“Well,” Josh said, “That’s not what I want for you.”

Of course, I thought. He doesn’t approve of the relationship, and he probably doesn’t approve of same-sex couples adopting either.

“But,” he continued, “I hope I’d have a role in their life.”

I think I was much better at holding back my own grimace, keeping my discomfort deep beneath the surface. I don’t think my face changed. As a gay Catholic who had spent much of my life in communities of Joshes, I had learned how to hide reactions to comments that hurt me. I set aside the shock, the flashing inconsistencies between Josh’s statements. I changed the topic.

I now wonder, “Why would I want my child to be around someone who would prefer they not be with their parents? Under what conditions would I consider that good for my kid?”

A few other things stand out to me from that conversation. One thing stands out in particular.

We talked a bit about the celebration. I told him that his decision not to come had hurt me deeply, that it made me angry.

“I couldn’t go,” Josh said.

No, you chose not go to, I thought. But I knew what he meant. He felt that his religious convictions prohibited him from celebrating our relationship.

“I just,” I said, “I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the course of my life. And I think about relationships, and milestones, and celebrations. Lately I’ve been imagining a life of showing up for others, celebrating them, when they reach certain milestones. And then those people never showing up to celebrate mine.”

The creeping grimace on Josh’s face changed into something different, something characterized more by sadness.

“I know, I know,” he said. “I don’t want to be a shitty friend.”

Shitty friend. I hadn’t really thought about it in those terms. But I realized that this was what I had described to Josh. Josh had named it. Shitty friends.

I didn’t know what to say. I mused about heaven, “You know, it’ll be nice one day, after this life, when all these things are finally made clear.” It was my way of moving away from that topic, and trying to inject some kind of hope into what I was starting to worry was a shitty friendship.

Mutuality

Every year I learn more the importance of mutuality. Aristotle says that this feature distinguishes friendship. Where you love and give to another, but there isn’t love and gift in return, one doesn’t have a “true friendship.” Rather, one has a relationship of “goodwill,” as Aristotle puts it.

In Christian terms, we might think of the distinction as that between “true friendships” and “relationships of charity.” True friendship has mutuality. Charitable relationships involve one person giving to the other, without that mutuality which is the requisite of true friendship.

This is partly what makes Christ call for friendship with us so astonishing. He is God, a being who infinitely surpasses us. And yet he chooses to have a sort of equality with us, enabling friendship. He comes down to us and calls us friends because “everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” We can become friends with Christ, because in a mysterious way he allows us to be equals in his knowledge. He makes us able to share in mutuality what the Father has made known.

Some have pressured me to just let go of my “shitty friendships.” But for Christians, we don’t have to choose between “true friendships” and “shitty friendships.” We can, instead, frame these as true friendships and relationships of charity. In contrast to “shitty friendships,” relationships of charity are good. Christians are called to live lives of charity. It is good to give where we do not receive. It is holy to do so. But it is also good to know when this is happening, when friendship isn’t really true friendship, but is rather something else. I hope that seeing these relationships in this way can help queer Christians bring strength, compassion, and joy to them, rather than fear, anxiety, and insecurity.

As I consider the place of queer Christians in Christian communities, I realize that we tend to be frequent conduits of charity, of goodwill, offering much more than we are offered in return. This should be seen as a testimony to the strength of the queer Christian community. But the Christian life needs more than this. It needs (it demands) friendship as well. So even if we maintain what we can see now in many ways as relationships of charity, we also should go out and find true friends. We should find the people who we will show up for, and who will show up for us in return.


Chris Damian

is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. His writings focus primarily on Catholicism, homoeros, and law, and have appeared in Logos, Commonweal Magazine, Church Life Journal, and other publications. In his free time, he enjoys hosting seminars, creative writing workshops, and dinner parties.

3 comments on “On shitty friendships

  1. Thanks Chris. You gave me a different paradigm I plan on adopting for all the “shitty friendships” currently in my life.

    Sent from my iPhone

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  2. Anna Damian

    Friends will come and go but your family is there for life. You are loved beyond measure.

    Like

  3. Lorraine Kim

    This blog was lovely, heartfelt, and poignant. I’m the (straight) leader of our church’s LGBTQ+ group, and I think this topic of “shitty friendships” would make for good discussion. It is funny, sad, and very real. Friendships of charity? Yes! That makes sense, too. I think I’m going to enjoy this blog.

    Like

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