Friends

not here, nor there

not here, nor there

Life has been a little weird lately, and if I’m being honest, the entire last year has been a little weird. Obviously, we all know that 2019 has essentially shaped up to be The Onion taking literal form in our actual world, but on a smaller level, so many things have happened this year that feel like they’re directly out of a sitcom or a TV drama, and I don’t really know how to feel about all that.

And I think “weird” really is the best way to describe it, because nothing is necessarily wrong. It’s just that things also haven’t exactly turned out the way I thought they were going to either. In many ways, I feel like I’ve been living in the “dirty middle” as we therapists (or therapists-in-training) say, when you’re no longer where you started, but you’re also not quite at your destination yet. I feel like I’ve written about this before, but I think it’s come to a head more recently with all the things that I’ve been an observer to, more than anything.

In talking to my own therapist, we’ve discussed how most of the time, we tend to look to the people around us for social cues and life milestones in a sort of group mentality to establish what’s “normal” or “on time” for particular life events, but what happens when everyone around you has moved along to a different part of the “life road map,” if you will and you’re the only one left what feels like several hundred miles behind?

a week with the queers

a week with the queers

Okay, so maybe the title and header are a little misleading. It was four days. And we stayed in cabins, so I guess it doesn't *really* count as camping, but the prevailing idea remains, and I think it's really important to write about it and talk about it.

As a queer person, and specifically as a queer Christian who grew up in a lot of conservative Christian circles, I went into this four day glamping trip with exclusively other queer people with an odd mix of sheer excitement, trepidation, and wonder. I mean, when you really think about it (and when I would tell people about what my plans for the end of July were), it does sound a little crazy doesn't it?

I was about to fly from Minneapolis to Nashville to go to "queer summer camp," as we had all collectively dubbed it, with about 15 other queer people that I had only otherwise met on the internet, specifically from Twitter. Sure, many of us had interacted extensively online before and many more of us had FaceTimed each other or otherwise gotten the chance to spend time together virtually, but this four day trip was going to be the first time that many of us would be meeting each other in person. And for me, it was going to be the first time I would be meeting any of these people in person.

love, the queers: finding community on queer twitter

love, the queers: finding community on queer twitter

Earlier this weekend, I called my friend Hannah on FaceTime after joyfully crying through episode 4 of Queer Eye (which EVERYONE AND THEIR MOTHER should be watching on Netflix if you aren't already), and we went on to discuss and debrief on the episode before slinging jokes and talking about our hilariously conservative upbringings. This whole time, we're also throwing back glasses of wine and shots of cinnamon whiskey.

Last week, my friend Kevin called me as he was driving home from work (also to talk about Queer Eye), and we went on to dream about creating some kind of summer camp for the queers of the internet to all meet in real life someday, since everyone we know tends to be spread across the country. I think he also asked me if I was drunk at one point because of how much I was gushing about Queer Eye, and I had to tell him that I was actually sober and just that over the top.

I have so many little stories like this from the last several months, and Hannah and I were actually just texting about just how crazy it is that we became friends and how many other HELLA COOL people we've met over Twitter. Social media tends to get a bad rap these days, but for many of my queer friends and I, it's served to facilitate the formation of some really sweet community.

the lie of nonexistent intimate friendships (part two)

This is the fifth 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.”  

Something that I’ve noticed about American relational culture recently, and perhaps especially so with Christian American relational culture, is that we really like to have lines clearly drawn. I see this as the reason why we have phenomena in Christian colleges like DTRs (defining the relationship). There seems to be an increasing neediness to always know what the status of your relationship with another person, and it doesn’t necessarily come from within ourselves. More often than not, it comes as an external question, when we may or may not have been thinking about it.

 

I think most of us have probably found ourselves in a situation, or at least observed a situation in which two people have begun spending significant amounts of time with each other, prompting some or all of their friends to probe them on whether they’re “just friends” or something more than friends. This can be an incredibly awkward or frustrating experience for everyone involved, regardless of whether the two people actually might have feelings for each other and are trying to navigate that or whether they are close friends who enjoy spending a lot of time together.

 

Either way, I think this fascination with needing to define relationships has begun hurting our conceptions of friendship, because along with a desire to know exactly what status a relationship has, there also exists an assumption that the relationship will also fit neatly within the preconceived assumptions of what “just friends” or something more than friends might look like. (That being said, I’ve really grown to hate the term “just friends” as I’ve been learning more about friendship and working through this series, because I’ve come to realize it’s a rather derogatory way to refer to a relationship as beautiful as friendship.) If we really think about it, friendships already tend to exist in the middle ground of a Venn diagram, but our attitudes toward them skew towards trying to keep them cleanly isolated to only their safe extremes on a gradient spectrum and this severely limits our ability to understand and have healthy friendships in my opinion.

