The Company We Keep

It matters what company we keep.

I was in the 10th grade. My English teacher had assigned a project to collect and summarize a series of newspaper and magazine articles on some theme I’ve long since forgotten. I didn’t really care for this teacher, I thought her project was more appropriate for elementary school than high school, and as a result I hadn’t started working on it with less than a week to go before it was due.

The project came up in conversation at lunch one day. We talked about how juvenile it was, how we weren’t learning anything and how this teacher didn’t seem to understand we were supposed to be an “accelerated” class. D said how happy she was to be finished with the project. Others said they were close to being done. I kept my mouth shut till everyone had spoken, then admitted I hadn’t started.

J looked right at me and said “you better get your ass in gear!”

Nothing the teacher, my parents, or anyone else could have said would have made as strong an impression as hearing that from a peer. I got my ass in gear, pulled the project together and turned it in on time.

I sympathize with those whose family or geographical situations won’t allow them to join a coven, grove, CUUPS group or even a UU church. But those of us who can are shorting ourselves if we don’t participate in a spiritual community. We need like-minded folks to talk to – people who won’t look at us like we’re nuts when we talk about our religious experiences. We need people we can learn with and from. And, as my story from 10th grade illustrates, we need people who will hold us accountable to our common values and our individual goals.

Thirty-plus years later I’m still close friends with J. I stayed at his house on a visit to Tennessee this weekend, and we started planning a trip to celebrate our 50th birthdays next year. But we’ve taken very different spiritual paths. If I wasn’t part of a different religious community, if I didn’t have a different set of peers, if I hadn’t moved and moved on, it is highly unlikely I would be where I am now. The same person who was so helpful to me earlier in life would be a hindrance now.

Different people, different families and different communities come into our lives at different times. The influence they have on us – and the influence we have on them – may be helpful at some times and harmful at others. If the relationships are healthy – respectful and supporting, not controlling or dependent – we need not abandon them. Friendships are too sacred to evaluate on a strictly utilitarian basis. But if our current peer group doesn’t support our values and goals then we need some new peers.

It matters what company we keep.

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