Friendships are beautiful and fragile things. They have to be nourished and tended, just like a garden. If you don’t give them enough time, attention, and affirmation they wither away and die, becoming forgotten and lifeless. And if you give them too much challenge, push-back or resistance they will pull away or shut you out. Living things, whether plant life or relationships, do best in the Goldilocks zone, where things are neither too hot or too cold. Relationships need a place where both people can be themselves no matter the dialogue.
During one of our many opinionated conversations after class, a friend and I had been discussing military matters in Iraq and the middle east when he expressed his desire to return. He was a veteran of Afghanistan. I wondered if I would be able to keep my thoughts to myself. I bit my tongue and let him continue on uninterrupted as he explained how the war had been a success. “We killed thousands of ‘them,” he said proudly. My stomach churned, the familiar revulsion rising within me. Now I had to respond. I challenged him politely, bringing up my concerns: firstly the massive number of civilians, killed directly or indirectly by America. This seemed to irk something in him and he quickly reprimanded me: “The Military doesn’t kill civilians.” He said and continued to lecture me. What does he know? I’m sure he was thinking. After all, I hadn’t fought in Afghanistan. How could I possibly know anything? His condescending tone irritated me. I’d heard his arguments before and they didn’t convince me, they infuriated me.
I was reminded of the horrifying footage of children in Fallujah, born with terrible birth defects and cancerous tumors as a result of the intense bombardment of the city with white phosphorous and uranium-enriched weapons. I remember the sick feeling I felt upon discovering how white phosphorous melted the skin off its victims, slowly burning them to death. I’m still haunted by these images and I suspect I always will be.
I decided not to push back too much more on his statements. They always say we are supposed to avoid two topics at all costs: religion and politics. This conversation had a mix of both, so it was particularly loaded with explosive potential. I began to realize that I valued our friendship more than winning an argument. At least I wanted to. The conversation ended amicably and we moved on to the subject of his pet lizard, a topic we could find common ground on no doubt.
We’ve had many conversations before, all of them filled with respectful dialogue amidst controversial subjects that we are both opinionated about, but I sensed that this time I had triggered something in him and in me. I began to realize that I wasn’t going to let this keep me from sharing my beliefs and my sincere anti-war principles. This was a part of me. What did I know? If only he truly knew how much torment and sorrow wracked my heart. Every story of collateral damage flooded into the catacombs of my soul, drowning me in a strange heavy sadness, like a raft filled with too many survivors, slowly becoming engulfed by the waters of the ocean. The screams of the innocent now fill my imagination, becoming something that has overflown into the novel I’m writing. I discovered a dark side of my thoughts that I hadn’t realized existed. But it came from a reality that I knew really existed. The iconic picture of the little naked Vietnamese girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, burned by Napalm dropped on her village seared into my memory. The remains of the Urakami Cathedral, incinerated, along with its congregants, milliseconds after the Plutonium bomb, Fat Man, fell, hardly a block from the church.
I’ve seen the documented cases of civilian casualties and I’ve read the testimonies of mothers who’ve lost children, sisters losing brothers, husbands losing wives. What of the countless stories that have gone untold? The stories smothered in dark clouds of willful ignorance, the stories hidden by corrupt governments and jingoistic military officers and politicians, unwilling to face the ugliness of our own violence. Who speaks for them? Yes we’ve heard the unrelenting, innumerable praises of the the military and their bravery, how they protect our freedom. They have enough advocates. Where are the advocates for the Iraqi mother whose son was shot by an American soldier while crossing the street to buy bread? Where are the advocates for the the Yemenis killed as their wedding convoy approached the groom’s village?
I cannot claim the same direct experiences as my friend. I have never fought in Afghanistan or Iraq and would never willingly do so. I cannot claim to have experienced anything remotely close to the horrific experiences of the untold numbers of men, women and children whose lives have been decimated directly or indirectly by war. All I can say is that I feel their pain and I feel it deeply. It is a responsibility that I’ve chosen to shoulder. If I can somehow be an advocate for those who have no voice or who have had theirs taken from them, I believe I must.
I really respect and love my friend. I disagree with him on a great deal. He has a huge heart. Which is why I want him to see and feel what I do. Yet I’m learning more and more that sometimes you have to speak through silence. I may not be able to convince him that he is mistaken and maybe that’s not what I should be trying to do. And I may have to sometimes sacrifice my pride in an argument to protect the friendship. As our friendship grows, I can still find opportunities to respectfully challenge his assumptions as he challenges mine. Still, I find myself unable to truly feel that I am being myself without him fully understanding how much weight my convictions carry. My staunch anti-war beliefs are a core part of who I am. How do I maintain an authentic friendship without voicing who I really am? At the very least I feel like I am called to be a voice for those who have none. I have felt the weight of these convictions for many years. I’ve never fully understood it myself, but in a strange way, I’m grateful for this responsibility.
I think what friendship has come to mean to me is neither parroting one-another’s opinions, likes and dislikes, nor silent accommodation of each other’s values and convictions. What it means to me is mutual honesty, understanding, and acceptance and also loving challenge and push-back. Not to make the other conform to our wishes. But to help each other see other points of view, and to either adjust these or to at least have better reasons for maintaining them. Friendships are beautiful and fragile, yes, but just like plants in a garden that have been well-nurtured and have matured, they can be hardy and resilient. To do this we must learn the delicate balance between unconditional acceptance and loving challenge.
This was from my final essay in an essay writing class I took this semester at Bethel University with April Vinding (Author of Triptych).