when your friends strip you down

This is the third entry in a series of posts on friendship. To find the others once they’ve been published, find the menu button in the upper right corner of the blog and see “Summer Friendship Series.”  

Vulnerability. Intimacy. Authenticity. Those are all pretty popular Christian buzzwords as of late, usually accompanied by an Instagram photo of daybreak from a mountain view or a crashing waterfall in the middle of an evergreen forest with a hipster backpack brand or some sort of “supply company” tagged toward the margins. Cheeky, right?

 

I’m not going to lie. I love a great nature shot or artsy portrait on a curated Instagram feed as much as the next millennial, but I think that perhaps we’ve turned those words into a brand in and of themselves, passing over their actual etymology in favor of a trendy aesthetic. All of a sudden, words like those get commoditized into hashtags and lose their meaning and appeal just as fast as the Billboard Top 40 and cheap gum, the difference being that people still listen to the same overplayed songs and buy $1 gum while we’re quickly losing the ability to actually be vulnerable and authentic.

 

We're quickly losing the ability to actually be vulnerable and authentic.

 

Maybe that’s because real vulnerability and real authenticity aren’t nearly as attractive in reality as the latest pop single or that Instagram photo with hundreds of likes. Most of the time, their true selves look a lot more like confessing dark secrets or having an ugly cry than a landscape panorama or a hand lettered poster of worship lyrics. I think that’s because true vulnerability and authenticity weren’t designed for social media or marketing campaigns. Instead, they fill the dark spaces where the light can’t quite reach past the masks we wear and the defenses we build up for protection against the outside world. They seep into the places where our voices fall to hushed whispers and where our hearts are afraid to even beat, lest someone hears, and oddly enough, they create safe spaces that aren’t guarded by walls, but rather by an understanding voice that says you aren’t alone and offers to cry with you.

 

True vulnerability and authenticity weren't designed for social media or marketing campaigns. They fill the dark spaces where the light can't quite reach past our masks and whisper that you're not alone while offering to cry with you.

 

Perhaps that’s why some of the most loving friends that I know, regardless of whether we’re close or not, are the ones who have had to walk through the valleys with looming shadows on either side. I think that their overflow of love comes from the fact that they’ve experienced the heaviness that comes from chronic pain and struggling. They know what it feels like, that a quick Bible verse or worship song isn’t going to fix the problem (though it could still make you feel a little better), and instead of trying to cheer you up, they take a seat next to you, pull their legs close to their chest the same way you do, and simply be with you.

 

My friend, Jordan, is good at that, and that’s no surprise to anyone who knows her. She’s a future nurse (as in she’s taking the NCLEX in a couple weeks, so if you want to pray for my friend, that’d be excellent), so her job will basically consist of taking care of people and making them feel better, at least in the oversimplified version of her job description, and I think that’s pretty fitting. She’s an incredibly compassionate soul, and I think a part of that can be attributed simply to her nature and another part to the fact that she’s gone through some heavier times herself and come out the other side.

 

Last summer was a particularly stormy period of life, with multiple things going sideways and a terrible attitude towards it all on my part to top it off. Needless to say, I wasn’t quite in a posture of being open to constructive criticism at the time. After one specific night of bomb after bomb being dropped, I was beyond fed up with life. I was taking summer classes at a school that I no longer wanted to be at, I didn’t like the vast majority of the people at this school or in my program, all of my closest friends were miles and miles away, and I really just wanted to bury myself in a hole for a few days and cry and feel sorry for myself. Sometimes you just get to points like that, and it’s completely okay.

 

At that moment, I distinctly remember drying some angry, confused tears with my sleeve and texting Jordan, “How socially acceptable would it be for me to call you and cry right now?”

 

“Pretty acceptable,” she answered in a matter of seconds.

 

"How socially acceptable would it be for me to call you and cry right now?" I asked.

"Pretty acceptable," she answered.

 

So, I did just that. Sitting in the hot, musty basement (because the program I was with was too cheap to actually pay for air conditioning in the summer) of a shoddily maintained dorm building in North Dakota, I called Jordan and told her a little bit of what was going on and cried. I don’t remember much of what we talked about, but I was glad to have someone there, even in spirit, to just be with me, something that I feel like we don’t utilize enough, the act of just being with another person when they’re hurting.

 

Talking to her the other day, I brought this up and she noted that it was a sad anniversary to be reminded of, but I don’t really think about it that way anymore. The sadness and frustration of those events faded a long time ago (and it’s beautiful really to think about the inability to remember a certain kind of pain from moments past), but what I still remember and will probably always remember is the time I had a friend open up her schedule to just be with me while I cried because of life circumstances. That alone makes that memory worthwhile, and I think it’s also one example of what real vulnerability and authenticity look like. It looks like admitting and being painfully aware that you don’t have everything all together and maybe resigning yourself to crying and being frustrated for a while. It looks like not caring what other people will think of you anymore, in general, but also to the extent that you’re no longer embarrassed to cry on the phone with a friend. The purest forms of vulnerability and authenticity look like an acknowledgement of our own brokenness and darkness and being able to open up enough to share that with another person without fear.

 

Real vulnerability and authenticity look like admitting and being painfully aware that you don't have everything all together, and that's okay.

 

That kind of openness doesn’t feel safe at first. In fact, I can attest to the fact that it feels pretty scary and dangerous. But at the same time, I think it’s another piece of evidence that true love does exist within the bounds of friendship, because love casts out fear, including the fear to be seen as scared, broken, and hurting in a world where so much of our lives and our identities have been carefully crafted to portray a certain kind of persona that’s only a shadow of what our true selves look like.

 

I think that one of the biggest problems that we have in our world today is that we keep slathering on layers of accomplishments, accolades, and achievements in order to protect ourselves from vulnerability while simultaneously aching to be fully known, which isn’t possible when we’re hiding behind masks. I think what we really need is to come out from behind our defenses for just long enough to realize that most of the time, being open about the hard things is usually met with a response that says, “Me too.” And I think that starts with our friends.

 

Coming up in this series on friendship: covenant friendship and intimacy between friends, reviving friendship by untangling romanticism and sexuality, and some thoughts on a culture that tells us not to really love our friends, among other topics. Subscribe to the blog to get email notifications of new posts and like ‘Jonah Venegas’ on Facebook in order to get updates as posts come out, and let me know in the comments or on social media what you’re thinking about all of this stuff.