Thoughts of peer pressure bring a parent’s worst fears to mind: sex; drugs; uncategorized acts of stupidity; the fact that our kids cannot be who they are when they are the most themselves. When they get home at night, there is no escape from the peacocking of peers on Instagram and Vine, teasing over twitter, or the torment on Facebook. And even we, in our adult dignity, are not immune. There are the ladies in the garden club with their hats; the bosses whose only ethic is a personal P&L; and gossip at the church fish fry. How many times have we watched as someone was treated unfairly at work, and yet we could not intervene?
There is another kind of peer pressure too.
One night sometime back in high school when we were still young and indestructible, we were out drinking too much with friends and the friends-of-friends. These were not the “good” kids. They were the ones who smoked between class if they went to class at all. They got into fights and got suspended. They painted curses on the walls. Several of the boys had used the heaviest drugs, the ones we were taught to fear. Yes, I drank, and I was too young. But I never was tempted by or desired those other drugs.
But on this night of whisky, beer and diminished judgment, someone pulled out psychedelic mushrooms and it caused me to pause. They seemed more interesting. They seemed more aligned with my seventeen-year-old poetic and philosophic nature. So as the plastic bag was passed from person-to-person sitting in a circle on the floor, my curiosity and interest grew.
To my right sat Conner MacBride. We were friendly, no doubt, but he was not among my closest friends. He consumed the heaviest drugs in the largest portions. There were rumors about is home. Rumors that no one wanted to imagine true. Sometime much later, he would be kicked out of school and sent away.
The mushrooms were passed from hand-to-hand, from stranger-to-friend and to Conner MacBride. Then, suddenly, they leapt past me in a toss. Conner MacBride, that lotus-eater, the child that all of the parents feared, looked me straight in the eyes, raised the whisky bottle level with our gaze, and told me with great sobriety that if he ever heard, I was doing drugs, he would smash the bottle over my head. “You are the only one in this room that has a chance,” he said, “you are worth more than this.”
Where did you go, Conner MacBride? What happened to you, and to all the people in our lives, those somewhere between friend and stranger, who watch over us from the margins and shadows like angels who have fallen and know how much it hurts?
Our friends will be there for us time-and-time again, year-after-year, but sometimes they too will let us down. Sometimes our dearest friends are the ones who administer the pressure we fear. They are after all, just as flawed and tempted and confused as any of us. Honor this truth. Forgive them. Keep them in your hearts. But sometimes what we need are our tarnished peers. Sometimes the pressure from those around us is not something to be feared. Tender moments are often shared in the harshest of ways and the darkest of places.
I don’t know now if I would have tasted the mushrooms on that night. Or if I had, whether the arc of my life would have shifted. But looking in the dilated unblinking eyes of someone no one trusted, I learned that trust was the only thing that mattered. That the day-in, day-out decency we offer one another, that our humanity demands we provide, sometimes makes a difference without us ever knowing. That if we honor ourselves by honoring others, that others will be there in dark rooms giving back, so brutally, so beautifully.