Friday, October 16, 2015

Freedom vs. friends

In college I had a cranky theology professor with white hair and a white beard who occasionally did an impression of a three-year-old.  He called it the Ego Shriek.  He sat on his desk and kicked his legs whining, "I want playmates!  But I want everything to go my way!  But I want playmates!"

He explained that this is how we all are.  We desire relationship with others, but we don't like the perpetual downside -- other people are free agents who aren't going to always do what we like.

Certainly my three-year-old does it all the time.  "I want to play with Marko!  But I want to go outside!  But Marko won't come outside with me!"  Sorry, bucko, looks like you've got some tough choices to make.

When I was a kid I dreamed of a soul mate, a bosom friend, perhaps a sister.  The Diana to my Anne Shirley, the Tacy to my Betsy Ray.  She was going to like all the things I liked and want to play with me all the time, except when I wanted to be alone.  Because I didn't get out much, I believed in this ideal for a long time.

Eventually, though, I discovered that no one is ever everything you want them to be.  If you select your friends based on having a maximum number of things in common with you, that's great -- till they inevitably change.  If you respect their freedom to change, your freedom is now constrained -- you no longer have the choice you had before, to be friends with this person while also sharing a certain number of things in common with your friend.  You sacrifice your desire to share those things with your best friend, or you go find a new best friend.  Each of these is a sacrifice; they both hurt.

It's the same with groups.  My alma mater was a lovely place when it came to community spirit.  There were all these people who agreed with me on everything really important.  We had a solid ground to build stuff on!  But there wasn't a lot of freedom, because there were many things you couldn't really question.  When I question those things, as I do these days, those same people don't like it.  Why?  Well, obviously I'm threatening the great thing they have -- a community that shares the same ideas.  They're then faced with a choice -- to keep their friendbase uniform (which is great, it means you can talk about all those commonalities) or to remain faithful to me as a person.  I'm forcing that choice by exercising my freedom.

Organizations that have strict rules -- that are more culty, in a sense -- are often more stable. People invest in them more.  Loose clubs have people always coming and going; cults have dedicated members because it's hard to leave.  You can't get all the benefits of a cult without giving up some of your freedom -- the "bad parts" of cults are features, not bugs.

Our whole society has mostly chosen freedom over community.  Many people I knew wish they lived near family that would help with their kids.  But they don't want to live near family, really -- they want to work in a certain field, or live in a certain place, and that's why they don't live near family.  They chose freedom over living near family.  We also choose freedom in career choice over family businesses most of the time, which is why you don't hear of many family businesses that last more than a generation or two.  Family farms don't last, because the father wanted to farm but the son doesn't.  Then when the grandson comes along, he wants to farm, but the farm isn't there for him, because his father exercised his freedom and sold it.

But I wonder sometimes if we don't overemphasize freedom, to the detriment of community.  People don't want to hang out with their neighbors because they are used to choosing friends based on shared interests or values -- but then you can't be friends with your neighbors, because they're selected more or less randomly and might not have anything in common with you.  Every playgroup I try to start or join ends up falling prey to the old problem of, "I didn't feel like going this week."  Every single member would like to have the choice to not show up one week, so they don't commit to going.  And then no one wants to go because they're afraid no one else will show up.  In order for a group to be successful, at least some of the members, some of the time, have to show up when they don't feel like it.

I have been told I should never hang out with a friend unless I want to, I should bail on a social event if I don't feel up to it.  But if everyone did that, when would anyone hang out with each other?  I have read articles explaining that introverts are tough nuts to crack and therefore the extrovert in the relationship should do all of the effort to make the relationship happen.  But why would they want to do that?  I'm sure we'd all love it if we had a friend who planned everything for us, called to invite us, and then (when we said no fifty percent of the time) just kept asking and asking because they like us so very much.  But I, for one, would feel like a terrible friend if I treated someone that way.  They'd think I didn't like them.

