On friendship, music, and learning to love ourselves
THIS ESSAY WAS ORIGINALLY SHARED ON JULY 23, 2021
Something we don't discuss enough is how friendships begin. How do you know when someone becomes your friend? Is it a feeling? Is it an action? At what point do you stop considering someone a person that you know and classify them as a friend? I don't think I have the answer. Do you?
Sometimes I think the most stereotypical male trait I have is my struggle to make friends. It's a trait commonly found in only children as well, which I also happen to be. My entire life, I've rarely considered more than a small handful of people to be a friend at any given point in time. How anyone manages to end up with four or more people standing beside them at their wedding baffles me. Do you really know twelve groomsmen? Do brides actually have a dozen close friends willing to wear uncomfortable dresses and even less comfortable shoes for upwards of eight hours just to see their friend have a big day? I've seen it happen, but it's not my life.
As I'm writing this, there are six people I would consider close friends. One of them I've known for 15 years. The rest I've known for less, with the newest close friend being someone I've met in the last three years. That is how many people outside of my parents I would say truly know me after 33 1/2 years on this planet. Is that a good thing? Do I have enough? I don't know. I asked myself that question a lot, but I never have an answer.
My obsession with friendships or my lack thereof stems from my inability to remain in the present. I often think about things that have not happened and may never happen instead of focusing on whatever is right in front of me. I ask myself exciting and not at all stressful or anxiety-inducing questions, such as:
- If I were gravely injured, who would visit me in the hospital?
- If my parents needed to know something about my personal life and I was unavailable, who could ask?
- If I were to get arrested tonight, who would I call?
- If I die tonight, who will watch my cats?
- When my parents die, who will I celebrate Christmas with?
- If I need $100, who would I ask?
- If things ever get so bad that I consider killing myself again, who would care?
Some people spend their lunch hour catching up on the news or binging their current streaming obsession on their cell phone in the work bathroom. I ask myself questions like those above and let the inability to know the answer slowly eating me for the rest of the day until the exhaustion inevitably lulls me to sleep.
So, when I tell you that I cherish my friends, believe me. I love them to death, and I would do anything for them. If only I could convince myself others feel that way about me, life would be a breeze—but that is a topic for another day.
The closest I've come to answering the question I asked at the start is that friendship begins when you first become aware that the energy between you and another person has changed. It's a feeling. I cannot describe it with words, but you know it when it happens. Friendship feels like comfort. It's one of many homes that you will construct within other people to serve as a safe haven for all your worries, fears, concerns, hopes, and dreams. It's a shelter from the storm, and when that construction begins, that's when you know someone is your friend.
Maybe I can't tell you precisely when I became friends with Ben Liebsch, but I remember the conversation. There was a period about five or six years ago when the two of us were dealing with separate personal issues unbeknownst to the other. I was interviewing Ben for the fifth time when we naturally fell upon what was happening in our lives. I was struggling with a failing marriage, and he was sorting through past traumas he had only recently begun to address properly. Without saying it, we both found ourselves being vulnerable with the other in a way I'm not sure we've been with anyone else in our lives. I knew it was unique for me, but I can't speak to Ben. All I know is that I had a distinct feeling that life was different when the conversation ended. No longer would I be the only one acknowledging the void that seemed to work just beneath the surface of the carefully constructed life I had built for myself. Ben saw it too, and he wrestled with it just as much as me. Our journeys in life cannot be less alike, but we found common ground In the feeling of being in over our heads.
Being people raised to think and act like traditional men, neither one of us talked about these feelings for some time. I wouldn't go as far as to say we had our desire to be friends with one another, but it wasn't something we outright acknowledged. In my experience, most people raised under the idea of boys being boys tend not to open up emotionally, even if it's what they want. We learn to bury such notions and to focus instead on more practical uses of our time. We don't have to talk about feelings! We can just talk about how we both like sports or music or cars or whatever the hell gives us an excuse to spend time together.
For Ben and I, podcasting was the answer. Podcasting gave us a way to have an extended, in-depth conversation about deeply personal issues and complicated emotions under the guise of entertaining strangers on the internet. We were confessing our problems to one another, but the knowledge of an audience somehow made it feel less personal. Every serious thought came with a punchline. Each instance of self-discovery and joy was cause for celebration. Podcasting made it possible to be vulnerable in the name of art, much like music or film, which made me feel comfortable in a way that a normal one-on-one conversation rarely can.
Something else happened around this time. As Ben and I began to share our chats with the world, people worldwide started to respond. We heard from other people who acknowledged the void, and many shared their struggles with us through messages or emails. Our conversations had taken on new life and purpose. We were no longer two people getting to know each other, but two people helping a third person through something the first two don't know anything about. Not only were we making one another feel better, but in some small way, we were helping people we didn't even know. Nothing unites strangers like the struggle to exist.
Obsessing over friendships means I obsess over why people think I'm friends with them. In the case of musicians, I never want them to think I only like them because of their art. The art itself is not what draws me to people. I'm drawn to the ideas and emotions behind the art. When you connect to something someone creates, it's because you recognize something about it that you also see in yourself. That recognition makes you feel less alone, and at the end of the day, that's what we're all hoping to learn. We don't want to be alone. We want to know we are loved and that people care about us.
