March 12, 2013 by Kaleb Nyquist
Since graduating college and going on to work in youth ministry, I have learned one new word, a portmanteau beyond the common lexicon of even my most distinguished professors.
That word? Frenemy.
Definition: someone who really is your buddy but is also a rival. Friend + enemy = frenemy.
Rhymes with anemone, which is a goofy many-tentacled sea creature that looks as ridiculous as the word frenemy sounds. Like, really, how could someone be a friend and an enemy at the same time?
[Spoiler alert: I’m going to end up bringing Jesus into this, with that “love thy enemy” stuff he said on the Sermon on the Mount, one of the most ridiculous speeches of all history that somehow ended up being the key to making the world make sense.]
For youth group, we usually set aside some time for everyone to share their “highs and lows” from the past week. One good thing and one bad thing that has happened. It is during this time that I first learned about the word frenemy.
“See, I have this friend…well…she’s not really a friend but she’s more like a frenemy…”
“A frenemy…you know, like a friend and an enemy combined. See, she and I were hanging out the other day…”
“Is this a high or a low?”
“Uh…I don’t know…both really I suppose.”
And so on it goes, every couple weeks, and I learn about frenemies new and old and back again. All the while wondering what the heck a frenemy actually is and where in the world they come from.
I can’t say I have figured it out completely, but after some time pondering these questions, I have a few ideas that are helpful for understanding what a frenemy is and what it is we are supposed to do about them.
One discovery I have had about frenemies is that there are two kinds out there: friends who sort of become enemies, and enemies who sort of become friends. Understanding which came first is important to understanding the nature of the frenemy we are dealing with.
Friend → Enemy.
There is a guy who I have known since preschool. We grew up hanging out, going to each other’s houses, playing on the same sports teams, etc. all through high school. He was always a bit of jerk, but the funny sort of jerk, the sort that you laugh at more than get mad at.
The few times, however, that I have seen him since we went our separate ways in college, I can’t help but notice he has become the not-so-funny sort of a jerk. Not only is it the way he treats all of us who once were his old friends (“Guys, that’s so stupid…”), but also you can see it in his career path (“I’m only in it for the money…”) to the way he talks about girls (“[censored]”).
If this was anyone else, I would find it odd and sad, but it would not sting like the stinging polyps of a sea anemone. But it does sting. And this is an important part of understanding those friends who become frenemies: we are hurt because we care.
We care about who they date or what they say or how they treat their body. We respect them and naturally want them to respect us and at least a handful of our values. But often our friends do not live up to the higher standards we expect out of our friendship.
These higher standards, however normal they are, can be dangerous if we start to use them as an excuse to not love our friend like we should. “The friend wants to test the friend,” wrote the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard in his book Works of Love. “Testing certainly has its basis in love,” he continued, “but this violently flaming desire to test and this hankering desire to be put to the test explain that the love itself is unconsciously uncertain.”
Enemy → Friend.
A bit more uncommon than friends becoming a bit like enemies is when enemies start becoming a bit like friends.
The classic, textbook example of this happened in Sweden during the seventies, when a group of robbers held a bunch of bank employees hostage. A week-long standoff between police and thief ensued. During this time, the captive bank employees became emotionally attached to their captors, rejecting outside help in certain circumstances and coming to the defense of those who had wronged them.
This pattern of becoming emotionally attached to captors is more common than you or I would expect, and psychologists have given it a name: “Stockholm Syndrome.”
For a less criminal example of enemies becoming a bit like friends, think about the desk rivalry of Jim Halpert and Dwight Shrute from The Office. Here are two guys who have worked side-by-side for nearly a decade, both of whom can hardly stand the other. Yet, in their constant pursuit to dominate the other, they have begun to understand each other and even care for each other.
The visible fact that enemies sometimes begin to resemble friends is rooted in the deeper truth that each of us is ultimately created in the image of God. Although true reconciliation is impossible without the redemptive power of the cross, any human being under the right circumstances can see something worthwhile to love in even the nastiest enemy. Although this does not mean that what the criminal act the bank robbers tried to commit was acceptable or just, it does give us a clue to understanding why Jesus would die on the cross even for the bank robbers. Die even for our Dwight Shrutes. Even for our frenemies.
Shut your eyes, and love your neighbor.
“Men think that it is impossible for a human being to love his enemies, for enemies are hardly able to endure the sight of one another,” Kierkegaard said, not believing it for a second.
His solution? “Well, then, shut your eyes–and your enemy looks just like your neighbor.”
The greatest commandment according to Jesus, in addition to loving God, was to love one’s neighbor as oneself. When Jesus stood up and gave the Sermon on the Mount and famously said to love your enemy, what he meant was love your neighbor — no excuses.
We are called to love like God loves. As Kierkegaard realized, “God is love, therefore we can resemble God only in loving.”
The love that Jesus proposes is a no-hold-back, make-no-distinctions sort of love. God calls us to love the orphan in Africa and the kid sitting alone in the cafeteria and the 88 year old who sits alone in the retirement home. It is a monumental task.
Factor in frenemies, however, and this monumental task begins to feel straight up impossible when we realize that we struggle to love even our friend.
We need to realize that our love is meant to be deeper than our like for someone. When our love is rooted in whether or not we “like” someone (a feeling which can change year-to-year if not day-to-day), our love becomes the tangled tentacles of an anemone that point every which direction and sway around in the various ocean currents.
We need, instead, to root our love for neighbors in the eternal, consistent, trustworthy foundation of God’s love.
If there is a magic trick to loving thy enemy, it is not by starting small by loving thy friends and then moving on to thy frenemies and eventually finally making it to thine enemies. No, it is learning to love one’s neighbor just like God loves him or her, with our eyes shut to whether or not we “like” them and our ears open to God’s command to just love them. There are no baby steps, just taking the plunge and knowing that God’s grace is sufficient when we mess up and fall short.
“Is it okay to have frenemies?” I caught myself asking this question during one of our Thursday night gatherings.
Yes, it is okay to have frenemies, as long as we love thy frenemies.
Kaleb is the student ministries coordinator for Ravenswood Covenant Church. In his free time, he likes to travel, go for runs, and play Mario Kart. He also thinks that North Side Youth Collision is the neatest thing since PB&J sandwiches.