Marriage is the ultimate in friendship, and also comes with the least freedom.  You want the freedom to change after getting married, but your spouse is going to exercise the same freedom.  They might not be exactly the person you married, ten years down the road.  You agree to love them anyway, which is a sacrifice of your freedom to go find someone more suited to the ways you've changed.  (And mind you, I'm not saying no one ever has a good reason to get a divorce, but I'm talking about the ideal of marriage.)  But in return for that tradeoff, you get that magical thing everyone wants -- a bosom friend, someone who likes you for you and not for specific attributes that might change later, someone who isn't going to ditch you when you change.

For better or worse, friendship requires some sacrifice of freedom.  It's unfortunate in some ways, because we do have a strong desire for those special friendships where we can do what we like and still have someone to do it with.  And certainly there are times and people and places where very little sacrifice is required -- that friend who really is as obsessed with Firefly as you, the spouse who changes to become more like you rather than less, the online forum where people come and go but you are guaranteed to get to talk about your pet topic all the time.

But in another way, I think it's almost a perk, because you show love to others when you sacrifice a little of your freedom for them.  You go play outside with your brother because he wants to, and that tells your brother that you care more about being with him than about doing what you want.  You keep up with a friend even though they aren't into Lord of the Rings anymore, because after all these years you love them, not your shared interests.  And you always get that primary choice -- how far do you want to go for your friends?  You can set the balance where you want.


The Sojourner said...

As somebody who's pathologically introverted...I invite people over anyway. Because I'm not an ass.

I had a complete stranger over today because she responded to my sad post in my local mom's group* asking if anybody knew things about sewing machines. Fortunately she was not an axe murderer. She fixed my machine and then we sewed half a nightgown while our combined 3-kids-under-3 trashed the living room. It was exhausting but SO FUN. Also I made muffins with random ingredients I found in the kitchen so I had something to serve my guests and she made sure the living room was de-trashed before she left. Getting along with random other people is actually a thing that happens!

*This is actually the OT page associated with my babywearing group. Best tribe ever, and I don't share any major religious beliefs with 95% of them. 16-year-old me would be appalled.

Sheila said...

Yay, that sounds awesome! Crunchy moms are a great tribe, they are so often very nice.

Enbrethiliel said...


There's also the question of how far you will let your friends go. The one time I was truly shunned by a group that had been heretofore very accepting was when I told them I had baptised some Protestant relatives' infant son in secret. (In case you didn't read my Igor post on that: relax, I actually didn't baptise him. =P I made up that story because I thought the group was making light of religious differences in an extended family, which of course I thought was a SERIOUS matter. Not cool of me at all, but I wouldn't go back and change things if it meant I'd never learn their reaction. It was very revealing.)

I did feel quite hurt to learn that they didn't actually "love" me enough to overlook the way I exercise my freedom (as you put it). On the other hand, I didn't "love" them enough to be truthful with them. So we were probably a dysfunctional group from the beginning.

Ironically, it was that incident that made me realise I am totally the type of person who would baptise a non-Catholic relative's child in secret. LOL! I may not have done it, but I would do it. And apparently, that's really horrible to some people. (For the record, I don't blame them!) Is this something I should keep quiet about in order to keep the peace, or would secrecy just be hypocritical of me?

Sheila said...

I remember that story. I disapproved of your viewpoint, but not unfriend-level disapproved, obviously.

In all friendships we keep some secrets. Even if it's just "ugh, this tic of yours drives me up the wall!" If you want a really deep relationship you're going to have to be open about more stuff, which of course puts the relationship at risk when you reveal it. That's why a deepening friendship happens over time, as you open up a bit more, risk a bit, and then when they don't walk away you feel comfortable opening up more still. The internet speeds that up by letting you reveal a lot at once before you care about people, so they walk away and you don't invest at all in anyone but those who can put up with the things you've posted. But internet friendships are more fragile than others, possibly because the freedom to walk away is so much less stigmatized, and of course there's less history to sacrifice if you choose to cut off an online friend.

In short, they valued having friends who shared their views about tolerance of others' religious choices more than they valued your contribution to the group + your shared history with them. Everyone has to draw a line somewhere. There are things I wouldn't be able to tolerate in a friend, though certainly my preference would be finding those things out early on rather than cutting off a friendship later.

Enbrethiliel said...


So can you think of something so bad that you would cut off a friendship after it had been going on for about three years? (That was how long the group and I had been together. I'm not sure if Internet years are longer or shorter than real people years.)

