“I’m starved!” My stomach had begun to consume itself in a desperate bid for survival. My band mate looked over at me and grinned. “Me too!” she said. “Where should we hit?” The vermillion McMenamins sign beckoned to us from its perch above I205. We went in, ordered Cajun tots, and talked about our band, our church, and a broad spectrum of ideas. The tots proved my last well-flavored meal that I have ever had at McMenamins. Every meal I’ve had there since has been over-salted and overpriced. My friendship with Shelly is, though long distance, still good.
Our friendship is not, however, unique. I’ve always had female friends. They have been, in a great part, some of my best friends. From the time I was young, I just got along better in many ways with girls. I wasn’t ever a huge sports fan, and I’ve always liked talking relationships more than I’ve liked talking trucks, so girls’ perspectives have, in general, been more close to my interests. I can honestly say that I would not have the respect I have for women, nor would I be where I am without a perspective both balanced from male points of view as well as female points of view.
When growing up, my friends continually would tease me about whatever girl I was hanging out with at the time. I found it strange that they had such a binary perspective. There are few things more boring to me than binary perspectives. I often find myself dreading to explain the problems with binary perspectives to people because I often feel like I’m doing someone else’s homework for them. I got sick and tired of me telling these people that my friends and I were that… friends, and that they should try thinking of girls as other people, not just an embodiment of the idea of the “other”. This is not to say that I didn’t have romantic attractions to a few of the girls I hung out with, I did from time to time, but they didn’t like me in that way and so I was content to simply be friends.
Then came My Best Friend’s Wedding. On a movie night at academy this film showcased a clear reality: that to “just be friends” is a choice, just as love itself is a choice. In the film, the main character’s best friend, a guy, plans to get married and the main character realizes that she loves him. She tries to break up his marriage, but in a rare show of Hollywood brilliance, the film portrays a man who is committed to his path. The man, even though he could have abandoned his fiancee, chooses not to. I realized something in the midst of that film: If the definition of being “just friends” means absolutely no physiological reaction to a person of the opposite orientation than you, then it may not be possible for men and women to ever be “just friends.” This physiological reaction is the same kind of phenomena that might make one want to hit someone who is threatening, or to run from a dangerous situation rather than to stay and help. These are real reactions, but they are not wrong. Giving into them in the wrong contexts can be wrong, but these urges themselves are normal. What makes the groom in My Best Friend’s Wedding admirable is that he sees these emotions for what they are, puts them aside and chooses to lay those feelings aside and to see her as a friend.
NEXT STEPS: Young Adult Ministry Training
This is a perspective that seems lost on a large swath of the modern American population. In 2012 NPR did an interview with researchers who asked the question: “Can men and women just be friends?”
The researchers concluded that, assuming both persons were straight, such a thing was unlikely. Their conclusions were based upon interviews which dovetailed with a theory that “over evolutionary history, men who received subtle signals or ambiguous signals of sexual interest, needed to act on them because if they didn’t, they would have been out-reproduced by men who did.” The researchers come to the conclusion that the tendency towards attraction exists, therefore the thing we know as “just being friends” is unlikely to exist. It seems that the researchers’ definition of “just being friends” is nearly meaningless. So if having physical attraction excludes the term “just being friends” how about when one is both a friend and a mentor? What if one is a friend and a basketball rival? What if one is a friend and an employee? Is not everyone a friend and something else in this scenario? Are not all of our relationships vulnerable to jealousy, codependency, or abuse? We have many natural tendencies, but are we defined by them or by our choices that keep them at bay? We do not avoid friendships from the same gender because they may come with complications, and some of these complications come with risk of consequences that rival the risks of divorce. Yet, because what is to be gained is valuable, we take those risks.
For all of these reasons, my wife is not just the mother of my children, she IS my best friend. She is the one I tell my deepest fears to. She is the one who shares my sadnesses and joys. However, she is not the only woman with whom I am good friends. I regularly talk with and hang out with both men and women. Sometimes in public, sometimes alone. My wife knows about every one. She likewise is free to have private conversations with her male friends. Around here is where someone usually brings up a mistranslation of 1 Thessalonians 5:22. It is a text that does not address outward appearances but the appearances of prophecies that may be either good or evil. The context resonates more with Christ’s life, for He seemed to care less whether what he did appeared sinful or not. He had a reputation as a glutton, and a friend with thieves and prostitutes. He spoken to a woman alone by a well. He let a sinful woman wash his feet in public. What did He gain from these friendships? What reason is there to practice the spiritual discipline of friendship with people from both genders? Do not such situations lead to infidelity? For people in weak marriages, absolutely. I have found so far in my experience that marriages do not end because of affairs. Affairs happen when marriages meet their spiritual end. I believe that there is a strong case to be made that divorce and attempts at infidelity come from intimacy deficits between people, not surpluses. Beyond that, I think there is a danger in the separation that comes from a society that sees binary outcomes as inevitable. There is further danger in a society where a large portion of the populace only experiences significant communication of ideas and emotion with the other gender through one representative member of said gender. It is little wonder in my mind that there is a gender gap on so many issues. It is little wonder that we have a wage gap. A political power gap, and that in this day and age, we deny women in ministry equal standing. I would argue these things come from not being really known.
I would argue we, as a society, have made being alone with a member of the opposite sex mean something risque though it is not inherently so. So when men and women are with each other, both sides think of it in that light. However, if one challenges these stereotypes, seeing the sexual tension that may arise as simple physiology at work and nothing more significant, then one is in a place where one can make a conscious choice against the physiology and simply be friends with no other agenda. One defeats ones urge to objectify the opposite sex. One then can learn from another individual’s perspective, regardless of the gender, and learning is what the journey is all about.