friendship and forgiveness

“One sees so many faults in humanity. But those who affirm love for God, or friendship with angels are often deluded. The scriptures posit love for humankind and this is one of the bases of Sufism. Metaphysical knowledge without such an expanded heart is useless, has always been declared useless by the wise and yet been sought by the unwise in all times” Samuel Lewis

“Learning how to be a friend is really the essence of the Sufi path.” Neil Douglas-Klotz

“The greatest is to have a tendency to friendship; this is expressed in the form of tolerance and forgiveness, in the form of service and trust. In whatever form he may express it this is the central theme: the constant desire to prove one’s love for humanity, to be the friend of all.” Inayat Khan

These insights are so beautiful. What I like about these quotes is that they lay out a very simple idea of a spiritual path, one that most people can relate to. Friendship. Being a good friend to everyone and everything. Allowing our circles of concern to encompass more than our families, our communities, and our countries. Most every religion espouses compassion, love, and caring for others; but I have never seen such a succinct way of communicating how these ideals could be carried out in reality.

The word friendship embodies compassion, love and care with an effortlessly familiar feeling of real love rooted in kinship and daily acts. In reality it may be far from effortless to expand our circle of friendship out to everybody on Earth, but every spiritual path has a practice. The wisdom these men share is that spirituality is not an abstract relationship with a disembodied god, but a practice of offering tolerance, forgiveness, trust, and service to all other people.

For me I find it easy to offer service, tolerance, forgiveness and trust to friends, family and most strangers. I hope that I am a good friend to the people I love, I’m totally the person that makes friends with people on the BART and in elevators and tries to figure out how somebody’s rudeness is understandable (notice I say understandable not necessarily right). I do look for ways to be kind to people and to offer acknowledgements of our common humanity. I find my ethic and practice of friendships more challenged in trying situations that call for forgiveness; forgiving friends when trust and understanding have been called into question. I certainly value and esteem forgiveness, and sometimes even offer it before I necessarily feel it. But I want to feel it too.

They say some people love humanity but hate people, and some people love people but hate humanity. Perhaps where each of us is in this spectrum of loving and hating people and humanity is an indicator of what challenges we face personally in striving to actually embody the ideal of friendship to all.

***

So my question is what do you do when the foundation of a friendship is cracked, questioned, or undermined? What happens when a friend lets you down? What happens when the struggle or the hurt isn’t external to the friendship? Does the friendship dissolve? Do we push each other away out of fear of greater pain? Do we question the relationship? Do we struggle reconciling our love for this person with our sense of betrayal? How do we deal with the vulnerability of being hurt by someone we trust and what does how we react say about us? Do we respond in the way we would want another friend to respond to us?

How does a friend act when it is the friendship itself that is called into question?

I have a suspicion that our own answers to that question will influence the depth, intimacy and love we can actually experience within a friendship.

Consider the saying “it‘s easy to be a saint on top of a mountain.” The implication is that it doesn’t mean much to be saintly when there are no challenges to test your meddle. Similarly, what does it mean to be a friend if we can’t face the challenges that inevitably arise within our own friendships?

When I was younger I was far more likely to walk away from people who hurt me, but I now I am more likely to both examine my own role in the pain and make a serious effort at communication and understanding. Yet one of my biggest challenges is to feel real forgiveness when I’ve been grievously misunderstood or accused of something that feels opposite to who I know myself to be. It was easier to forgive someone making out with my newly ex-boyfriend in front of me than it was to forgive a person who accused me of trying to angle in on her man. In fact I’m unfortunately not quite past that yet. Indignation is not something I feel often… but hoo-wee is it hard to let go of.

It’s a difficult proposition; if someone is your friend they’re not supposed to hurt you. They’re supposed to support you when other things in life go wrong, right? I have definitely questioned friendships when I was accused of something I didn’t do, or was misunderstood in a hurtful way, or when a friend acted callously when I was in need. Could a real friend fail to engage with me so entirely when I’m in pain? Could a real friend see me in such a light when my intentions were actually good? In reality, these are things that real people do, so can a real friend act in such ways? Yes. Again I find myself trowing away the “supposed to” and “shoulds.”

And in truth we have each committed these crimes ourselves. Misunderstanding and acting blindly, these seem to be common themes in human interrelation. Indeed, if we can see that these happenings are part of the architecture of most human interaction and that our experience of pain can exist alongside compassion for the other, it seems we can be better friends to both others and ourselves. I think this is how we begin to step away from judging people against our ideals and instead begin to create relationships that are large enough vessels to contain all the contradiction, beauty and frailty of who we are.

There are times when betrayal is intentional or when a friendship may be destructive. We need to use discernment to feel out where real love is and be willing to walk away when respect and care are not present. But engaging in the struggle to understand and to love is the flesh and muscle of being a friend. Cultivating the skill of friendship is a lifelong process of learning how to love more completely; it involves failing, holding oneself and ones friends accountable, and yet ultimately striving to forgive and offer compassion.

If you have ever asked for forgiveness, hoping that the other person would see how purely you desire to take back the damage, how deeply you want them to know that you didn’t intend to hurt them, then you know what it is to feel misunderstood and to both desire and deserve forgiveness. If you have ever hoped a friend would not allow a mistake to define you, hoped that a friend would see past what you have done and remember that you love and want the best for them, than you know what forgiveness means. Forgiveness isn’t necessarily about forgetting; I think it is more about being at peace with our mistakes and the mistakes of others; indeed the very existence of mistakes.

Take on the mantle of forgiveness yourself and think of those who you’ve withheld forgiveness from. Each of us is a person who is striving to do right, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, but all the while wanting to be acknowledged and loved as a human.

I strive to be the kind of friend who shows up for people when they are in need, but I also strive to be the kind of friend that understands that each person’s strengths and failings are different from my own. To be a friend means to love someone just as much for their frailty as their strength, to see in both of these the reality of being human, and in offering love to them, granting ourselves forgiveness as well for every time we’ve fallen.

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