I'm mostly with you on the "Everyone has to draw a line somewhere" principle, but I'm starting to feel uneasy with the subjectivity of it all. It's very much like saying an individual woman has the right to draw the line when it comes to whether or not get an abortion. Or to use a less dramatic and more relevant example, like saying every person in a marriage has the right to draw the line when it comes to staying together or getting divorced. I think there should be a firmer basis than personal preference, and if I'm not mistaken, that's also what you're trying to get at in this post.

Enbrethiliel said...


Off topic, but you are literally the only person on this planet who can help me. (Hyperbole? What's that?)

I seem to be allergic to my new Brown Scapular. All I know about it is that it is made of wool. I've knitted with 100% wool before (dyed, in case that's useful to know) and noticed my eyes getting itchy and my nose running a bit for the first couple of hours. But I always finished my projects with no serious trouble and even wore one of the hats for an extended photo session. Perhaps if I had kept it on 24/7 for a week, as I did my Brown Scapular, it would have also caused me to break out in a rash.

It started with an itch and no rash. (I actually find it plausible tht my spirited scratching, rather than the Scapular itself--or maybe combined with it--caused the rash.) I've not worn it for the past three days, but that hasn't stopped the blotches, the bumps, and yes, the itch from spreading to my upper arms and thighs. I've also been taking Benadryl and using aloe vera and coconut oil, with little progress. (I don't know how you feel about essential oils, but it was when I added clove essential oil to the aloe vera this afternoon that I finally felt some relief!)

But my question is not about my skin condition. It is about the Brown Scapular itself. I happen to love it very much. Is there anything I could do to it to make it friendlier to me and not so evil to my immune system?

Sheila said...

Re: Brown scapular -- it's probably the dye. Very few people are allergic to wool, and while many are allergic to lanolin (wool grease), if it's been thoroughly washed, that's not likely to be present. But dye can be allergenic. And if you've got a spreading rash, that's almost certainly an allergy, not just irritation. Unless you've worn it in the shower, in which case it might have gotten soapy and the constant contact of the soap could cause the problem. The only solutions I can think of is to get a new scapular, or perhaps to wear a layer of clothing between you and it. Sorry.

If you remember, there was a time I cut off a friendship of about that age. I did it because I thought I had incontrovertible proof that she'd cheated on her boyfriend. I regret it only because I was mistaken and I hadn't asked her about it to clear things up. Otherwise, I think "did something seriously wrong and isn't sorry" is grounds for friendship break-up, unless it's one of those "counts as family" friendships.

But you see, where to draw the line is dependent on the level of friendship. If I've hung out in the park with another mom twice, and she mentions that she thinks it's impossible that kids could possibly grow up okay without spanking, I'd probably stop seeing her. I mean, that would be a big thing to either avoid talking about or constantly fight about. And we'd have little to sacrifice. But I'm still friends with other people who spank, even when they go on and on about it, because we had history before I found that out. And marriage is a relationship where the commitment is so high as preclude almost any reason for leaving. I think my "line" for that is the same as most people I know -- hits me, hurts the kids. Even if they were sorry, I'd have to have some reason to believe it wouldn't happen again.

But I do think that three years' internet friendship is different from the same amount of real-life friendship, and friendship with a group is somewhat less than friendship with an individual. It seems less close for whatever reason. I certainly have left facebook groups I'd been in for years, simply because I wasn't enjoying them anymore, and didn't think of it as a betrayal. Though recently I attempted to leave one group, which I had really liked and participated in. It was because I didn't like Catholic controversies popping up in my feed all the time, but the members of the group talked me out of leaving. It just meant something to them for me to be a member, even if I stopped posting, because they liked me. It was sweet, but at the same time I almost wanted to say, "This is just a Facebook group, I never meant to actually form relationships with anyone!" But, of course, like it or not, relationships form when you interact and share things.

In short, I wouldn't have kicked out of the group, because kicking out is kind of harsh and IMO reserved for those who violate the group's rules, like sharing their personal info or something. But at the same time, I can see their point of view. You did something they felt was seriously wrong, and you weren't sorry.

Enbrethiliel said...