 

I've really grown to hate the term "just friends," because I've come to realize it's such a derogatory way to refer to a relationship as beautiful as friendship.

Anam Cara || Irish Gaelic

In conducting my linguistic research for this post as well as my last, this term for a relationship between friends impacted me the most. I had originally found it online while doing some cursory searches for terms for intimate friendship in other languages, but I wasn’t quite sure if I was understanding it correctly until I came across the word again while I was reading Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber, used in a eulogy by one half of an inseparable pair of friends in reference to the other after her untimely death. Though the Bible doesn’t go into detail about the specific circumstances, I like to think David’s mourning over Jonathan’s death in 2 Samuel was similar to the heart wrenching eulogy spanning several pages in Accidental Saints half of the pair of friends wrote for the other. It read similarly to how a lover might have mourned for a lost partner, and that’s when I was sure that I understood how this term was meant to be used.

 

According to tradition, spiritual friendship occurs when the spirits of two people are knit together and become one in a manner parallel to how God said two spouses would become one flesh in Genesis.

 

A simple definition of ‘anam cara’ refers to it being the Celtic spiritual belief in the bonding of two souls in friendship. In Celtic spirituality, the soul is thought of as radiating out from the body in an aura that interacts with everything and everyone that you come into contact with. If a person formed a strong enough bond or connection with another person, through being fully open and fully trusting of each other, among other things, it was believed that their souls began to run and flow together as one and that they had found an ‘anam cara.’ Though that may sound romantic in nature and though this term is often translated as ‘soul mate,’ the literal translation is ‘soul friend,’ this translation being supported by the modern Irish notion that while your spouse may be an ‘anam cara,’ it’s still usually reserved for friends rather than lovers. In a way, this makes sense and causes this perception of an ‘anam cara’ to align more closely with the oft forgotten Christian idea of spiritual friendship as a result. According to tradition, spiritual friendship occurs in which the spirits of two people are knit together and become one in a manner parallel to how God said in Genesis that two spouses would become one flesh through their physical union, an idea taken from 1 Samuel 18 when David’s soul is described as being knit to Jonathan’s upon meeting him for the first time. Specifically, it says this:

As soon as he had finished talking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. And Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. // 1 Samuel 18:1-3

 

This passage was something my mind was immediately drawn to upon reading about the concept of an ‘anam cara,’ and I think it fits the description well. Though the only kind of covenant relationship that we recognize and celebrate at all anymore is the covenant relationship of marriage (which is a problem that needs to be remedied in American Christianity), multiple different kinds of covenant relationships existed in the Bible, including this covenant of friendship between David and Jonathan as well as the covenants that God Himself made with Israel and later with all believers. For this reason, I see it as impossible to deny the significance and weight friendship holds when certain types of friendships are bound together by the same kinds of covenants that seal relationships that we as Christians tend to idolize, such as the covenant of marriage. This is especially true when Jonathan risks his life and crosses his father, the king of Israel, for the sake of his friendship and covenant with David later in the story, all acts of love and sacrifice that we typically only see in portrayed within the confines of romantic love in many stories that we grow up with today, which does so much to destroy the beauty, depth, and intimacy of what true friendship is supposed to look like.

 

The only kind of covenant relationship that we recognize and celebrate anymore in American Christianity is the covenant of marriage, which is a problem that needs to be remedied.

 

If my friend, Sheridan, is my [nakama] from my last post, then my friend Joseph is my anam cara.

 

I first met Joseph under less than ideal circumstances and basically by accident a few years ago. I was at this weeklong, overnight leadership camp being held a Christian college, and I definitely wasn’t there voluntarily. Though not necessarily forced to go, I probably would’ve come up with any excuse to back out if my family and I hadn’t already paid for it, and I had been dreading it even more so when I realized that I likely wouldn’t know anybody else there upon arrival. And to top it all off, you weren’t allowed to bring your phone or any other type of electronic device in order to keep you present during the week. Great.

 

The camp consisted of three or four lecture-type sessions every day with teaching on various aspects of leadership and worldview with team activities (which you were sorted into randomly), meals, and free time in between. During the first session the first night, I had spotted a friend from church that I vaguely knew across the way and my awkward self made its way over in order to hide the fact that I was still feeling horribly uncomfortable. With him was Joseph, and if I’m being honest, at that moment, I felt something similar to what Jonathan felt when he met David. In that moment, I knew I wanted this person in my life, probably forever, but at the same time, I met him during our five minutes of stretching and mingling time in the middle of a session, so I wasn’t actually sure if I would see him again or actually become friends with him.

