One of my greatest weaknesses is my clinginess as a friend. I’m the type to start twitching if you’ve failed to respond to my text after 5 minutes. Sometimes I can control myself. I try more and more to chill out about such minor offenses as taking “too long” to respond to my texts. But those attempts don’t usually go very far. Soon enough, I’ll start to unleash a firestorm of rage, demanding that you repent for daring to commit the grave sin of “leaving me on read.”
It’s not only with texting, though. I get this way when I find out that you spend more time with another friend than with me, or if you’re paying closer attention to your Instagram feed than to me when I’m recounting the events of my week to you. I seem to have a knack for fitting little things like this into a larger metanarrative of how I’m always the one who does more for you than you do for me. The “always” part allows me to intensify the accusation of injustice…which in a twisted way is empowering for me as the accuser.
But the thrill of pointing the finger never really lasts long, and-the more I think about it-is based on deep-seated fears and insecurities rather than an actual claim of moral strength and superiority. The fact is, I’m afraid of not being thought of. I’m afraid of being left out. I want to be the friend that you always reach out to when you’re having a hard time, or that you text randomly just to see how I’m doing. I’ll pull all kinds of stunts to try to force you to be the friend I want you to be. But then (usually after feeling embarrassed for having made a fool of myself), I’ll be reminded that real relationships can only exist between free men, and not those who are in any way coerced into the relationship.
I’ll make commitments to myself that I’ll stop trying to demand affection from my friends. I’ll devise plans to control myself and to force myself to respect their freedom. And yet I find time and time again that that “plan” falls apart, only to end up in that same position of shame and embarrassment for how I act.
I’ll try to come up with a new plan…I’ll stop stalking their Instagram…I’ll force myself to rejoice when I hear they hung out with another friend…that friend, again…last weekend. I’ll wait for them be the first to initiate a text conversation rather than to nag them… “This time, I’m gonna stick to it.”
And then after a few weeks I end up back in square one. Why can’t I shake off my nasty tendency to cling onto other people as if I owned them…as if I had some kind of a claim on their time and attention? Whenever I end up back in square one, I hear the faint echo of the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Romans: “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do.”
But the more I find myself back in square one, and the more I go over these words of the Apostle, I find that the greatest of my sins is not that of being a possessive friend, but rather that of ambition. Who am I to assume that I can muster up the strength to be a selfless friend? Who am I to claim that I have the ability to “chop off” my possessive tendencies by my own effort? Time and time again, I catch myself falling into the trap of convincing myself that holiness is a matter of making myself be good rather than depending on Christ’ mercy and grace.But depending is inconvenient…it requires patience. It forces you to wait around on someone else to teach you how to love. This means that while you’re waiting, you’ll fall flat on your face and make an utter fool of yourself many times before beginning to be able to love in a pure and charitable way. I despise the embarrassment. I hate looking weak. I can’t stand that people can see the gaping wounds in my heart, which are as blatant and ugly as the raging acne of a pubescent teen…but it’s ten times worse because I’m not a teen and it’s not acne.
…And here come the sins of vanity and pride. Why can’t I have a clean and attractive face devoid of the blemishes which reveal my radical dependency on Someone else?! This is what I call the Adonis vs. Sebastian dilemma. St. Sebastian, or “the Christian Adonis pierced by arrows” as Camille Paglia refers to him, was the the 3rd century Roman martyr who was tied to a tree and shot with arrows, then managed to escape alive, only to be ordered to be beaten to death with cudgels by none other than Emperor Diocletian, and then thrown in a sewer.
Hardly a glamorous death. Throughout history, he’s been depicted in art as the embodiment of the juxtaposition between youthful beauty and the tragedy of death. His lean and attractive body, pierced with arrows and blood trickling down, his face crying out in agony and at the same time praising God for allowing him the grace to be crowned a martyr, represents the triumph of Christian virtue over pagan aesthetic beauty, which is embodied by Sebastian’s counterpart, the Greek god Adonis. His youthful, attractive beauty, free of wounds and ugliness of any sort, diverges dramatically from the Christian notion of beauty and glory. For it is through the wounds and the ugliness of humanity that Christ manifests his goodness. It is the poor, the meek, and the humble who are blessed, rather than the rich, famous, and glamorous, because they are by their condition made more aware of their need for God’s grace and love than those who fool themselves into thinking they are self-sufficient.
So back to me…(as you should know by now, I don’t last too long without reverting people’s attention to myself) I have a choice to make. Do I want to chase after the “glory” of perfection, without the blemishes of my neediness and sinfulness which, ugly and inconvenient as they are, keep me begging for Christ? Would I really be happier chasing after the ideal of Adonis, beautiful and strong as he may appear, rather than that of the wounded and ugly Sebastian, whose very wounds are the vessels through which Christ manifests true beauty and glory? Whenever I struggle with making this choice, it’s always a great help for me to look to the Eucharist. A piece of bread…flimsy, bland, easily broken, and bound to get stale and useless after a while…and at the same time, the means that Christ has chosen to make himself present to us. It turns out me and my embarrassing tendencies have a lot in common with that piece of bread.