Saturday, October 14, 2006

On being a friend...

Friends have come and gone in my life. There's a sense of longing when I hear people talk about holding onto friends forever. Those kinds of relationships are blessings. When you keep friends for life you get to watch them grow and change as they experience it. Often, you change with them. When people pass out of your life, depending on how close you were, something goes missing. It can be as simple as good company and memories of conversations shared or as important as knowing that someone who helped you grow, or maybe you helped them, is gone from your life.

A while back, my church was having a small group discussion on what it meant to be a friend as Jesus had been. This was surrounding the story where Jesus tells the apostles that he had been their friend as the Father had been his by laying out his plans and life for them to see. At the time I was frustrated with having few friends in my church and had said so to the body in general. There was, however, one person who had recently made a difference in my life.

We weren't friends in the traditional sense. It was more of an acquaintance in that we had been attending the same church for 3 years. When this person's actions in church created a change in my relationship with God, I decided that I should start acting like a friend but didn't know how. We barely knew each other. When we tried to talk the conversation was either horribly stilted or inane and not conducive to getting to know one another better. About this time he started pulling away from the church and heading towards life someplace else. So even as I was imagining a new friendship I was losing the opportunity. It occurred to me that if there was one thing I could do before he left it was to let him know that he had made a difference in someone's life.

I really didn't know what else I could or should do. Isn't knowing that you've done some good one of the things people want to know before they die? At least that is what I've been led to believe. I don't think I was being very imaginative at the time. It is frustrating seeing a potential friendship go before it has come. Anyway, I ended up trying to tell him. It didn't quite get the reaction I had hoped for but it did seem to please him. Did it make us friends? Not exactly. It might have opened a door for the future but we aren't bosom buddies or anything like that.

Since then I've gotten more creative in my being a friend efforts. When I get the chance, which isn't often these days, I ask how he is doing and what his plans are. He has been added to my prayer list. I let him know he is there and that his concerns are going from my mouth to God's ears. While all of that hasn't made for closeness it has opened the door to communication and provided the opportunity to do so on occasion. More importantly, I know that in some way I am hopefully returning the good he did with some of my own.

Recently when Lynn Johnston, who writes For Better or For Worse, put a story line in her comic strip that helped me through a difficult time I found a way to let her know. It wasn't exactly easy to do. I had to use the "ask a question" feature on the FAQ part of her website. It's kind of sad when public attention causes a person to need to insulate themselves from people who really like them for what they do. I don't expect a letter in reply although that'd be nice, but I feel better for having done it. In the same way, I returned the favor of being thoughtful when a coworker had been caring and gone out of her way in a gracious manner towards me.

My friend, Susan , says that she places the label "friend" on people who treat her well. If they don't then they aren't friends. This is a very realistic and practical attitude towards defining friendship. No one should have to put up with friends who treat them badly. I'll go one step further. Your friends should make you feel valued. Hopefully, you make them feel the same way. Some of the ways that my friends make me feel valued is by putting up with my not catching their jokes, not understanding when they are talking about something that is not within my realm of experience so that I don't immediately commiserate, and my getting distracted in the middle of their talking and popping in with a subject of my own which has little or nothing to do with whatever the conversation was about. They accept me for who and what I am, faults and all.

Another way that my friends help me is by teaching me their sense of humor. Humor is so unique and personal a perspective that it can be really enlightening when you see it in action. It can also be educational. There were occasional jokes told at home when I was a kid but most of them I learned at school. It wasn't over the dinner table. My grandparents weren't into joking either although they had wonderful senses of fun and humor. I've learned about humor from books, TV shows with comedians, my ex, friends, and now my students and web pages. The lessons haven't always gone smoothly. When I focus on subject matter I often miss their humor and my friends stop and explain it to me. Anger was such a serious matter at my home as a child that it was a real shock when a friend yelled at me and was joking the whole time. It was the same when another friend insulted me and expected me to catch the joke.

It took me a while to realize the gift they were giving me. They expected me to understand that they thought well of me and that the insult that was the joke was to be understood as not how they saw me. They saw me as strong and confident and not the kind of person who would be devastated by being insulted casually. It was eye opening when I finally realized that. They were delighted when I made tentative efforts to return the compliment. I'm not good at it yet but I'm getting better. More importantly I'm getting stronger; and because I am stronger in my self-view, when someone actually does insult me, I no longer fall apart. So to the friends who have taught me humor...Thank you!

If you are reading this and have something to add on how to be a friend or how friends help you grow or make a difference in your life I hope you will take the opportunity to share. Friends are too valuable to lose and when one does go I hope you or I have left them with the knowledge that they were gold and had value in our lives.


Susan Palwick said...

Hi, Lee! I was interested in your comments about humor. When I was a kid, people kept telling me that I had no sense of humor because I didn't laugh when they made fun of me, or made fun of somebody else.

Part of my empowerment as an adult, rather than learning to feel complimented by insults, has been learning to say, "That's mean, not funny." I've now given myself permission not to laugh at cruel humor. In my experience, people who use that stuff often aren't actually trying to be funny. They're trying to be mean in a way that will let them get away with it, and that will give them a way to dismiss anyone eho takes offense. "Well, you just don't have a sense of humor."

Over the years, I've learned that friends who make fun of me often turn out not to be friends at all. YMMV (and I hope it does!).

Lee said...

Hi, Susan! Thanks for sharing your perspective. Life's experiences sure create differences in people don't they?

The humor I grew up on was mostly the intellectual sort that Bob Hope used in his monologues. When I was older and listening to the whiney sort of humor and nasty tone of voice some comedians, such as Don Rickles, used when making insulting jokes I got disgusted.

My ex, on the other hand, could use a joke that parodied people and break the tension in a situation that was fraught with anger. His humor certainly wasn't complimentary to anyone. It was however, an astute use of the sudden shift in perspective. I've met people all my life who didn't like me for one reason or another. I never met anyone who didn't like my ex.

I hope I'm clear sighted enough to recognize when someone is being slyly mean. It may not show in my manner right at the moment of occurence but it does crop up later when I am away, alone and free to let my anger express itself without the damage of public scenes. But...if the insulter is the kind who does that to everyone, and I see that most people like that person, then I am willing to learn how their brand of humor works. I'd rather have the friendship and good will of my coworkers.

So I guess, mileage probably varies. (g)