 

That quickly changed the next day. Our first block of free time in the afternoon had just rolled around, and I wasn’t really sure who I was going to be spending the next three hours with. Having been pretty exhausted the previous night from the dread of not even wanting to be at this camp, I went to bed early without really meeting anyone else, plagued by a runny nose and cough due to the mold that was lowkey growing in the dorms we were staying in. So like any awkward camper, I looked at the directory to see what room the church friend I hardly knew was staying in and thought I’d pop over there to see if I could not be alone for those three hours of free time. When I knocked on the door, Joseph answered, being roommates with this church friend and struck up a conversation with me after informing me that the guy I had actually been looking for was gone and he didn’t know where he was. And thus began an entire week of spending the majority of our time together, along with the small group of friends that we formed, ditching our assigned small groups to eat with each other, being essentially inseparable during sessions, and swapping numbers at the end of camp to ensure that we would remain in contact. We’ve been friends since then, our lives continuing to intersect almost accidentally, like when we both discovered about two weeks before Welcome Week that we’d both be going to Bethel in the fall of 2013.

 

"You can tell how strong the friendship is by the silence that envelops it. Lovers and spouses may talk frequently about their 'relationship,' but friends tend to let their regard for one another speak for itself or let others point it out." // Andrew Sullivan

 

He truly is one of my soul friends, and he’s one of the few people that I really do feel comfortable sharing my soul with. He’s a strong non-anxious presence, being one of the very few people I feel completely safe and unjudged with, and we’ve both made it clear that nothing is off limits between us. We can talk about anything and everything without feeling like we’re burdening or annoying each other with it, which goes for both the smallest of things and the biggest. Beyond that sense of just safety with him, he’s also so good for me, because he challenges me on why I think certain things and doesn’t just agree with me in order to avoid a potential disagreement in opinion. So, we’ll have excellent talks that weave in and out of serious and lighthearted topics, and he’s also incredible at just being, which is probably one of my favorite things about him. I’ve read several articles recently that talk about how millennials don’t know how to handle silence and just being, but Joseph is a pro at mindful silence and makes me want to be better at it too. All in all, I think a quote by Andrew Sullivan, who wrote extensively about this idea of ‘anam cara’ in his book Love Undetected, describes our relationship quite well. He writes, “You can tell how strong the friendship is by the silence that envelops it. Lovers and spouses may talk frequently about their “relationship,” but friends tend to let their regard for one another speak for itself or let others point it out.”

 

The very last words are particularly relevant. Even as of late, several people have asked me if we’re together, and some don’t even believe me when I tell them that we aren’t, which is just funny to me. I mean, I’m not shy about saying that I do genuinely love him, but even that seems to be such a polarizing thing to say in American relational culture. They always assume that something else must be going on between us because there’s just no precedent for that kind of friendship in American culture, and that raises a lot of good questions. Why can’t friends pay for each other when they go out to meals together? Why can’t friends hold hands or link arms walking down the street (this is actually quite common in many countries, especially non-Westernized countries, but also countries like Spain and Italy)? And why can’t friends say “I love you,” to each other?

 

Why have we created such a warped and distorted view of friendship in American culture that we've started to believe friendships can't be this deep or intimate without being a threat to marriage?

 

I think our perception of friendship has been so warped and distorted in American culture and American Christian culture that we’ve started to believe that friendships can’t be this deep or this intimate without being a threat to marriage or romantic relationships because the lines might be too blurry. While obviously those relationships are distinct, it’s worth keeping in mind that the Greeks and even C.S. Lewis counted friendship among the different forms of love, so why do we keep insisting on limiting love to the kind we see in romcoms and keeping it in a box when it’s so much broader and more beautiful than that? I think that perhaps if we reoriented and repaired our perceptions of friendship and other forms of love that aren’t romantic, sexual love, maybe those relationships in our lives would be improved and strengthened too, because we’d start to see love more holistically than the way it’s been fed to us over the last several decades.

 

Maybe the Greeks were onto something when they used different words for the different forms of love. Maybe they knew that having only one word to encompass so many different kinds of nuanced relationships would cause us to unhealthily emphasize one over all the others. Maybe that’s the source of our Christian idolization of marriage and romantic relationships.

 

All of that being said, start thinking about how you think about your significant others in your life, because they can be your friends, your family, and so many other people other than just someone you might be romantically involved with. Do you automatically prioritize a romantic relationship over others in your life? If so, why? And is it even Biblical to do that?

