This post is about the true meaning of Friends. Is a friend simply the person you spend the most time with? Is a friend someone you can go long times without seeing and pick up just like old times? Is a friend someone who changed your life once?
I met this beautiful young man, Ryan, at a very important moment in my life.
I was in the middle of my internal struggle to decide what kind of a man I wanted to be. I was 20 and impressionable, opinionated, right, judgmental and everything you think a 21 year old is. I was also very self aware, though not terribly happy. I had spent the majority of my life looking in from the outside, being the weird kid and being raised by parents who said it was ok to not be like everyone else. But I was left with the question "who am i then, who should I be?" I also had trouble seeing why anyone should like me at all.
I took a course at Landmark Education called the IFLP, which stood for Introduction to the Forum Leadership Program. This course shattered most of my idea of self over it's six month duration. Several of the blogs I've posted happened during this pivotal moment in my life. It was during this program that I really faced for the first time my shortcomings as an adult, as a responsible human being and as a person whose word and integrity matter.
I faced a lot about myself during this program, both with growing up, taking care of myself and presenting myself in a way that I would be taken seriously. Not to mention that I had never known what true integrity was until I realized how little of it I had. I was coming out of a gay goth phase but still wore a lot of black and make up (see the terrifying picture below).
I didn't know who I was, or I couldn't decide and align my life and integrity with any one thing. This was during the point in my life where I was in and out of my parents house, barely holding down a job for longer than a couple months, going out with friends and staying out until dawn.
It was in the IFLP that I met Ryan. We were in the same session, along with his brother Josh, though they were taking it in the LA center and I was in the Newport Beach Center. But during the first weekend when we all came together, somehow the three of us formed a bond. It also had to do with the fact that we were all roughly the same age and their Stepmother had led my forum a couple years before and she was a riot so I knew they had to be at least partially cool. They were also, close enough to visit and hangout with outside of my regular circle of bar friends.
Josh was the quintessential older brother, sweet, kind and extremely generous. Being a new father made him very patient and willing to explain things for me. One of my favorite memories with him is spending the weekend in Venice Beach babysitting for him during the day while he worked, and hanging with the two of them all night. That weekend Ryan and Aaron Z even took me to the Viper Room in LA!
Josh was also my last involvement as a volunteer with Landmark (to date). When I got out of the Navy and moved to the Bay Area, I didn't know anyone so I went to the SF Center and there he was. Josh, the only one of us to continue on in the Leadership program, was about to lead his very first seminar, and I volunteered to be the Room Manager. He really brought the experience full circle for me.
But Ryan, he was the sweet bastard that you both wanted to hang out with and smack upside the head. Because of that ridiculous smile and his abundance of charm, that guy got away with saying some of the most out there profound and sometimes confrontational statements you can imagine and then force you to deal with them. Case in point:
Near the end of the 6 month IFLP course, Ryan and I both had to travel to San Jose to make up for a weekend that we had missed. We flew up together, stayed at his Mom's house and were basically linked at the hip for the entire three day seminar. When we got home to our respective homes in SoCal, he called me, and had what amounted to one of the most difficult conversations I've ever had in my life.
It began with "We need to have a conversation. I am going to have to tell you some hard truths about you. You're not going to like them. In fact, when I'm done, you're going to hate me. You may never want to talk to me again... I am your friend, and no one else is going to care enough about you to tell you what you need to hear."
"Shane, you're hiding. I don't know who you are because you are hiding behind this fake mask. This goth look and flippant constant gay mannerisms are a way for you to shield yourself from people. You think, if you look and act this way, no one will notice you or want to get to know you. Then you will have proved everyone right that you ARE an outsider. You have made your nightmare real, you have actively participated in making it real, and then you blame the world for the problem you created."
I couldn't breathe, let alone reply. He went on.
"You're listening to me for two reasons, one you're a little bit in love with me and two, because of what we've been through you trust that I have your best intentions at heart and that I am your friend. I'm going to use those two things to try and wake you up, listen to me. You need to stop lying and you need to stop hiding. Half the time you tell me things, I can't tell if you're lying or not. Or if you're just trying to look good in front of me. You are robbing the world of who you are and it's cheap and it's shitty. Over the last six months spending time with you, there have been moments when I saw you, the real you. Not the bitter, angry at the world, loner. Not the guy whose constantly making up outlandish stories or trying to one up the other persons story. The you I saw in those moments was joyous and genuine and kind and excited to be alive. That is the person that needs to come out. You need to take that mask off, stop lying and stop hiding who you are."
"I'll be here, as your friend when you do..." And then he waited for my reply.
It took me a moment to collect myself and reply "Wow, well, you were right about one thing, I hate you and never want to talk to you again". And with that, I hung up on him and decided we were now, no longer friends.
The only problem with that, was that every time I looked in a mirror all I saw was the mask. That mother fucker was right! It made me furious and I hated him even more... for a while, anyways. Still, every time I looked at myself I saw the truth. I was hiding who I was from people with my look and my demeanor and my attitude. I was creating this "outside" by being who I was being. I was terrified of people getting to know the real me. I didn't know who the real me was just yet. How do you decide who you want to be?
I felt broken. He had violated the silent agreement that we all make with each other: I won't call you on your's if you don't call me on mine. What kind of person tells you something so shattering to your ego that you literally have to reevaluate the entire way you look at your self and your life? I mean, obviously someone who cares about your life and it's long term outcome. I knew he loved me, and it occurred to me that he was probably the first friend to outright risk their friendship with me to tell me the truth about my behavior. My part in the matter. And I did play a part.
I changed. Almost unconsciously.
I shaved my head. I washed my face and got rid of all the make up. I started looking for new clothes. I bought my first grown up suit. By the time Ryan and I talked again a couple months later, "I" was starting to come out. I learned how to be honest, and joyous and forthright and how detrimental it is to one's happiness to be inauthentic. I learned that some conversations, though hard, may need to be had for the betterment of your soul, and that anyone willing to tell you this kind of hard personal truth (in a way that moves a conversation forward for yourself), is a true friend. Whether you like it or not, whether you ever want to talk to them again or not. It takes someone truly invested in your happiness to do that.
Ryan and I eventually made up at the next and last large group weekend. He was shocked and impressed with the change I had made in myself, and it didn't hurt that I showed up dressed in a suit and tie (the pic below was taken that night) and I was simply put, unrecognizable to that unhappy goth kid. By the end of the first lunch break, he and I were back on giggle and slap terms and Josh was back to rolling his eyes and shaking his head at us. My head coach Dawn said that weekend that I was now not only dateable, but totally bangable!
Though Ryan and I remain friends to this day, I haven't seen him for more than a decade. He's a married man with a family and up to life in the south bay, and we almost never chat. But he changed my life for the better. He risked his friendship with me in order to save me from myself. That is the mark of a true friend, not how often you see each other. I hope, over the years that he and I have together on this planet, I can return the favor and change his life for the better. He is a genuine, honest and authentic human being that will always love and accept me, for me. No questions asked. And though we may never be as close as we were when we met, he will always be my friend.
I hope you all get to have friends like that.
ps. Hey Ryan, remember Nadia? Remember that weekend we all went down to Ensenada, Mexico, you fell a bit in love with her and then she left you to go study in Munich? You were so mad! You'd never had a woman leave you before, I literally remember steam coming out of your ears as you huffed "Where the hell does she get off??"
And I replied "Well, in Germany, Obviously".
I think you fell a little in love with me too that day.