Good Faith, Bad Faith

everything is a heuristic

Photo by Maria Krisanova on Unsplash

Last summer, I went through a painful friend break-up. Though my friend break-ups are typically less dramatic than my romantic ones, they are no less hurtful and no easier to resolve.

This friend has had an extremely difficult time in the past few years. As I love him dearly, and I love being there for people, I was frequently an emotional support for him on the many bad days. After a while, it got to a point when he was calling me every day. Though he typically respectfully asked for consent to share his darkness with me, I would almost always agree to listen. In time, I started to feel pressured to be there for him, and I felt he started assuming I would be. I believe we were both responsible for this pressure, and for these assumptions.

Eventually, I cracked under the weight, and we had a blow-out fight about it that has ended our friendship to this day. He felt like he couldn’t be honest with me. I felt like he wasn’t respecting my boundaries or needs. Even between two deeply emotionally communicative people, we still had hit an impasse. Both of our needs made sense, and we communicated them clearly, but our needs were diametrically opposed when it came to our friendship.

The thing about all human relationships is… there is no objective right or wrong. I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all for a healthy relationship of any kind. Even a level of codependency most people think is wildly unhealthy can be healthy if it’s not impacting either person’s life negatively. Brutal honesty can be healthy. Lying can be healthy. Fluidity can be healthy. Commitment can be healthy. It all depends on who’s in the relationship, and what each person needs and authentically consents to.

At the end of the day, what we call “healthy” in a relationship is a generalized heuristic for what seems to work for a lot of people. It is not the only thing that can work.

Recently, after almost a year of not speaking, this friend and I got back in touch. I’d told him I wasn’t ready to have a conversation yet, as a lot of difficulty has appeared in my life in the past few weeks, and he was understanding and supportive of my need for distance. I told him I loved him, and he replied in a way that… initially, really upset me.

He thanked me for saying so, said he believed that I loved him, but that it didn’t “suture the wound.”

I instantly took this in bad faith. I took his response to mean he still believed the entire fight was my fault, that I was the one who’d inflicted unnecessary pain on him, and that he’d made no effort in the past year to see my side of things or forgive me for any pain I’d inflicted without intention.

But reflecting on it again, perhaps he had.

Perhaps he was comfortable reaching out because he had made that shift. Perhaps there was more to the story, and he was going through other pain unrelated to me, and it was simply his way of telling me that my love wasn’t enough to fix everything, as I knew it never had been, but that it was still nice to hear. Perhaps there was a way to take this in good faith.

I could look at his words from the belief that he didn’t see a thing I was doing to help, or I could look at them from the belief that he did. The first option led to me feeling angry and upset on top of everything else that’s made me angry and upset. The second has led to me feeling compassion and calm.

With my rational cap on, the first answer is likely more plausible. However, the second answer has made my life better. Until such a time as I have more information, I’m sticking with option two.

The truth of his intention is something I don’t know yet, and never really will. No matter what I say about it, it is still faith.

The thing about communication is that it too is a heuristic — a stand-in for meaning. We cannot ever be sure what someone else means, and even the utmost possible information does not tell the whole story.

Saying something usually tells more than saying nothing, and for me, silence is the worst emotional torture possible. Still, even a four-hour speech at every tiny moment of tension could not tell the entire story. The entire story of my actions would take me twenty-six years and twenty-seven days to tell, not counting every part of my story that happened before I was even born.

You can never be entirely sure where I’m coming from. Neither, for that matter, can I.

What we have is never certainty. What we have is faith, and the power to choose how to use our faith. We have the option to choose what a story means to us, and how we receive it. Do we receive it in good faith, or in bad faith?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this either.

This is rather like the question of a glass being half empty or half full. At the end of the day, the glass is just a glass and there’s water in it. What you say about it doesn’t change what it is, but it does change you. You do not have the power to change what the glass is, but you do have the power to choose how you view it. You always have the power to shape your own experience of the same situation, even if you cannot always change the situation.

Every person in our lives is a mirror. They are also a person. We see ourselves in them, and we see them too. Sometimes, we see more of ourselves than of them. Sometimes, we see more of them than of ourselves.

Typically, the more information we have about another person, the more we can fill in the gaps, and the easier it becomes to see them. This is why love, the part of love that comes in seeing someone fully, typically happens between people who know each other very well. More information creates a fuller picture, and the person becomes alive with a quality, the “is-ness,” as Eckhart Tolle calls it, of a fully subjective being.

There is a profound pain that comes in someone projecting themselves onto you. It is the pain of someone treating you as an extension of themselves, and the pain of being treated unfairly based on what you have put forward. Their understanding of you does not match your understanding of you. When this happens, we do not feel seen, so we do not feel validated, so we do not feel loved.

To love is to see fully and to take as a part of oneself, not to imagine as an extension of oneself. To view someone only as a reflection of yourself, especially without being cognizant of it, is treating someone else as a mirror instead of as a person.

Someone I loved once, in a moment of intense pain at not feeling seen, asked me, “What’s the one thing you don’t see when you look in the mirror?”

The answer is, of course, the mirror.

In understanding that people always make sense, I’ve found that they have grown much easier to love. I don’t have to have all the gaps filled in to know that those gaps are filled in by something, somewhere. Their feelings make sense, regardless of whether I know how they do. I still know that they do. There is always a cause to the effect. The reactions may not be rational or helpful, but the feelings themselves are still valid because they are still felt. There is always a story to be told, and I can see a person’s is-ness far more easily.

What it comes down to is trusting that there is a story there. Understanding that everyone’s actions have causes, that everyone’s feelings are valid even if they’re irrational responses given the present circumstances, can lead you to trust that there is a person inside who is full and whom you could see. This is the “seeing” component of love. They are whole and distinct, unto themselves.

The other component is of taking someone as a part of yourself. Of choosing, consciously or unconsciously, that their needs are a part of your needs, that meeting their needs meets your needs, and that their happiness is a part of your happiness. This is the “being” component of love. They are whole and inseparable, an intrinsic part of you.

If the word “love” does not resonate with you, you could think about it as understanding and care.

In choosing to trust that someone is acting in good faith, we too act in good faith. When that trust is broken, we can decide what to do from there. Until then, the only power we have is to decide how we view the situation given the information we have, and choose how to respond.

Intention does not always change impact, but that’s just it: impact cannot be judged as though it were always intentional. You cannot choose another’s intentions, but how you choose to view them can often change their impact on you.

At the end of the day, this is all we have: to choose good faith, or bad faith. Either way, it’s still faith, and neither option is “wrong.” It’s still trust, it’s still a choice we have made, and all we have is the power to choose.

The information will never be complete, but if it were, we wouldn’t be here.

Written by

Antifragile. Writing for a world where many worlds fit. www.annaronan.com | anna.a.ronan@gmail.com

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