When I was a kid, our family would go on vacations together, and I always had one of those disposable wind-up cameras with me. Story-tellers start young.
I have a scrapbook I made when I was about 7 years old from our family's trip out west. I remember back then taking pictures of mountains and landscapes and my mom playfully saying "Brett, stop taking pictures without people in them! You won't care about them when you get them developed." I was a very wise 7-year-old, so naturally I thought my mom was crazy. And then I turned and took another people-less picture of the Hoover Dam.
But when I got the pictures developed, I realized she was right. When you're flipping through photos, you skip past things and pause on faces. It's human nature. For our species, there is nothing more interesting to look at than human faces.
The face represents the soul, and soul is the thing we're after. We are biologically and spiritually wired for human connection. And that connection gives meaning to everything. No matter how majestic a mountain is, we'd much rather look at the three or four ordinary people standing in front of it. It doesn't matter that we've seen those people a million times. What matters is that there is life in those faces . . . there is soul in those faces. It's the reason the Internet rewards people who post selfies. A photo of a mountain is lifeless, but a photo of a person is rich with life, entrancing, meaningful.
A scene without people is just an empty stage, and people don't buy tickets to watch empty stages. It's the people that add life to a scene.
It's people that add life to living.
By 2012, my plan to live a life without love was going well. I'd traded love for adventure and was having a ton of fun. That was the first part.
The second part of my plan was a social trade-off, a love-exchange . . .
I'll trade love for community.
I needed to enrich the scene.
I needed to bring the people to the foreground of my life. I had always pictured a family being in that foreground, but maybe I'd been thinking about it all wrong. Maybe love comes in many forms, and I just needed to reset my expectations about the type of love I needed and about who was in the photo album of my life story.
If you grew up in church, you probably heard a sermon about the four Greek words for love. In case you missed that Sunday, here's a summary . . .
agape — unconditional love, often used to describe God's love for us
eros — sexual love
philia — affectionate regard, friendship (also defined as "brotherly love")
storge — the love parents feel for their children
(As it turns out, the Greeks had a lot more words for love, but that would have made for really long sermons. These were the most common.)
I was good on the agape front. I definitely felt and accepted God's love for me.
Eros . . . well, nothing's gonna happen there. Moving on.
Outside of adoption, storge love wasn't an option.
Philia. Philia love! Now there's one I can work with.
I'm an introvert by nature, but I've always been a pretty social guy.
And I've always been surrounded by supportive communities . . .
As a kid I had my family and church.
As a teen I had my youth group and my tight-knit Christian high school.
In college I had the fraternity as well as my campus ministry involvement.
And then as an adult, I joined a company that put a huge focus on culture. My boss, Chris, was always preaching "WHO over WHAT" which embodied his belief that in business, the people were more important than the stuff. The relationships were more important than the transactions. I was good friends with all my co-workers.
I'd seen the power of community because I'd been living in community my whole life.
I knew what it felt like to have friends you could play basketball in the driveway with till 2 a.m.
I knew the feeling of taking a random road trip with friends to Arkansas for a football game.
I knew the feeling of standing next to a childhood friend at his wedding.
I knew the feeling of a friend weeping on the phone as she tells me she doesn't think she can survive grad school.
I felt all this. And it felt good. Living in community felt very, very good.
That's what this is about, Brett. It's time to move past love and marriage and family. It's time to stop crying over what you don't have and start being thankful for what you DO have. Go ALL IN on community and IT will be your family.
Step One: Trade love for adventure.
Step Two: Trade love for community.
I'd made my plan.
As it turns out, this second step wasn't my original idea. I mean, I may have gotten there on my own, but I was hardly the first.
A guy named Wesley Hill shook up the evangelical world a few years ago when he released a book called Washed and Waiting. The book was all about his journey as a single, celibate, gay Christian. Hill has written a lot about what he calls "spiritual friendship" on his blog at spiritualfriendship.org. He did an interview with patheos a while back, and here's what he said about it . . .
