Friend or foe? My brain can’t tell the difference

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I had this friend, Nate. I knew him from school. We had some classes together, a lot of mutual friends. We hung out. He wasn’t wedding party material or anything, but we were friends. We had plenty of late night study sessions, coffee runs, and visits to the local movie theater.

We shared a taste in movies, which basically involves anything with superheroes, swords, and alien civilizations. Sword-wielding aliens with superpowers, why hasn’t someone made that movie? Wait, that’s Star Wars. Anyways, this friend and I saw a good bit of each other. But it was after watching one of these movies with Nate that I came to a terrifying realization about my friend.

See, I had this other friend named Nate. We’ll call him Other Nate. As luck would have it, Other Nate seemed to know everyone I knew. I’m not sure how we hadn’t connected before now. We met when I visited this one church. Other Nate and I weren’t close but we were friends, if only of the occasional friendly conversation type.

So, its late at night. Original Nate and I are driving back from the latest Marvel flick and he mentions that church I had visited. But he doesn’t just mention it, he starts talking like he goes there. It wasn’t a huge place. If he went there, I would have seen him. And that’s when it struck me. I had seen him. I had seen him every time I went there. I don’t have two friends named Nate. I only have one friend. Nate and Other Nate are the same person. And somehow, I never realized it.

I only have one friend. And somehow, I never realized it.

I’ve never done drugs, but in that moment, I started wondering if someone had slipped me some. This isn’t the kind of mistake people make. For years, I truly believed I had two friends named Nate. That moment sent me on a dizzying journey that eventually led to the discovery that I have a defect. My brain isn’t normal. I lack the mental ability to identify people by their face. It’s an actual thing, face blindness, they call it.

I’ve shared my story about my lonely childhood, always feeling without a friend. It turns out there’s a reason I so often feel surrounded by strangers, because, in my world, every face is strange. I find people using context clues, speech patterns, or hairstyle, but faces all say, “unknown”. I met a friend for coffee this morning and he had to warn me that he’d grown a mustache. If he hadn’t, I wouldn’t be able to find him.

I found my curse comes with a great gift.

Loneliness is a battle I fight. Something about being different. Something about joining conversations late, because I’m not yet sure who I’m talking to. While I envy those who always know which name goes with which face, I have found my curse comes with a great gift. I’m uniquely gifted at making friends out of strangers, because no one sees more strangers than me.

There’s this quote from the Bible that has always stuck with me. “You planned to harm me. But God planned it for good.” It’s a statement from a man whose long lonely journey through life turned out better than his wildest dreams.

I’m often tempted to view all this as a deficiency, something that holds me back. But really, this “deficiency” has motivated me to view everyone as someone who might be my friend. And in doing this, I have made a lot of new friends, even if I’m not so good at finding them again. That quote tells me there is a God and he has a plan for my life. Some days I’m not a fan of the plan, but I know, ultimately, I’ve got a friend looking out for me.

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Doug Bender is an I Am Second writer, small groups coach, and author of I Am Second: Real Stories. Changing Lives. and Live Second: 365 Ways to Make Jesus First.

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