I grew up in a rather homogeneous environment where all the families were of the same socioeconomic group. Yet there were differences. My family had many values that were different from other families. The Episcopalian church was the center of many activities in my town. My family, however, was not Christian. Although many activities were connected to the church, it was clear that these happenings had more of a social emphasis than a religious one. For this reason, I never felt any real differences in our value systems.
However, upon entering high school a different group of people was available as prospective friends. One girl that I met truly had firmly rooted religious beliefs. Despite our vastly opposing beliefs, we quickly became close friends. Throughout our freshman year, we were each other's confidantes and supporters. The events of the summer following that year, nonetheless, led to a major change in the way that we viewed one another.
When she left in June, I cried; she didn't. "Two months is a long time for best friends to be apart," I said, battling the tears.
"It'll be difficult, but we'll manage. We can write to each other lots." As I watched her, I could see that she was on the brink of giving way to her emotions, yet she never did. That was how she always was. It was this incredible control that made her project a stoic image. I admired her for her strength, but was also frustrated by it. It was as if she were above others. I knew that I was always waiting for her to allow a tear or shriek of anger to escape. As selfish as it may seem, I wanted her to cry or scream, if only to show the feelings that I knew she had.
Although the summer did seem to pass faster than I thought it would, I did cry occasionally thinking the only person who truly understood me was thousands of miles away. I could talk to her so easily. Every subject imaginable was fair game during our marathon telephone conversations. At sleep-overs we rarely slept. It seemed as if after midnight we could ask each other questions that didn't seem appropriate at other times. We discussed friends, life, family, love, and, most of all, religion.That was one subject that we had very different opinions about. Her fundamentalist Christian beliefs clashed indefinitely with my agnostic ones. While her family taught her to love, fear, and revere God, mine didn't even teach me to believe in him.
Her trip that summer was due to this upbringing. She went with a group of Christian teenagers to Alaska for two months to build a recreation center while sharing their beliefs. They discussed their values and morals as taught to them through the Bible and in the process became spiritually closer to God. They were secluded from the "real world" and immersed in an entirely Christian-oriented culture. There she didn't have to place a wall around her emotions.
When she returned after two months, we talked as freely and openly as we had before the summer. I told her the events of my summer that couldn't be conveyed in a letter. She told me how much she had enjoyed her summer in Alaska and wished that it hadn't come to an end. "I like being home," she said through tears, "but I loved Alaska. I already miss everyone and I've only been home one day. It's hard coming back to a world that isn't always as supportive of your beliefs. I feel like I'm going through culture shock." That day on the phone, she cried; I didn't. The wall had finally crumbled.
Once this wall was knocked down, I saw my friend in an entirely different light. I realized just how different our beliefs really were. Our friendship was never quite the same once I made this distinction. However, I will never be sorry that we were once close friends. Within that school year, our relationship taught me more about variety in people's beliefs and values than any number of books or stories could.n
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.