 

Maybe the source of our Christian idolization of marriage and romantic relationships stems from the fact that the words we have to talk about different kinds of relationships in American English are so limited and narrow, lacking the nuance that the Greeks had to talk about love.

 

After that, start thinking about how you can love your friends better. Tell your friends you love them. Show some physical affection maybe. I’m not necessarily saying we need to knock marriage down a few notches, but I am definitely saying that friendship is a beautiful and complex thing that hasn’t been getting enough of the credit it truly deserves.

 

(In writing this post, I referenced a couple articles and they can be found at these links below if you’re interested in reading more about this kind of friendship.)

 

https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/08/12/anam-cara-john-o-donohue-soul-friend/

https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/04/23/love-undetectable-andrew-sullivan-friendship/

 

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 and please, please share my writing if you resonate with it!

 

when our words kill friendship (part one)

This is the fourth 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.”  

As a writer, you could say that I think about words a lot. Part of both the joy and frustration of writing is being able to find just the right word to express exactly the sort of sentiment you want to convey. For the most part, the English language usually does a pretty good job of supplying words that have the proper nuance, but something that I’ve been thinking about recently is how sometimes we don’t have enough words to capture the depth of some things that we consider to be so basic. Friendship is one of those things.

 

In English, our single word ‘friend’ encompasses such a wide range of meanings that other languages might divide into different words in order to convey the proper amount of nuance behind them. I mean, I think it’s a little strange that we use the same word to describe people that we’re connected to on Facebook, many of whom we might not even talk to or interact with on a regular basis, as well as people that we share our souls with and can call late at night to cry with. It seems almost disrespectful to use the same word for both of those kinds of relationships. After all, many people call their spouses or their siblings their best friends, and yet we’ll still use the same word to talk about that person we might’ve shared a class with freshman year of college or high school and haven’t talked to since.

 

That’s one of the things I loved most about being a linguistics major. By at least rudimentarily studying several other languages, you gain a broader understanding of how other people express different ideas across different languages, and the subtle nuances that those untranslatable words and phrases carry tell you quite a bit about how that language or culture thinks about and treats various aspects of life. With friendship, I think the contrast between English and other languages is quite striking.

 

Friend || English

We’ll start with the English word for friend, because I think that this word carries a lot of underlying connotations that we perhaps don’t consciously think about when we use it in our daily lives. Personally, in observing and thinking about the ways that the majority of people around me use the word ‘friend,’ I’ve realized that this word tends to carry notions of casualness and complacency that other languages’ terms for the same type of relationship don’t necessarily. In English, a friend can span anything from an acquaintance that you’ve met and small talked with to someone you’ve known for years and years and knows some of the most intimate parts of your life. Again, it’s peculiar that English uses the same words for both of those kinds of relationships.

 

The English word for friendship tends to carry notions of casualness and complacency that the same words in other languages don't.

 

The complacency and looseness of the term ‘friend’ comes into play when you start comparing friendship to other kinds of relationships. In American society specifically, I think that we tend to use a hierarchical system when it comes to how we mentally organize the different types of relationships in our lives. The pyramid is structured a little differently for everyone, but what I’ve noticed is that, especially in American Christian culture, we tend to place romantic and marriage relationships at the top, while simultaneously associating friendship with a slightly lower tier, as if friendships are inherently less valuable or desirable than romantic relationships. I don’t think many of us would admit it in those specific words, but I do think that this is how we tend to act when we really think about prioritizing relationships a lot of the time. I know that I’ve definitely chosen to do this before, giving someone that I might’ve been even vaguely interested in priority over my friends or family. I’m not necessarily saying that’s a bad thing, because it might not be in every circumstance, but I think it’s definitely something to think about, whether we realize that we might be doing that and whether that’s something we want to continue doing consciously.

 

In American Christian culture, we tend to place romantic and marriage relationships at the top of the pyramid while simultaneously associating friendship with a lower tier.

 

Nakama/Shinyuu || Japanese

Japanese has a number of different words and expressions that are used for friendship depending on what part of the country you happen to be from, and these two are ones that I’ve heard the most frequently in shows and other media when characters are talking about especially close friends. Where we have the word ‘friend’ in English, Japanese would use [tomodachi], which is loosely used to refer to schoolmates or casual friends and acquaintances, people that you enjoy spending time with and doing certain activities with, but whom you’d probably still address using slightly more formal language, which is often a sign of closeness in Japanese culture. This seems roughly equivalent to the way that we usually use the word ‘friend’ in English, but then Japanese has [shinyuu] and [nakama], which express slightly different but similar ideas.

