A while ago I was talking to my spiritual director about some anxieties I was feeling in one of my friendships. This was a close friendship which had been tested by time (and by my own idiocy) but I was still having a hard time trusting that it would endure, and coping with the changes that were occurring in the friendship.
My spiritual director nodded and said, “It sounds like you’re ‘attached’ to this friend, in the sense that you’re relying on the friendship for your well-being. This isn’t a Christian approach. Only Jesus can always be there for you in the way that you need; what you want right now is understandable, but your friend really can’t give it to you. You need to be willing to let go. Maybe the friendship will fade away. Maybe you need to invest more in your other friendships, as this one changes. Whatever happens to you, you will be loved and sheltered–but by God, not by the specific other people you’ve picked out.”
That was tough to hear, as you can imagine. But I came to see that my priest was basically right. I did start to invest more in other friendships–and also give thanks for them more often. For the first time, I realized that when Jesus says we must hate mother and father, wife and children, and even our own lives, to follow Him, He is talking to me; I must be ready to live without the relationships which mean the most to me.
In a twist which will be unsurprising to anyone who has experienced attachment, the first friendship has only strengthened since I took a more detached attitude toward it. When we clutch at friendship our friends often feel clutched-at. Seeking friendship as a way to fill an emotional or spiritual need is a good way to lose friends: It’s an egocentric approach, albeit often unconsciously so; it occurs when we view friendship as medicine (even when it’s medicine for the soul) rather than a site of mutual self-gift.
Gay people in the churches often need to defend our right to pursue intimate friendships. You guys know that I am a firm believer in friendship as a form of love, a form of kinship, a vocation as true and rich as any other.
But just as marriage isn’t about Pac-Man finding his missing piece, so devoted, intimate friendship can’t be about solving the problem of the self. (And see this related reflection on “completionism” in celibate partnerships.) It’s worth noting that we do need to practice detachment in our friendships: the willingness to give them up or live without them, to live for God alone. This places friendship on the same plane as familial relationships and even personal survival. It’s not a denigration of friendship.
Wes’s new book is super (more on this from me soon); I don’t know if he would agree with this assessment, but it’s possible to describe one of its narrative arcs as the movement from attached friendship to detached. (I hope it’s clear that “detached” friendships can be intimate, adorned with promises and blessings, and emotionally powerful.) Wes gives a brave and moving depiction of a friendship which became an attachment for him. He’s so open about the fact that intimate love is one of our needs–the fact that we need it is not something to be ashamed of–and we often fall into attachment not out of selfishness, but simply due to a tragic mismatch between our needs and the ability of the one we love to meet those needs.
Needing love is human. Giving all the love we need is only the province of the Divine.