I’ve been trying for ages to write about a friend from many years and cities and jobs ago, and the questions that have always trailed out from his story are, What do we owe our friends and family? What do we owe to the people we love? What kind of difference can we make in their lives?

This friend had a troubled upbringing that included time in jail, but when I met him he was in his late forties already, and we both worked in the same retail store. He was my supervisor, and despite the drudgery of the job, he dressed better than any of the customers we worked for; and despite it being the kind of job where customers could (and did) condescend to us on a daily basis, and despite how demeaning that could be day in and day out, he came to work early all the time. The customers that weren’t assholes knew him by name, and he seemed to enjoy dressing like a king and strolling through the store he was in charge of.

I was the exact opposite, getting to work right on time and not staying a minute late. From what he told me about his past, I seemed to see a kind of sadness in him that he would never talk about, and so I felt bad for him, since I assumed that this job neither of us really liked was also one of the only sources of pride or ritual he had outside of home. My own sense of meaning, I knew, was always elsewhere, and I couldn’t imagine getting much else other than a paycheck from the place.

For years now, though, how I’ve remembered him has really been the story of my own guilt at not trying to find out what that sadness was, of perhaps helping him out. I always stopped myself from asking too many questions, though, because I thought it might do him more harm than good. But as I began to write a post about my own guilt and sense of conflict, it was pointed out to me that the real reason I shouldn’t have pried into a part of his life that he didn’t want to reveal was because my assumptions were condescending as well, the idea that I had the power to do good or ill to anybody, as if my own life was so much better, or that I had some wisdom to dispense with. I actually had no way of improving his financial or occupational situation, or his home life; and if I was being honest with myself, I had nothing but a guess that anything was wrong at all. My heart was in the right place, but not much else was.

All of this is a long way of saying that sometimes the best empathy we can offer, and the best help we can offer, is not the assumption that we can fix anything. Sometimes the best love we can give is just a good night at work, is just to befriend this other person, or to laugh when one of us gets their tie stuck in a laminator, or to joke about another horrible customer. And if there really was something awful in my friend’s life, something he never felt comfortable enough to share, I had no business believing I could fix it or that, by trying to pry it out of him, that I would accidentally make his life worse. I had made my concern more about my own ability to influence his life generally, than in how I was actually (hopefully) making both of our lives a little better every night by being decent to each other.

If I’ve said elsewhere that we are an awfully hyper-critical society nowadays—everyone required to have an opinion and judgment about everything—I wonder too if we aren’t a hyper fix-it society as well. A focus on various “issues” has made us want to solve everything like a bureaucracy would, when in many ways (as at a homeless shelter) handing out food or passing a good word is enough. If that’s the case, I hope the friend I haven’t seen in years remembers more than a few good words we passed, back when we worked together. I certainly do.

hos

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13 thoughts on “On Friendship

  1. Beautifully written, and I couldn’t agree more. Not everything in life has a solution. The best we can do is the least we can do. 🙂

  2. I believe he enjoyed coming to work, where he could exert a little positive control over his life. Part of the reason he enjoyed work is because you were there, not imposing a conversation he didn’t want to have.

  3. Reblogged this on Storyweaving and commented:
    I enjoyed this reflective blog that opened up a space for compassion and humility, through a memory. Revisiting this memory, in this well-written essay, helped him change the story and his way of thinking about the world. A blessing…

  4. Well put, Tim. I recently started working with a private charity out here in Maryland farm country, and what I’ve found is that even when people are getting much-needed food assistance or a ride to a doctor’s appointment, what they also really want is a little time with someone who hears them: their long-ago regrets, their tedious gripes, the aches that keep them up at night. Listening is uncommon in a society where more people want to publish novels than read them.

    It occurs to me that “To the House of the Sun” involves a great number of people hoping to unburden themselves a little by telling their stories to a willing listener.

  5. I can’t say I know exactly how you feel. But your words have reminded me of situations similar to this case. I had a friend..more like a best friend that worked with me a few years back while I was in college. She was over a decade older than me but we had the absolute best time hanging out together, We’d work an overnight ship at a retail store we worked at together and we would have pillow fights in the dark of the store in the home goods department to pass some time if we were too early. Apart from this though, our lives were kept separate (mostly my fault). I was studying grief counseling at the time and she was calling out of work very frequently. To which I did not even ask why ( I regret this terribly). It wasn’t out of not wanting to know or care, but I too felt that I shouldn’t pry what may be a very uncomfortable topic for reasons I no longer feel mattered. Years have gone by since I’ve worked there and I went back to visit past coworkers and found one I recognized. I asked her how my old friend was faring and found to my own shock that she died of cancer and had been getting chemo during my time there. She never told anyone, or ever complained about pain. She worked with me at 4am every morning she could and never faultered in her work. Too many regrets came with that news and I hope you someday get a chance to tell him what he meant to you. If I could I would have gone back and told her I cared for her and I would take her to the zoo like I promised.

  6. Reflecting on what you wrote, I am thinking of people who I have confided in that left me irritated because instead of just listening, they seemed compelled to inform me how to fix this and that or opine what they declared as the source of the problem. All I really wanted was a little empathy and maybe some kind words to help me put it all in perspective.

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