 

[shinyuu] refers to your best friend or your confidant, which is fairly commonplace understanding in English. It’s that person who knows your secrets, and obviously, you know theirs as well. In Japanese culture, these two people might refer to each other using just their given names or with diminutive honorifics, which usually implies a high degree of closeness, especially since honorifics and respectful speech are typically used as a means of social distancing for respect purposes in Japanese culture. For this reason, most people typically address each other by their last names accompanied by an appropriate honorific, or a little linguistic tag that denotes their status in relation to each other.  That’s why the very act of being able to address someone by just their given name signals that closeness in Japanese culture, and thus goes to show the level of friendship between two people meant to be understood by the use of this word.

 

On the other hand, [nakama] refers to friends that you almost no longer consider to be friends at all. When someone is [nakama], it means that person or those people have essentially become family to you, a person who will stand by you no matter what, which is even more significant in Japanese culture than it might seem to us Americans. In the United States, it’s more or less common to know people who consider each other to be family even if they aren’t related by blood. Perhaps they grew up together, or their parents are close, which led to them being close by default. That’s part of what [nakama] means, but it just barely scratches the surface, because family is so much more significant to someone’s identify and social construction in Japanese culture.

 

In Japan, the family is the first social unit that a person is born into and remains the main social unit for the rest of your life. There are a lot of stereotypical ideas about Japanese, or perhaps Asian honor culture in general, floating around the United States, and that’s what this plays into. Family is your biggest priority in Japanese culture, and a large part of your identify comes from how you interact and relate to your family. Anything that you might do will reflect back on your family and the same goes for anything that your family members might do in relation to you. It’s hard to properly describe how significant family is in Japanese culture, being a collective culture, rather than an individual culture like what exists in the United States, but it goes without saying that for a friend to become family in Japanese culture means for that relationship to be on a level above what we would normally consider friends to be in American culture.

 

In Japanese culture, for a friend to become family inherently means for that relationship to be on a level above what we would normally consider friendship in American culture.

 

I’m not sure that I have any true [nakama] in my life quite yet, but I would say that my friend Sheridan is pretty freaking close. We don’t quite reflect on each other in the same way that family members would reflect on each other in Japanese culture, but most people that know us also automatically know the other, or have at least heard of the other. But we definitely will stand by each other no matter what. She knows my secrets (provided that we’ve had time to actually catch up, considering that we’ve found ourselves living across countries or oceans from each other recently), she’s one of the first people that I want to tell when I have news, and she’s my first choice as a roommate once we decide to start trying to adult. She makes me want to listen to better music, eat healthier (and trendier, haha) food, and she’ll call me out on my BS without really caring if I’ll like it or not (because eventually, I’ll come around and realize that I was doing something stupid). She’s one of very few of my friends who I’ve cried with (and loudly at that) in person, and to top it all off, we actually technically weren’t friends for a grand total of three months at one point in time (again, because a certain person was being stupid – read – me), so if that’s not “standing by you no matter what,” then I’m not really sure what is.

 

She’s good for me in more ways than I have time to write about here, but I think one specific thing I will always love about her is that she has an uncanny sense of discernment that I haven’t seen in anybody else in my life. She can get a read on any situation and see through whatever other kinds of mess are floating around in a heartbeat.

 

Now, I’m definitely not the kind of person to overspiritualize everything, but last winter I was going through a pretty dark, suicidal period in life, which most people are familiar with, and she was the first person to point out to me that perhaps part of that cloud of darkness was a form of spiritual attack. It was something that hadn’t even been on my radar before she mentioned it, and frankly, I was a caught a little off guard by that assessment, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. That was the crack in the door I needed to be able to see the light on the other side, and that kind of discernment isn’t something that everyone has.

 

I’m not sure if the two of us will ever quite fit the exact definition of [nakama], just because American culture doesn’t work the same way, but if there was ever an American equivalent, Sheridan would definitely be [nakama] to me.

 

Maybe the reason we have such a low view of friendship in American culture is because we don't have adequate words to fully explain and define what those relationships mean to us.

 

These kinds of distinctions and nuances in how other languages talk about friendship consistently blow my mind, and I’m certain that they help me better understand what friendship really is, because our American view of friendship is so narrow and limited. In linguistics and probably also in psychology, we learn that the way we talk about things influences the way that we then perceive things and treat them. Maybe the reason that we have such a low view of friendship in American and American Christian culture is because we don’t have adequate words to fully explain what those relationships mean to us, and maybe we need to start borrowing some of this friendship vocabulary in order to free us from the cultural chains that bind our preconceived notions of what friendship is so that we can really, truly understand it in all of its beauty.

 

Coming up in this series on friendship: the second half of this discussion on friendship in linguistic terms, 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.