Just hours ago, I wrote a dear friend, “I respectfully ask that you reconsider our relationship and be sure the one we have matches the one you want. If it does not, please consider a redesign.” I added, “I can be a forever friend.”
Perhaps because of Paul’s death a year and half ago and because of my age, I have been thinking a great deal about permanent relationships. At the university, my students are struck by my lecture about permanence, many of them writing journal entries about how queer the notion is that one would be in a permanent relationship with someone who is not family. I point out that effective day one of our class I am their instructor and in months I will become their former instructor. That relationship might be deemed good or bad, interesting, difficult, promising, distant, or close, but it is still a relationship. Similarly, they are my students and will become my former students as long as I am alive.
There are usually two or three students each semester who take this notion of permanence to heart. Some join me on Facebook, another might arrange an annual lunch or coffee date. One young woman joined me in a demonstration. One guy who moved far away contacts me when he is in town visiting family so we can catch up on how he is doing. Because of the power differentials in higher education and because of our considerable age differences, I leave it to these young adults to design the relationship they want with me.
Another friend of mine recently acknowledged a hurt sustained in our friendship. He pointed out that during a rocky period for him I was not as available as he wanted me to be or as I might have been. He’s right. I was not. My apology, however, was not about being less of a friend than I could have been, but rather about underestimating my importance or significance to him. This exchange — expression of hurt, apology, recognition of different perspectives, and new clarity — served as a guide for what’s next in our friendship.
Yet another workplace friend told me yesterday that she appreciated her own ability to be vulnerable with me, showing me the places where she does not understand something as deeply as she wants. I appreciated her as someone whose desire to understand prompts me to be intellectually more rigorous. It is as though we are enjoying playing on the same beach, building something together free from competition. This exchange — expressions of appreciation, recognition of joy, and new clarity — serve as a different guide for what’s next in another relationship.
Whatever the relationship — spouse, lover, neighbor, cousin, friend, teacher, pastor, social worker, patient, co-worker — we can expect permanence. Permanence need not signal clingy, nightmarish images. Permanence can be designed to help us develop and to bring us joy.