I’ve always had trouble approaching someone with a fragile ego, because I know if I say anything disagreeable or honest, they’ll defend themselves like crazy with a million excuses or throw insults or throw things off the desk or make ugly-cry-face and cut me off for a month.
I know this because it’s me too. It’s hard to hear the truth about yourself. It’s hard to confront the ugliness inside.
But confronting yourself is the only way to be truly liberated from the lies we believe. Without rebuke, we’re left sauntering in an unseen momentum of darkness that threatens to destroy us by a gradual downhill fade. The most dangerous way to die is slowly, unaware, in descent.
A few years ago, one of my best friends was messing up with something. No one else knew but me. It probably wasn’t a big deal, and no one would’ve been hurt if he continued, but as a friend I had to bring it up. I really didn’t want to, but I couldn’t just sit by.
My friend is the coolest guy in the world. I’ve never seen him rage out or say a harsh word in his life. He was the kind of guy who would walk away from a group the second they began to gossip, who wouldn’t hesitate to break up a street fight on his way home.
But even when I bring the truth to the coolest people: I’ve seen the worst come out of them. There’s always a mirror-defense where they decide to bring up your grievances, or a lot of casual dismissal, or loud angry hostility. Honestly, I was jaded to this sort of thing whenever I tried to confront someone, and I expected it to go bad just like with everyone else.
On a Friday, we were hanging out at my place and I sat him down and started with the ominous statement, “I have to talk to you about something.” My voice shook for that entire sentence. If I wasn’t sitting down, my knees probably would’ve been shaking too.
I told him everything. I said, “I don’t want anyone else to say something bad about you, that’s why I’m saying this. You’re my friend, you’re my brother, I want the best for you.”
After I was done, I braced myself. I physically reeled back, waiting for the shouting match.
My friend said, “Thank you” — and then he stood up without a word and went to the door, and he left.
For some reason, this was worse. I couldn’t sleep that night. I thought I had totally screwed this up. Friendship, ruined. Years of loyalty, over. I kept going over what I said in my brain, all the ways I should’ve worded it differently.
The next day my friend came by. He sat me down, the same place, the same chairs. He said, “I thought about what you said. And you’re right. I’m going to stop immediately.”
My entire body unclenched. To be truthful, I almost wept. I hate to cry in front of people, but I was just so dang relieved. Some of it was because I was emotionally tightened up, and some of it was my anxiety that I was no longer his friend. But mostly I couldn’t believe that another human being actually considered what I said and thought it was the best course of action, so he changed his life over it. I was astonished.
It would’ve been okay if he cussed me out, or never spoke to me again, or kept living his life as before. I would’ve understood. I still would’ve loved him the same. No one owes me anything, and this is not about him “following me.” But the plot-twist is that he actually listened. Not to me, but to wisdom. I can’t remember a time when it happened so clean, so quickly, so graciously.
He stuck to his word. He stopped. He went out of his way to make sure it never happened again. And I never tried to play around about it, I never said “I told you so” or “It’s better now right” or “Aren’t you glad you listened.” If anything, we grew closer and stronger. I was one of the groomsmen for his wedding.
The simple truth is that if you haven’t been told you’re wrong in a long time, you probably have no real friends. And you might not be a great friend, either, because everyone’s too scared to tell you what’s really real. But even then, it’s uncomfortable and icky and awkward, and if you ever get to that place of rebuke and honesty, there will be a space of tension where the friendship hangs in the balance. Yet true friends are willing to risk the friendship out of love for each other, because being a friend is not a fun-filled fantasy where it’s all giggles and games. Friends also sharpen one another, to be our truest best selves, that we might move forward to greater joy.
Of course, there will be an initial emotional reaction. There will be dumb rationalizations and a sudden list of “Well what about you.” And I hope you can push past this. I hope you don’t take it too personally. Every creature has an instinct of self-preservation, and if you call me out, I will naturally fight back until I feel safe enough to let my guard down. The only thing we can do is to endure the scratching and stumble through those first reactions, and maybe we can move past this part a little quicker each time.
I also don’t mean we call out everything that bothers us. There’s plenty to just let go. I don’t mean we become behavior-police or try to catch a slip-up all the time. Sometimes it’s not your job. I’ve been there, and that’s not friendship either. Being accountable is nothing without love and vision, and if you have a self-satisfying relish when you rebuke, you’re not in it for your friend, but yourself. None of this is about ultimatums or “getting things off my chest.” It’s because I love you too much to stay silent.
I hope we can pursue rebuke, to pursue truth. I hope we are not only surrounded by yes-men and glad-handlers and kiss-ups. I hope we are not overly sensitive to spiritual surgery. I hope you can run through my overreactions and get to that core inside, where you believe I can do better, and you sincerely do love me. I hope you will hear my heart breaking.