In 1990, I moved across country to live with a guy I had known for 4 months. It was all very impulsive and Thelma-and-Louise--committed, as I was at the time, to giving “Existential Crises” a real shot-- but it wasn’t meant to be. And the heads-up that it would eventually go south came almost immediately—bags not yet unpacked--when I found a note on his mirror.
The note said:
“Everyone is my friend.”
Everyone is my friend. Hmmm. I didn’t know what this meant. What it meant about him, I mean. Because, apparently, with our entire lives condensed down into 4 months of phone calls, letters, and mixed tapes, we’d had to cut some corners on actual introductions and make some broad assumptions about one another. (Essentially to make it easier to get to know the people that we wished that the other person was). So, I just needed a little clarification on what he meant by hanging this note up on the mirror that he looked into every day. Clarify it, so that way we could go on being blissfully and moronically happy until the inevitable break up.
I asked him, What does this mean? Hoping to get him to tell me that there was some philosophical tenet that didn’t funnel “Everyone is my friend” down into the narrow tube that hollers: “It means he’s a Christian, you idiot!”
“Oh, you know,” he said. “It’s just a reminder to see the good in everyone. So I don’t lose sight of what’s important.”
It soothed me. But I knew. I knew I was probably seriously screwed. Because you only say that kind of "everyone is my friend" stuff if you want to believe that the world is black and white. You only say that kind of thing if you are committed to living your life wrapped up in blissful ignorance about your true role on this planet. His role—he thought—was to be friends with everyone, and see every single person he met as part of the pure white light of goodness. No matter what. He didn’t believe that there could be some instance where he could meet someone that might be a really good person, but who—regardless—just annoys the living crap out of him. ‘Cause it just didn’t matter. EVERYONE was his friend.
When I got my divorce a few years ago, my soon-to-be ex mother-in-law said something similar. There my ex was—being a total douchebag, moving far away from his kids to live with his new girlfriend –and the only thing she could think of to say was, “I just want him to be happy.” I thought, ‘So, you just want him to be happy? What if doing heroin made him happy? Would you be tilting his head when he pukes?’ Basically saying that it didn’t seem to really matter to her what kind of person he was; as long as he was happy in the current moment. Basic black and white thinking that ignored the fact that life is actually made up of MANY moments--each connected with the other--and that many a future harvest of regret and unhappiness was reaped by ignoring the connection between them.
And so there I was--having sold my car, my furniture, quit my job and said goodbye to my family--living with this black-and-white thinking, blanket statement guy in Maryland. The “Everyone is my friend” guy. There I was. Hoping. Hoping that I could spin this note situation into some salvageable relationship. Hoping that I would never have to confront his dirty little Christian secret. Or that, at the very least, the confrontation could be postponed long enough for me to love him in spite of it.
My mom thought most religious people were more similar to Jim and Tammy Faye than not so it was no accident that I knew by fourth grade exactly what the word "hypocrite" meant. Religion and hypocrisy were to my family what drugs and porn are to others, and it was very important to her that I not become wrapped up in either. She would say, "I might not be Mother of the Year, but at least I'm not a hypocrite." This was her example on what stellar motherhood looked like, and--really--she was right. Hypocrisy leaves such a bad taste, that--in my view--religion deserves the forethought of a very wide berth.
And it's never been a problem. Keeping the wide berth. Because the devotional bureaucracy that is organized religion seems to like boiling things down to blanket statements that I don’t believe actually work in real life. "Religion" wants "happy" and they want you to be friends with everyone, but--in reality--"happy" and "friends with everyone" are hard as hell to accomplish, and always laden with difficult compromises and heartbreaking complexity. And so when you do what religion asks--and pretend that it's all so easy and delightful to be friends with everyone--you really aren't being genuine: you are being a glad-handing faker. And, even if no one else punches through the veneer and finds out about your ruse, YOU will still know. YOU will know that you’re not being genuine or authentic. And because religion doesn't encourage it's faithful to reconcile this internal discrepancy, the burden of owning up to who they really are is accomplished during private, lonely moments filled with shame and anxiety. Which is when the believer takes one for the team--pretending everything's fine--and hypocrisy is born.
And therein lies the origin of why I had to talk myself out of panicking when I saw that note. Because "Everyone is my friend" had the potential to bourne the trifecta of miserable futures--hypocrisy, denial, and self-loathing--and pull me into what would essentially amount to a relationship Ponzi scheme.
After the note, I managed to work some magic in my head and began to think of him as a reformed Christian. Reformed into a poet and a philosopher. A beatnik who was rebelling against his religious parents, and sprucing up his Presbyterian upbringing with a little Kant and Kierkegaard.
So we stayed together, and he stood up to his parents and dropped out of NIH medical school in Bethesda. We moved to Davis, CA, and he worked at the level of Lieutenant at McClellan AFB, and I went back to school to finish my bachelor’s. And we camped all over California and planned our wedding.
Which is when it started to fray. When we both began to struggle with the dilemma called 'Who am I?' When I started to really question what I was doing.
And it happened pretty fast. And calmly. And repressed. And Puritan-like.
And while the orderliness of it definitely made the break up a lot easier, it felt somehow like I was taking advantage of him. Because he had been programmed with "Everyone is my friend" behavior patterns, and now I--breaking up with him--was “everyone," and he was being my friend. And it bothered me because I wanted him to stop penning theses on forgiveness and get pissed. Not to assuage my ego, or win me back but because I didn't want to be the jerk that was taking advantage of his "Everyone is my friend" schtick. Knowing that he couldn't defend himself by allowing unpleasant feelings towards someone. Knowing that he couldn't salvage his dignity by talking smack. Knowing that his programming meant that he might not ever get a chance (or want the chance) to credit his kindness--to me and to others--towards anything but the demands of theology.
I broke up with him one month before the wedding and he wrote reams of philosophical letters. And waited patiently while I found a place. And kept being the nicest guy in the world.
About a year after we broke up, my current boyfriend, J., and I were living in Virginia, when Chris called me, having gotten my number from my mom (who--get this--I had concealed his religious tendencies from). I was glad to hear from him since—in an ironic twist on “everyone is my friend”--I’ve always remained friends with my exes.
We chatted about stuff. He told me he was going to school to become a psychiatrist. He told me he had met someone he really liked. He was doing good. I was doing good. I guess maybe he called to get closure. Or to verify that there was nothing there between us.
And I realized—during the call--that it wasn’t for me to decide whether he was fake or not. Whether the note and his feelings were borne of genuine kindness or some religious ulterior motive. Because—I had to face the facts—I was certainly not the self-appointed revealer of all truth and integrity. Whatever was real and authentic within him was between him and his God. Maybe some Christians were glad-handing fakers. Maybe they did leave silly notes on mirrors blindly reminding themselves of how they should act in all situations. But, not being the moral authority for all of humanity released me of the responsibility of identifying and fixing it. Maybe I saw it as wrong, but—in actuality, what it all boiled down to--is that it was really just none of my freaking business.
I rarely think about Chris anymore--this guy I was going to marry--but, when I do, I feel a bit angry.
Because I don't respect glad-handing hypocrites. But the minute that I dismissed that note, I think I became one.