A couple of nights ago, my wife shared with me some wonderful news about one of her oldest, dearest friends. Then she followed it with, “She is just the sweetest person on Earth. It is too bad she is incredibly homophobic.” Huh??? My sensibilities had just been completely offended by such a statement, and my mind started spinning with questions and challenges. How could you call someone “sweet” in one breath and then point out her severe intolerance in the next? How can you claim to be so close with someone who embraces such bigotry and not even challenge her on it? Even more, how can you even be friends with that person? What does that say about you?
These questions were flooding my mind, and I had to take a step back from the situation to keep my blood from boiling. I am probably on the extreme end of the spectrum when it comes to how quickly I am offended by intolerance and bigotry. I am highly sensitive to racism, sexism, classism, and in this case, heterosexism. Thus, I had to fight myself to keep from pouncing on my wife’s statement about her friend’s seemingly contradictory personality traits of sweetness and homophobia.
You see, I hold my wife to a very high standard. She runs a multicultural center and is a highly conscientious and brilliant educator in the field of tolerance and diversity. She has been a shining example for me to follow in the many years we have been together, so the bar is set high regarding the people I expect to find in her inner circle. Thus, even as I was struck a bit sideways by the mere idea of a “sweet homophobe”, I was shaken even more by the fact that this walking contradiction was her dear friend. How could she fraternize with a bigot? Where were her high-minded ideals of tolerance and inclusion? Had they been compromised? Was my wife–this paragon of virtue–actually a spineless coward?
Before I let my idealistic image of my wife crumble in front of my eyes, I needed a reality check. I needed to understand just how glass my own house was before I started throwing stones at hers. I started combing through my mind and my history to dissect my closest relationships. I wanted to know if, and to what degree, I had compromised my own standards to make friends and to keep my loved ones dear to me. Maybe I was spineless, too?
I didn’t have to look far to find examples. My family is the greatest. Of course I love them all, but more than that, I genuinely like and respect each of my siblings and my parents. I very much look forward to every chance we have to get together; these are my favorite times of the year. BUT—there just had to be a “but”—there are definitely things that don’t get talked about for fear of upsetting the applecart. Several years ago at Christmas, I mentioned casually that I was no longer a Christian. BOOM!!!!! It was like a silent bomb went off. No one has spoken about the topic in my presence since. Then there is politics. I grew up in a house that worshiped Ronald Reagan and all things Republican. As far as I can tell, the rest of the gang (and their extended gangs) has remained pretty far—some very far—to the right. I, on the other hand, lean heavily the other way on pretty much everything. So, do we have a dialogue on the important issues of our time and the way our country is going? Heck no! We stay as far away from that as possible. Nobody wants to start a fight or to risk thinking less of someone that is going to be in his life for a long time. Avoiding the conversation keeps everyone from exposing themselves. Our silence keeps the peace. Denial runs deep.
My dearly departed father-in-law wanted nothing to do with his Black daughter dating—much less marrying—a White man. It wasn’t personal–it didn’t matter that I knew him before we even dated and never had a problem with him—the rule was for any White man. He openly denounced the relationship from the start, and carried it to the point of not attending his daughter’s wedding. He was always kind to me when I visited his house after our marriage, and my wife continued to dearly love and even admire him to the day he died. Still, it was tough to wrap my mind around, and despite his friendly actions, I never quite got myself to the point of real comfort around him because I could not untangle the web that could hold such extremes of belief and action. My wife, though hurt by his disapproval, remained as loyal and loving to him as ever.
It reminds me of the way we idolize people and want to see them one way, subconsciously blinding ourselves to the not-so-heroic stuff. We see Christopher Columbus as the brave explorer and discoverer of America, neglecting the land-raping, slave-taking parts. We see Thomas Jefferson as the author of our Constitution, top-tier President, and one of the most brilliant men in our country’s history, conveniently looking right past his history of holding (and having children with) slaves. We see Martin Luther King only as the great Civil Rights champion, ignoring his infidelities. We shield ourselves from the truth in order to make things fit more comfortably in our minds. Caricatures are easier to deal with than complexities. This goes as much for our heroes as for our loved ones.
