By Makkah Ali
I just wanted to know that I wasn’t weird. I wanted to be invited to sleepovers and birthday parties, movie dates and theme parks, mall outings and picnics. I wanted my name to come up casually in conversation and have my peers unanimously agree that there was nothing bad to say about me, that I was inherently likeable and that they considered me a friend. I wanted for them to want to be my friends, but I didn’t know what a friend really was. Childhood friends were kids who lived in my neighborhood, went to my school, whose parents knew my parents. A friend was a child that I played with; our parents gave us to each other as gifts. Childhood friends, left to navigate our relationships with each other and sort out our many differences and accumulated resentments as we approached adolescence.
I attempted to educate myself. The books I read and shows I watched unraveled the mysteries of romance and took on the thrills of adventure but treated friendship as something obvious, as something I should just know what to do with. I wondered if there was a formal way to enter and exit a friendship, whether two people ever set and discussed their explicit platonic intentions. I wondered whether different friends served different purposes. These books and shows did not answer these questions. Instead they taught me that friends were people who did not make me do bad things, like smoke in my elementary school parking lot, or drag race after prom. My friends didn’t make me do very bad things, but does the absence of badness equal goodness?
I treated my friends better than I treated myself. I put their needs before mine and spent more time seeking their approval than forming my own opinions. I lost myself in their inside jokes, mannerisms and interests. To this day, after years of modifying small pieces of myself to better fit into someone else’s puzzle, I cannot tell you what my natural speaking voice sounds like. Friendship was presented to me as the key to acceptance and social fulfillment, but it felt more like I was suffocating under someone else’s desire to stifle my growth and limit my potential. When I read bell hooks’s definition of love, the desire to nurture our own and another’s spiritual growth, I was struck by how lacking it was in my life and in my relationships with others.
I decided to foster this kind of nurturing and spiritual love in my relationships. I needed to love myself enough to be able to recognize when I was giving more than I was receiving, when I was making more excuses for a person than they were making for me, when my friends and I failed to bring out the best in each other and celebrate one another’s successes and mourn each other’s losses as if they were our own.
Friendships can be an enormous source of inspiration, motivation and support. But sometimes, we stay in friendships because we don’t want the years of phone calls, parties, weekend trips and shared secrets to go to waste. I try not to view those years as a sunk cost and instead see them as fulfilling specific needs at different points in my personal evolution. Two people rarely grow at the same pace, in the same direction. And although it can be hard to come to terms with, taking stock of what people add to my life life and what I add to theirs has made it so that all of my social circles feel like home. With every loss of a friend, I gain a bit of myself, my confidence and my voice, back in the process. I spent most of my life so scared of being lonely, so I was shocked to ultimately discover that I liked myself enough to feel okay alone.
Makkah Ali is a mediator and writer with a deep interest in helping diverse groups engage in difficult conversations, grapple with challenging issues, and collaborate in unexpected and mutually beneficial ways. She believes that conflict is neither positive nor negative; it is a natural outcome of diversity, inclusion and human interaction. Makkah crafts dialogues that maximize the innovative, constructive and transformative aspects of conflict and minimize destructive tendencies. She is passionate about Blackness, karaoke and chocolate chip cookies. You can find her on Twitter @MsMakkah or running along Lake Michigan, albeit slowly, rain or shine.