A good friend, recently told me the burden of his friendship: “I reflect you back. People don’t like that. It makes it hard to be my friend.” (I could be paraphrasing, but I think that’s what he said).
Though I immediately understood what the words meant, I understood the man who spoke them a few days later, when the din of conversation had ended, and the fragrance of the Thai restaurant at which we met was then a pleasant memory. He’s right, of course, not just about himself, but about the process of social reflection—real, discomforting, reflection.
You see, it’s easy to love someone who can wield the gift of social insight like a surgeon’s scalpel, applying razor perspective and understanding to our lives. It’s liberating, like breathing free for the first time. That’s a dizzying, euphoric feeling: to be so immediately and completely understood, vulnerable, under a knowing gaze. The burdensome weight of lies drops at our feet, the walls of pretense crumble. We no longer are preoccupied first with worrying what someone one sees in us, and instead, just let them see. I think that’s remarkably rare, and when it happens it’s a gift, the beauty of which is not in its giving, but in its taking away. It’s easy to love that person. It’s easy to love my friend.
But it’s hard to like the process of loving him.
You see, I carry a bag of faces with me, just like you do. Some are beautiful and some are not, and we put them on like armor to soften our appearance in the world. To hide, I guess. Sometimes, we think if we wear them long enough, the contours of that face will become our own, but they never do.
I brought my bag to the Thai restaurant that day, with all my faces. It’s almost like an offering, I guess. I held them out, “Pick one. I can wear them all.” My friend emptied the bag on the table between us. He looked briefly, sipped his diet Coke, then reflected back a man without a face from the bag. Honest. Frightened. “You don’t need them.” He said. “Not here.” And he brushed them away. Discarded. That’s what loving him is like. Exposed. Like that dream of going to the pep fest with no pants. And that’s why the process of loving him is hard, and that’s what he meant about the burden of his friendship.
And so he saw me that day. Just me. That’s not easy to do, for any of us. It’s uncomfortable, invasive, and penetrates the armor that we all thought was impenetrable. So instead, we don’t see. We look. Briefly, superficially, and certainly without a conscience of obligation to know each other. A brief smile, a genial, affirming nod, and a responsive chortle hold us clinging precariously to a conversation without consequence. It ends, as it ends. Then we reflect the face from the bag and move into the day, unknowing and unknown.
But not Mark. He sees. And that’s good, but it’s the reflection that’s remarkable. The honest, awful, gracious reflection of I am, not who I want you to think I am. When, on that rare occasion in life, we look in the mirror of friendship with a face from our bag, and the reflection that is returned is simply, completely us. And the face is gone. That’s when you know its friendship. That’s a rare heart that can do that. That’s a heart shaped and touched by God. Run from it, or don’t but it doesn’t change the honesty of that reflection, or that fact that you saw it.
So on that day, he reflected me. Thai food is great, though my friend had never tried it before. But even the familiar tinge of curry and Thai pepper couldn’t distract from the process of being seen. He’s good at it, practiced. Naturally, intuitive about what hurts and what doesn’t. He’s gentle, too, though I suspect he would argue that point. And he assures frequently. But also sets boundaries. “No lies.” He said. “Not between us.”
Can that be done? I mean when you cut away the lies we use to soften our walk in the world, to ease our appearance in the face of others, and avoid the impossible-to-ignore confrontations we face every day, how can we function in the company of others?
He believes it can. His life is walking testament to that belief, and his relationship to God is premised on foundations of personal honesty so weighty that they would drown a lesser man. At least that’s what I see.
“Ok”. I said. “Agreed”. A pause. Maybe understood would have been a better choice. Dear God, it is hard to like loving this man.
(Coming: Reflections, Part 2: What He Showed Me)