Aelred Haters Gon’ Hate

I wrote a while back about Aelred and his spiritual friendship. I like friendship; I like writing about it; and I like seeing and experiencing it. But I’ve been thinking about Aelred quite a bit. He has kind of been following me all around, pointing out good examples of love and friendship and bad examples, and keeping me on the straight and narrow. I like that about Aelred: he’s so loving and wonderfully helpful.

There’s something else I really like about Aelred, though. (Besides the fact that his Feast Day is on my birthday! Yeah, that’s right, we celebrate the life of the greatest friends of all time with our friends on my birthday!) When he was writing and teaching and being awesome in the twelfth century, there were some people inexplicably who didn’t like him. I guess this makes sense. No one goes through his whole life without having some haters. And, as everyone knows, haters gonna hate.

The common practice during the twelfth century was to respond to the haters. You did this by writing long and scathing tracts to your haters about why they were wrong and you were better. Some writers, like the always-angry-and-melancholy Abelard, spent the better part of their careers responding to the criticism from these other writers who were never going to agree with anyone anyway. Kind of a useless endeavor, if you ask me. And in Abelard’s case, it cost him to forget about this wonderful girl Heloise who was a keeper if there ever was one.

Anyway, I’m digressing and airing nine-century-old grudges.

Aelred never responded to his haters. And I’m sure, at the time, it felt like all of the world was against him because when you are a public figure and you have haters, it feels like those haters are everyone. But somehow, Aelred pulled through it. He didn’t lash out, and he kept reminding himself, I suspect, that there were plenty of people who loved him. His writing shows it.

Like with most people, Aelred eventually died, but his writing has survived. We have writing from a lot of writers from his time. The cool thing about writing from that time is that they didn’t divorce their personalities from their rhetorical voices so we, as modern readers, easily make judgments about what kind of people they were. And here’s the moral of this story: Aelred, because he was never bitter, never hateful, never spiteful and always loving, is beloved today. Readers read him and feel like they could easily crack open a fresh one with him. And so now, in 2011, Aelred’s haters don’t matter. Because haters die too, and if you don’t respond to them, the record of them dies as well.

How do you deal with haters?

Unconditional Friendship

My parents always used to tell me that I had to be a friend to have friends. I always thought that advice was pretty lame. Popular kids had friends because people wanted to be their friends, not because they were friendly. No one wanted to be my friend, I argued. I was perfectly nice and polite and thoughtful but no one wanted to be my friend. But then I started befriending people who had a lot of friends, and I realized that they have a lot of friends precisely because they are great friends, themselves. Parents 1, Spencer 0.

Friendship is such a slippery thing. We’ve been reading this guy in my Medieval English class named Aelred of Rievaulx. The last thing Aelred ever wrote was this dialogue called Spiritual Friendship. I think that’s pretty cool because Aelred didn’t die suddenly. He kind of died of old age so he knew it was coming, and yet, he chose to compose his last piece of writing on friendship. Up to this point, ‘Red (yeah, me and ‘Red are on a nickname basis) had written histories or traditional spiritual treatises. So it was kind of a departure for him too. The really cool thing about ‘Red is that people really liked him. And who better to write a piece on friendship than someone who is well liked?

Does't 'Red look friendly?

In Book Three of Spiritual Friendship two of Father Aelred’s students are giving him a hard time about a friend who he has that does some questionable things. They ask ‘Red how it is that he continues to be his friend even though this friend has a temper every once in a while. Aelred just so lovingly says to them, “once I had received him as a friend, he could never lose my love.” I love that. I love it for two reasons. 1. It is so very contradictory to what I do and 2. It is what love is.

This is so not how I treat friendship. If someone is hard to get along with, if we fight every once in a while, if we have tough conversations, I just give up on the relationship. I find new people (or, more accurately, let new people find me), and I move on with my life. But the problem with that is that when I stop treating that person like a friend, I am assuming that I am a perfectly agreeable person to get along with. And that’s just not true. I’m a pain in the butt to get along with. I complain constantly; I behave selfishly; and about one day a week I skip showering. I am extremely difficult to get along with, but thankfully, there are some people who show me some grace. And they are all beautifully wonderful people. And so when I stop talking to a friend, I’m basically saying, “Hey, I know you showed me grace a ton in the past, but I’m not willing to do the same for you so don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” And that’s wonderfully horrible.

But grace is a really important component of what love really is. It’s a choice. It’s a verb. And people sometimes understand this with romantic relationships but almost no one ever thinks about it with friendship. We can choose to love our friends even when they are being difficult. I think that gets really hard because we don’t want to give something to someone that he or she isn’t going to return. (This is part of the reason why ‘Red thinks we should choose friends wisely.) We want to know that the time we put into a relationship is going to be returned. I don’t think we can do that though. I think we have to love first when it comes to friends.