Is it even possible to have it all one way, though: to see our loved ones as entirely commendable and agreeable, to sit comfortably with everything they do and stand for? As it turns out, human beings—all of us—are complicated creatures. We are not cartoon characters, so plainly hero or villain. No one is completely clean or completely dirty. Despite our greatest efforts to paint each other entirely black or white, it turns out that we are all a big, messy rainbow of grays. If we chose only to love the pure, we would all surely be lonely souls.
So, we do our best. We love those whom our hearts can’t help but love. We love our family members through some cosmic-genetic-magnetic force that pulls us together in that “no-matter-what” way that we can feel but can’t quite explain. We love our friends because we fell in love with their best qualities when we met and now cannot simply choose to fall out; they are residents of our hearts whether we like it or not.
For all of these residents of our heart, we find a way to make peace in our mind. It is a delicate balance of trying to see the good in them without being in total denial of the less savory elements. We become managers of our interactions, chemists desperately trying to avoid a combustible mix. We choose to steer clear of conversations that will explode in our faces, only dealing with certain issues if they are thrown hard at us to the point of inevitability, and even then only briefly and tactfully. We choose our battles.
There is no doubt that it requires a certain level of denial. There are just things we don’t like to think about when it comes to our loved ones. Even more than thinking about it, we definitely avoid actually confronting the offending companion. Be honest, do you really want to have a dialogue—either internally or with the problem person—about your father’s racist comments? Do you want to address your best friend’s homophobia? How about your sister-in-law’s belief that poor people are poor because they are lazy? No, as repulsive as all of these things make us feel inside, there is no doubt that our tendency is to deflect them as best we can, steering instead toward safe harbors of conversation in the service of keeping the peace.
But how much can you swallow—how much can you compromise your principals—before you reach the point where you feel entirely spineless? The answer, of course, is different for everyone. Much, I suppose, depends upon how much we feel like we “need” the relationship (frequency of visits certainly plays a role as well). If we are willing to let it go—obviously not as convenient with family as it is with friends—we may be more willing to take the risk. Sometimes we take the risk because the relationship cannot be let go of (e.g., if you and your sibling have fought and made up a million times before, you might think one more round for a good cause is worth the family drama).
Whatever the justification, it seems that we, more often than not, pretend that our loved ones’ unacceptable views do not exist. We sweep them under the rug. It is, whether conscious or not, a compromise of our beliefs in the service of keeping the relationship. But perhaps it is really much more than a mere compromise. Maybe that is putting a nice face on it. Perhaps it is more accurate to call it cowardice or spinelessness. After all, if you are not sharing your Truth or not addressing your loved one’s Truth for fear of disliking each other, aren’t you living like a coward? It takes a lot of courage to be who you are and accept others for who they are.
That was the one part, in hindsight, that my complicated father-in-law had down. He may have openly disapproved of my relationship with his daughter, but he didn’t shut her out or stop loving her because of it. They both spoke and lived their Truth—and agreed to disagree on how she should live her life—and kept right on loving and admiring each other despite their differences. They were able to meet each other right where they were and accept the other’s beautiful complexity rather than living in denial and pretending everything was wine and roses. Perhaps that is the courage we should all aspire to. Yes, I think I will start there.
What about you? How do you justify spending time with/accepting/loving someone who holds views so antithetical to who you are and what you stand for? Get out your journal and write about your relationship with your loved ones. Which ones can you share your Truth with and fear no drama? Which ones do you not even want to hear their Truth? How willing are you to challenge someone on their actions or beliefs? Does it make a difference if that belief regards you (e.g. your race, sexuality, politics, etc.)? Are there people you avoid at family gatherings, knowing they will say or do something that will make it hard for you to hold your tongue and keep the peace? What issues are off-limits when you get together with family? Are those issues different when you gather with your friends? Which of your relationships could withstand a challenge like this? Which relationships would crumble? What does the answer to those two questions say about how you should value the relationships in each camp going forward? Maybe you would be doing both parties a favor with a challenge. Is there one relationship in particular in which, if you don’t challenge them soon, you will pass from the point of compromising for the sake of keeping the peace to the point of feeling like a spineless coward for not telling your Truth? Leave me a reply and let me know: Where do you draw the line between compromise and cowardice?
Surround yourself with Love,