"In everyone's life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit." -- Albert Schweitzer
Friendship has changed in our social-media age. We used to maintain long-distance friendships with letters and the occasional long-distance phone call. Today we sustain old friendships and establish new ones through emails, instant messaging, blog posts, tweets and Skype.
The technology has caused many of us to change our definition of a friend. We spend much of our time these days glued to our computers, smartphones and tablets, reading and replying to what our Internet contacts write, searching for that bond that once came from sharing a cup of coffee or a beer.
Last week, I found out that I lost one of the nearly 3,000 "friends" I have on Facebook. I read his obituary in a local newspaper and then got instant messages from mutual friends. I assumed the worst when I failed to get responses to my IMs over a month ago.
Although I never met or spoke with this friend, who I had known for a few years, I had developed a strong connection to him. We shared passionate conservative political views and then he wrote about living with the cancer that took him at what we now consider a young age.
The obituary says his name was Arthur James Lee, but he was known to me and his Facebook associates as simply Artie Lee. The obit described a man who graduated St. John's University and who loved the Colorado Rockies -- both the mountains and the baseball team.
Artie was a rabid conservative. He disliked liberals, President Obama and causes embraced by the left. He entered my life through Facebook, where he engaged others in what most considered "troll" behavior, rabidly defending his agenda and criticizing anyone who questioned his statements.
At first, I interacted with Artie cautiously. I read what he wrote and looked on as he engaged those with whom he disagreed with an almost irrational right-wing passion. He would have made Rush and Beck proud.
In time, I learned that Artie embraced the Tea Party and deeply loved his country. Although his troll behavior alienated some readers, I found that his arguments were reasonable and intelligent.
So when Artie became a loyal reader of my writing, I began to truly value his critiques. As time went on, we became good digital friends.
At a time of great personal and economic anguish that resulted in an angry shift in my political consciousness, Artie acted as my right-wing compass on national and world events.
In the past few months, when Artie found cancerous lumps on his body, his communication with me became personal and even more meaningful. He talked about the daily challenges he now faced as a sick man. Those were deep, sad conversations in which I learned more than just politics from the man. I learned about the complex emotions that accompany true humanity.
So I write this column to say thank you Artie Lee for gracing my life, for making me a smarter and better writer, for enlightening me and helping me put my struggles in true perspective. You were good, true friend that I will miss and regret never having met in person.
Published in Context Florida on May 20, 2014
Steven Kurlander blogs at Kurly's Kommentary (stevenkurlander.com) and writes for Context Florida and The Huffington Post and can be found on Twitter @Kurlykomments. He lives in Monticello, N.Y. Column courtesy of Context Florida.