My Dad taught me a very important principle in my youth. If one of your friends, or family members is dating/marrying someone you think is an absolute creep, and you tell them this, you will not likely change their decision. More likely they will continue on with the decision, even if they themselves start to feel other wise, and you will ruin your relationship with that person.
I saw the wisdom in my dad’s words, and over the years there have been many times I strongly disagreed with friends and family members dating choices, and bit my tongue and saved our relationship. However, in the past year, I learned that I had been approaching this all wrong, and even though I had managed to not burn any bridges by taking my dad’s advice, there were things I could yet learn that would not only just preserve friendships when people made choices I disagreed with, but deepen the relationship, despite our disagreement.
Its strange, but not strange at the same time, that the things we most feel inclined to want to correct others on, to “save them from themselves” and their bad decisions, are probably the most personal choices that we really have no business at all making for anyone but ourselves. I am as guilty of doing this as anyone, and I am trying to change. Things like religion/spirituality/faith, dating/marriage relationships, and politics often become things that can divide the closest of friends and drive a wedge between them. These are areas we feel often morally obligated to help someone else not make a “wrong” choice.
For the past week I have been reading a lot of Brene Brown. I do love her books, TED videos, etc. The thing that I realized this week, and in the past year, is that the important thing in life is connecting to others. As Brene says “we are hard wired for connection.” It is an intrinsic element of being a human, we need connection, love, shared emotion, and creating ties. This is what brings us all the greatest joy, and creativity. It can also be tied to our deepest fears and anxieties. Acting out of fear of loosing those connections can do a lot of damage and destruction to the relationships in our lives.
I believe now that the things my Dad started to teach me were missing an important element:
About 15 years ago, one of my friends married a guy that set off my creep radar like no other. I followed my dads advice and kept my mouth shut. I remained a friend, and said no ill, and our friendship was OK. But, internally I constantly moralized against her choice, and it still hurt our connection. A decade later when they divorced, I expressed my sorrow to my friend, but silently inside I celebrated that I had been correct.
I missed the important opportunities with my friend both to celebrate her joy with her when she was getting married, and to truly mourn with her when that marriage was lost. I have no idea of the intimate details of that relationship. The consequences of it were not mine to experience, and what she may have gained from it may have been worth the costs. I don’t know because I was too busy judging and silently being morally superior to do the one thing that would have mattered- be with her in the moment, in pain, or in joy. Because of that our friendship has less strength and connection than it could have today.
All of us will disagree with each other on some personal moral level at some point in life. We all have different journeys, experiences, and things that we find “morally abhorrent.” One of my favorite Articles of Faith by Joseph Smith states “We Claim the Privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”
I would like to build upon that a bit.
I claim the privilege of choosing who/if I will date/marry, and what moral and political philosophies I will espouse according to the dictates of my own conscience and allow all people the same privilege even when they don’t choose how I would like them to. I will focus on emotionally connecting with my friend/ family member and rejoicing with those that rejoice and mourning with those that mourn, in their journey, for who and where they are, not who I wish they were and where I wish they were at.
This principle was taught to me by example:
A short while ago, a dear friend of mine and I were out to lunch. I had the difficult time of opening up to her about something that I knew would make her sad, choices I made that made me very happy. These changes in my life had enriched and brought more joy and peace to my life than I had ever before known. But, I knew that they would greatly go against her morals, and cause her some cognitive dissonance as she tried to remain my friend while morally opposing the things that brought me relief, joy and enrichment. I wanted to share these things, because they were a major part of my life, and not sharing them decreased my ability to connect with my friend on a real emotional level. It was driving a wedge for me to say nothing of these changes, yet I knew the potential that sharing them could end our friendship. I felt conflicted about not sharing honestly this part of my life with someone who meant so much to me, as well as the pain I knew it would cause her if I shared it.
