This past week, my 8-year-old daughter came to me with a predicament. She was running up the steep stairs of her school with a friend, a girl who is not as light and athletic as my daughter. It was difficult and uncomfortable for the other girl to keep up and she wanted to take the elevator. But my daughter, who trains as a gymnast and likes nothing more than to move, was enjoying the sprint, and thus declined her suggestion. The other little girl then accused my daughter of not being a good friend because she would not give up her own enjoyment, not abandon her own talents, in order to save her friend from feeling uncomfortable and inadequate.
As synchronicity often scripts, the next day, an adult friend relayed a story that presented a similar predicament. A man in his fifties, my friend just recently got married for the first time, had a child and now has a second on the way. To say he is overflowing with gratitude for his blessings would be an understatement. On the day I spoke with him, he was meeting with an old friend, a woman who, unlike him, has been unable to find a lasting partner in life or have a child (despite wanting both). He was anxious about the meeting and informed me that he was not going to mention his young son or the new child on the way. (She did not know about either.) He did not want her to feel bad about the absence in her life and certainly did not want to rub his joy in her face. Essentially, he would behave as if they were exactly the same two people as they were five years before -- before his life drastically changed for the better.
What does it mean to be a friend -- to be kind to another human being? We are taught in this culture that being kind means not making another person feel bad. We are conditioned to believe that it is virtuous to hide our strengths to save another from experiencing their weaknesses, to deny our blessings so that another avoids feeling their sorrows. Is this kindness? Is this friendship -- to put away our truth so as to save another from experiencing their own truth -- which might be sad? If this is true friendship, it is of an odd sort -- true friendship that does not include the truth. Hiding the truth may keep a relationship going smoothly, but going smoothly is a paltry goal for such a precious and profound entity as friendship. When we choose smooth sailing over truth, we underestimate the weight that friendship can hold; we dishonor the very substance from which friendship is made. Are we so afraid of suffering as to be willing to sacrifice even friendship in order to avoid it?
To be a true friend is not to pretend that we don't have different experiences in life, don't receive different blessings and challenges. It is not to pretend that life is fair. I was proud of my daughter for knowing that her ability to race up those stairs was not the cause of her friend's inability to do so or her feelings about it. She knew that denying her own joy was somehow out of alignment with friendship. A friendship that creates a shared experience at the lowest common denominator is not a friendship, but rather some kind of hiding place from life. We don't need more hiding places. What we need are more foxhole buddies, true friends who can keep us company in the truth, and in the hard parts, where life isn't okay or fair.
At the time, I suggested to my daughter that perhaps she could talk to her friend about how hard it is to be overweight, offer her an ear and really listen, to which she beautifully added that she could also invite her to join her in the gym. This is true friendship -- not pretending that her own DNA and real-life efforts did not make life different for her, but rather demonstrating kindness and compassion within the truth of that difference. While I would not have suggested that my male friend sing and dance about his children when in the company of his childless friend (although that was what he felt like doing), to acknowledge our gifts is not to rub them in another's face. Allowing what is to exist in the light, and letting the consequences of that truth also exist, within the container of kindness -- this is friendship. It was curious to me too, that he could call this woman his friend when she did not know about the most important part of his life, the very thing that now made him -- him. How can we call something friendship that leaves out who we are and what we are living? What are we actually upholding and nurturing in all these fun-house mirrors?
In truth, we do not need more ways to skirt the sorrows that are part of life, more strategies for keeping the waters smooth. What we need are friends who can accompany us through the bumpy and different truths of life. True friendship is about meeting in the place of truth, and loving and supporting each other there. Anything else is just a paler shade of polite.
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