What I see in Ben is someone that understands the absurdity of being. He's in on the joke of it all, and because of that, we get along. We laugh at the struggle because we know it's all we have, and knowing we can work through it together makes the not-so-great stuff less bearable. Whatever creative inspiration or other nonsense comes along with it is merely a bonus.
The podcast eventually came to an end, but I can't tell you why. Not because it's some great secret, but because I genuinely don't know the answer. One day we stopped talking over microphones and started talking over the phone. We began texting every day rather than saving our conversations for a weekly chat before a faceless audience. I can't tell you when it happened, but yet again, the energy shifted. We were finally comfortable with one another. We were in a trusting, committed friendship. There's a part of my less evolved brain that cringes at that description, but it's nonetheless accurate. I wouldn't be me today without him, and he wouldn't be the same without me.
But there is one twist in the fabric of our relationship that most friendships don’t possess.
Ben is an extremely talented musician, and I am a fan of the music he creates. The only reason I know he exists in the first place is because I was a fan of his band long before we came to know one another. I'm fortunate enough to work with Ben in many of his musical endeavors these days, and there's a part of me that is pinching myself in disbelief every time I am included in a work email. I have vivid memories of discovering his music on the internet long before Twitter or Instagram even existed. I can still see the manila envelope containing the band's first demo arriving at my college dorm room several weeks after ordering it online. That same disc is probably sitting somewhere in my parents' house right now.
After years of questioning whether or not he would ever make music again, Ben is preparing to release his second full-length album. I've spent more than a year listening to him develop the material, and we are now just a few months away from its release. Outside of the band, I would argue I know the material better than anyone, and I have heard it more than any other person on this planet. I've listened to every iteration of every song on the album. I genuinely believe it to be one of the best releases of the year. Watching it evolve over the last 24 months is something I cherish deeply, and there is one song that perfectly encapsulates why I think this material is so important.
"Something Heavy" is a song I described as being a track about everything. In less than four minutes, Ben summarizes the experience of growing up and coming to terms with the work we must do to be our best and true selves. It's a song about wrestling with who we thought we would be and who we really are, and how we got to this place. He might say it's about something else, but that's how it makes me feel. It's about climbing to the rooftop and telling the world that you are broken and beautiful at the same time. You don't know where you're going or how you'll get there or whether or not you'll even see you tomorrow, but you are here, and you are alive. Some days, that's enough.
The best songs tell us a story we don't realize we are trying to avoid." Something Heavy" shines a spotlight on all that's left to be done without overlooking how far we've come by channeling imagery from Ben's life. Take a look at the lyrics and see for yourself:
Thought I'd fade into the haze of adulthood
Maybe build some nice shelves and die
But convulsing here on the bathroom floor
I've become hubris personified
Stuck in the "it gets worse" part of getting better
Without the satisfaction of Pacific shedder
Is this growth or more controlled rot?
Decades of pressure, the wound still won't clot
When the chorus hits, Ben shares a message of loving awareness as old as time itself:
There's something heavy here
That pulls me down
Looming large inside of me
Aching to crown
I tend to prattle on
And my legs do shake
But when that rattles gone
I carry the weight
We all have these weights we carry throughout life. What comprises your weights is your business, but I'll tell you about mine. If the stress and anxiety of never having enough friends aren't enough, I am constantly worried that the music industry or recognize me for the phony I tell myself I am. I dread the day my parents die, and I often dwell on how many times I will see them before they go. I don't know if I will ever pay off my student loans or buy a house, and I wonder if I will ever save enough to feel secure. I understand that many of these probably seem common, but to me, they are very personal.
When the weights we carry become too heavy, we begin to settle. Like a creature stuck in the mud, we struggle until we get too weak to resist the sweet embrace of cold earth, and we submit. It's in these moments that people make poor decisions and set themselves up for failure. We adjust our goals and aspirations to reflect how we feel in that moment, and that decision can have repercussions that we never see coming.
"Something Heavy" is quintessential Ben. One of the things that seem to attract people to him is his ability to discuss life and culture in relation to the bigger picture of existence. As much as he's in his head, he's also zoomed all the way out, looking at life with a darkly comical indifference. He refuses to let anyone or anything define him while simultaneously acknowledging that he is only part of something much larger than himself.
I don't want to be famous, I wanna help
And figure out how crying on vacation can build wealth
We are moderately influential warlords
We are cosmic royalty
Drape our heavenly bodies in purple
And let it all unfold lawfully
If only it were easy to see ourselves as what we are rather than what we do our best to convince each other is true, then maybe existence would not be that bad. Just imagine a world with an appreciation for the oneness of all thanks. That which is in me is also in you and everyone around us. What would that kind of thinking do to our lives and relationships? How would the understanding of our same this alter our daily lives?
If nothing else, I think we would be nicer. With the knowledge that we are all the same, we might start living by the golden rule of treating others the way we want to be treated. Maybe we would even see the value in ourselves. Perhaps we could love ourselves the way we do others and cherish our time alone the way we do togetherness.