Luckily, many friends along the way had taught me keeping these things silent would drive an increasing wedge between our friendship, so I had to share if there was any chance at all. Before I started, I told her what I had to say was going to be hard for her to hear, that I respected her and her beliefs, and I knew that my joy might cause her some sadness, I knew how she likely felt about these things, but they were an important part of my life, and I needed to share them with her.
I kept the details behind my decision to resign membership from the church, where our friendship had grown and developed, to a minimum. That was my personal journey, and isn’t something that I can explain, and in trying to explain I might also be disrespectful to the joy she found in her faith. I asked only that she remember who I am as a person, know that I had not changed, I had put a lot of time and thought and prayer into my decision, and I felt peace about it for my personal self.
I expressed my deep respect for her, and for her religious beliefs, many of which I still felt deeply connected to, and wanted to still celebrate with her, as they brought her joy. I told her I knew that church was a big part of her life too, and that I wanted her to feel free to share those parts of her life that were deeply meaningful and important to her. She just said she loved me, and sometimes we could agree to disagree, but it didn’t need to be brought up when we disagreed, we could just be with each other where we were at, because we loved each other, and know that it did not mean we had changed our moral positions to necessarily agree with each other, but our connection and love for each other was the important thing to focus on.
Because of that we were able, over the months that followed, to deepen our friendship. Her ability to rejoice with me in the joys, and cry with me in the pains as I shared with her the ups and downs of my relationship with my girlfriend that I was finally able to openly discuss with her. She didn’t ever have to tell me her moral opposition to same sex relationships. I knew her belief, it was never stated, nor emotionally implied by coldness, silence, or distance. It meant the world to me that she could be there with me allowing me to share something so deeply meaningful to me, and just be happy I was happy, without a need to moralize and dampen my joy by reminding me she disagreed. Doing so would have just driven a wedge in our friendship, and killed my ability to share those parts of my life with her that are so personally meaningful to me.
This connection went both ways. When she received a calling to work as a temple worker, I was genuinely happy for her. I felt genuine anxiety with her and she talked about being overwhelmed by the responsibility and weight of this calling. I shared experiences from my past as a missionary, of not feeling like i was good enough, or magically changed from my humanness enough to be the missionary I though I should be. I shared the comforting words my Mission President had given us that God wanted us imperfect humans doing the job for who we were, because who we individually were could touch the hearts that perfect angels might not be able to.
There are many triggering things for me right now about the LDS church, but speaking her language and relating to who she was, and what she was feeling and experiencing brought deep connection and joy to my heart, just as happened when she spoke with me in my language about my relationship with my girlfriend. That moment was not about me and my pain, or beliefs, it was about her and her joy and celebrating her spirituality, and comforting her anxiety where she was, with what was important to her.
In so doing, I was also able to celebrate my past, my mission, which was one of the greatest growing and joyful times of my life. And by putting my personal moral disagreements with the church institution aside and being with her in that moment, I felt great and genuine joy about the exciting spiritual things, and personal growth this calling will mean to her in her life journey.
I guess this is a really long complex post. And the thing I’m trying to share is one that has to be experienced to be understood. But there is something truly beautiful that can come in human connectedness to our relationships when we let go of that feeling of moral obligation to force people to see the error of their choices and beliefs that are different from our own. When we just meet them where they are, rejoice with them in the things that bring them joy, cry with them in the things that bring them pain, comfort them in their own language when they need it. This allows us to step outside the confines of our own experiences, and deepen relationships.
Sometimes, it means knowing when to hold back your personal thoughts on someones actions and beliefs. It means that we just trust and respect that they are a thoughtful adult capable of making decisions in their life for themselves. It means knowing that we cannot have all the information that they do, and that we do not, and should not have access to everything that goes into their journey. It means knowing life is a journey, and a journey is best traveled together, in connectedness. In connectedness we all find the richest love, joy, and meaning in our lives.
I am not yet perfect at doing this. I still have a long way to go. But, I am glad I am finally learning, because it has made all the difference in the world to my relationships.
*the personal stories in this are a composite of people and experiences from my life to protect the identities and personal experiences of real people that are closed to me, and our personal relationships.