"We want to be a blog that talks about what they are summoned to do, positively, and that’s why we’re called 'Spiritual Friendship.' We believe friendship is one practice worth exploring in this connection. We want to say to gay Christians, 'You are enabled by God to love and be loved. Whatever else sexual abstinence might mean in your life, it cannot simply be equivalent to isolation and loneliness. God is beckoning you into community.'"
(FYI: He has since released an entire book on the topic of spiritual friendship. I haven't read it though.)
Hill's conclusion on the matter was similar to mine. The benefits of marriage extend way beyond sex. There are tons of emotional needs that marriage fills and really strong friendships—living in community—can satisfy many of them.
I thought about Hill's writings and my own future.
I reframed it as one full of joy, living in a thriving community. So I set out to make it a reality. I created a framework on how I'd approach it . . .
Biological family — The only community you can't opt out of.
Legacy community — These are the people I grew up with (church + elementary + high school) who know me very well. They are geographically diverse, but they know me, trust me, and love me fully.
College community — My friendships from college.
Co-worker community — Folks I worked with or in my professional network.
Local community — Friends in Atlanta.
Hyper-local community — Friends who live within a two-mile radius of me and can drop by the house unannounced. In a city the size of Atlanta, this is a big deal because people often won't travel across a metropolis on a random Tuesday night for dinner.
Digital community — These are people I connect with online though we've never met IRL.
Thinking about my community as a network of smaller, overlapping communities helped me understand it better. Distance creates a challenge for building community so I knew I needed to segment by that filter a bit.
Leaning into this network of communities forged some beliefs about community . . .
I believed that when we don't have a lover to tell us "I love you," a community of friends reminding us "You are loved," is just as good.
I love you. vs. You are loved.
There's a big difference in these two statements, I learned.
I needed—craved—people to remind me that I was loved and that I was lovely on days when I felt anything but.
I believed that living in community was the best way to inoculate yourself from life's curveballs, downturns, and stresses. I believed that living in isolation was a death-wish and that attempting to create your own love was a fool's game. Without community, we have to manufacture our own love. And, as it turns out, humans aren't very good at that. That's not how this love thing works.
So I leaned into God and into community to find the love that I needed. It was working.
There's an older, preachery guy I like very much named Steve Brown. Steve has the voice of God when he speaks and his tagline is "God's not mad at you," so he's easy to love.
I heard Steve speak at a conference several years ago, and during his talk he said, "Sometimes my wife tells me, 'Don't fix me . . . just hug me!'"
I remember that resonating very deeply with me, because that's kinda how I talked to God about the gay thing. I no longer prayed for God to fix me. I'd made peace that this was my lifetime struggle, and that was okay. I just wanted to live the rest of my days knowing God loved me and knowing I was loved.
And I believed that, if God wanted to love me—to hug me—He'd do it through my community. His people would surround me. They'd carry me. They'd love and encourage me on hard days. They'd push me forward when I couldn't walk anymore.
God uses community to sustain us when we can't sustain ourselves.
I learned that then.
I felt that then.
This new season of life was one of healing. It was one that gave me confidence about my future and drained out some of the fog and the fear.
This season of living in community felt very, very good . . . 👊
All photos by Sterling Graves. Copyright Blue Babies Pink & Sterling Graves.
B.T. Harman is the creator of Blue Babies Pink, a Southern Coming Out Story in 44 Episodes.
B.T. is a consultant, writer, and speaker living in Atlanta's historic Cabbagetown neighborhood. He was previously a vice president for Booster, an Atlanta fundraising company, where he helped the organization raise $150 million for elementary schools.
B.T. is passionate about storytelling, leadership, good design, Seth Godin, SEC football, Chick-fil-A, Taylor Swift, archaeology, European Travel and CS Lewis.
To learn more about B.T., visit his personal site at btharman.com.