When Friending Hurts
August 25, 2022 | Jim Angehr
Fascinating recent article from Kaitlin Tiffany in The Atlantic magazine, “That’s It. You’re Dead to Me.” (Link here, although semi-paywalled.)
I’m not familiar with any of Tiffany’s previous work, but in her article here, she’s put her finger on something that’s been rattling around in my ahead for a bit: using (or misusing) the label “toxic,” people are cutting friends and family out of their lives at unprecedented rates. Let’s unpack that.
Hello pendulum my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again. It’s quite possible that in previous generations, men and women far too often remained in relationships (parent-child, romantic, peer, etc.) that were harmful and damaging to them. Abuse is, sadly and truly, a thing.
I wonder, however, whether the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. If in earlier times more folks should have heeded the relational advice, “Get out!,” many today mash the ejector button on relationships that become uncomfortable way too early—in the name of protecting ourselves from toxic people.
In her fairly brief piece, Tiffany marshals a pretty impressive body of evidence that “Cut them off!” is precisely the message that (primarily young) people receive from internet and social media. From Tik Tok influencers to medical website listicles, you can find a plethora of advice about how to ghost, online and in person, your toxic frenemies.
Before I come too close to “old man shouting at cloud” territory, I’ll readily affirm that you should probably reduce contact with people that are genuinely toxic for you.
The problem, and it’s a big one, is where to draw that line. Midway through “That’s It. You’re Dead to Me,” Tiffany incredulously cites a WebMD definition of a toxic person as “anyone whose behavior adds negativity and upset to your life.” Yikes! Physicians, heal thyselves. If I would fully cut off any and all people who either add negativity or upset me, and others do the same with me, I’m looking for the rest of my life at a table-for-one kind of situation.
If as a society everyone is all too eager to drop difficult persons from our lives, we’d be a society full of people that are lonely and alone. And in a surely unrelated newsflash: most of us feel lonely and alone.
Certainly within the space of a blog post, I don’t have all of the answers here. Still I’ll raise the question, How can we grow as human beings without facing any discomfort? One of the ways in which the ancient Judeo-Christian tradition aligned with that of ancient Greece and Rome was that true character formation and self-improvement required occasional moments of discomfort. But would such an idea be considered an unwelcome voice in the pockets of current discourse that tell you when it comes to others, “Speak softly and carry a big sickle"?
I worry sometimes if talk of self-care and wellness can go off the rails. If in the name of those goals—which, please hear me, in themselves are good and vital ones—I’m quick to leave behind any and all friends and family members that upset me in any way, where does that leave me if not perpetually fragile, isolated, and agitated?
For all of its warts and failings, I sense that the church of Jesus may have a role to play in this current milieu. Why should people come to church? (It doesn’t have to be Liberti Collingswood, just any church.) Because among other things, being a part of a congregation of believers offers you the blessed opportunity of being occasionally offended by occasionally difficult people like you and me. In a safe environment, you’ll be encouraged to exercise the grace of costly forgiveness within the context of fighting to retain, not cut off, relationships. You'll learn to become friends withthose between whom you have not natural affinity but friction.
Or again, why go through the pain and trouble of seeking to forgive those who have wronged us, as apposed simply to cutting them off? Centuries ago, the apostle Paul wrote to the church at Colosse, “Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:12-14). The italics in Paul’s quotation are mine: the reason that we forgive and accept others is that through the cross, Jesus accepts and forgives us.
To me, that’s a recipe for a better world.