Yes, I've worn it in the shower. That totally explains how the rash got everywhere. (Grrrr.) After my skin calms down, I'll try it again, outside my clothes.

I asked the other question about where to draw the line because I got to wondering whether there is a certain level of friendship in which no matter what the other person does, cutting off the relationship would actually be the worse thing to do. I haven't bounced it off anyone else, but so far I've reached the same conclusions you have.

The word "tribe" that you used with Sojourner reminds me of a friend of mine who says that everyone belongs to some kind of tribe and that it is the nature of tribes to annihilate each other. Sometimes all this means is that one tribe benignly swallows another (or the two blend and become a bigger tribe); but usually it means warfare. And the other thing I'm wondering is when finally drawing the line stops being a personal thing and starts being a tribal thing. Not just "I don't want to be your friend, but we're still in the same tribe," but outright, "We can't be friends because you're from a different tribe . . . one which poses a danger to mine."

Sheila said...

I don't think it is the nature of tribes to annihilate each other. It depends on the tribe. Some have benign feelings about other tribes -- sports or movie fandoms are a big one. Others are about enmity. And everyone is a member of more than one type of tribe, but you can't be in more than one of the same type of tribe -- you can't be both a Catholic and a Protestant, or both a Republican and a Democrat. Also, most people have a "main" tribe which is their strongest identifier. That's why my dad told me years ago, "I don't care if you bring home an atheist or a black guy, but never bring home a boyfriend who's a Democrat." His politics are his most important group.

Given all this, it seems quite reasonable for tribes to be able to police their own boundaries. If you let just anyone in, it stops being useful as a tribe at all. It hurts to be rejected by a group, but if you no longer share the core commonalities of the group, you can't be part of it. (E.g. it's not really workable to be a Catholic and accepted as a Catholic by other Catholics while not believing in God. Things get uncomfortable real quick for everyone.) The other day John told me the local Republican committee kicked someone out for a letter to the editor in which he endorsed a Democratic candidate. It felt wrong to me at first, but then I realized, if half the Republican committee votes for Democrats half the time, it isn't much of a Republican committee, now is it? It's salt that's lost its savor. The likely result is that people who would feel like members of this tribe otherwise don't join because they see the group as lacking the essential identity they want to share.

HOWEVER, it's beneficial for people to have friendships that cross tribal lines, because it keeps you as an individual from being too closed into the narrow mindset of your tribe, and because it allows you to preserve valuable friendships even though tribe members have changed and left the tribe. Still, most likely your core friendships will be people in your primary tribe. I've heard it said you should only marry someone who shares your *most important* group identification, whatever that is. But of course, if they change, you're stuck with them. ;) A best friend, though .... most likely if they leave your core group, you'll stay good friends because of your history, but you might find they drift apart to some extent because you don't have as much in common.

The relationships that can't be cut off, IMO, are family, spouse, and family-level friends -- you know, those people you have so much history with that you're basically stuck with. But even with these relationships, you have the right to self protection. If they are actively hurting you and won't stop, you will have to create distance. There will always be a bond, but you don't have to speak or see them as long as that puts you at risk.

With your children, though, there pretty much are no caveats. They will change to the point of being unrecognizable from when you met them, and you still have to love them no matter what. I think that needs its own post.

Meredith said...

"Our whole society has mostly chosen freedom over community."

I was just thinking of this the other day - how we don't have to conform to a single ideal anymore, how we can go off into our subcultures, but that this is also stressful... because we CAN'T conform anymore! People are always ranting on the internet that they can't do anything right, according to "society." They say, if I wear a revealing dress I'm a slut, but if I wear a long modest dress I'm a prude! But of course it's almost always two different groups of people saying those things. It's really hard not to care what others think, and now it's easier than ever to bump into people who disapprove of you, on the internet and even in real life.

Sheila said...

Yes, I agree entirely. Some people flourish with freedom -- finally allowed to go and do that crazy thing they dream of. And others feel like they could use a few guideposts -- HOW do I find a career? WHEN should I get married? That sort of thing. And yeah, no matter what you choose, you're always going to get judged by somebody. There's sort of an ideal of "living and letting live," but it's not really possible not to have opinions of others' choices.

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