Accepting Imperfections in Our Friends (And Others)

Yesterday I saw a link to a blog post that contained 27 points of a “friendship manifesto.” (Actually, the writer titled it a “No-Bullshit, No-Drama Friendship Manifesto.”)

Although the writer of the post was a mother of a young child, and many of her points reflect the difficulty inherent in parenting young children, many of her points are pertinent without regard to whether we are married or single, parents or childless.

The one I noticed immediately was number 18 (and its follow-up):

18. When I say something stupid that could be conveyed as insulting or whatever, you’re not going to get all overly sensitive and weird, calling mutual friends and psycho-analyzing what, exactly, my problem is (probably going back to childhood), rather you’re going to call me out on it and then I’m going to apologize and we’re going to move on, LIKE ADULTS, because occasionally adults say stupid [things], the end.

19. When you say something stupid, I’ll either do number 18 or, and I know this is revolutionary, I’LL LET IT GO.

This is obviously good and important advice for friendship. Friends accept that we are not always at our best. That sometimes we do or say stupid things. And they are willing and able not to let those things interfere with their friendship and love for each other.

But it also strikes me as encouraging a stance which we might usefully adopt even beyond those we label friends. A generosity of spirit, a willingness to give people the benefit of the doubt. An effort to try to see something another has said or done in the best possible light rather than the worst. And a willingness, even when we can’t find the best possible light, to accept that sometimes people say stupid things. And that not every stupid statement is a reason to dismiss the goodness in another.

Even a Small Star

Much of the music at the Spiritual Directors International conference this past weekend was provided by Joyce Johnson Rouse, aka Earth Mama.

One of the songs she led us in was titled A Small Star. The message of the song is a simple one: “Even a small star shines in the darkness for someone somewhere to see. It lights the way for those in the distance.”

As the lyrics of the song convey, we don’t always feel brave or strong or inspiring. But we don’t need to “feel brave to be brave….feel strong to be strong…or feel inspiring to inspire.” We need to remember that our star, however small, can light the way for others.

I was reminded when listening to the song, of a passage in my friend Randy Buck’s play Trances, which I wrote about once before. In his play one character explains his bond to another by saying:

We remain apart. Yet even the most solitary soul seeks comfort. Companionship The hand stretches across the void, longing to find – something to cling to….[T]hough we each make the journey alone, there’s comfort in seeing the glow of another pilgrim candle valiantly pierce the night. Such a tiny light, so fragile, so easily extinguished, must be cherished, nurtured, or else we stumble alone through a dark no ray can brighten.

However small it might feel to you, however small you may feel, know that your light shines for another, helping to light their way.

People To Talk To

Yesterday I had the privilege and pleasure of spending an hour or so in conversation with Paul Knitter, author of Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian. Knitter, a professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary, was kind enough to write a blurb for Growing in Love and Wisdom and this was my first opportunity to meet him in person. Having read his book, there were some particular things I wanted to explore with him. I enjoyed our conversation immensely and found it, at one and the same time, affirming and challenging.

If that was the only enounter of my day, it would have been enough. But yesterday was an embarassament of riches. I started the day with breakfast with my dear friend Joe Costantino, S.J., pastor of St. Francis Xavier (where I did book talks on Sunday morning). I always benefit from my conversation with Joe, who both broadens and deepens my understanding of what it means to live an Ignatian spirituality and who, better than anyone else, spots any signs of undue rigidity in my approach.

In the evening I got to spend some time with George Witt, who directed me when I did the Spiritual Exercises, and who is now pastor of St. Ignatius Loyola church, where I did a book talk after our dinner together. Given how transformational the Exercises were for me, there is soemthign very special about having had time with George to share where our lives have been since we’ve last had time together. I then ended the evening with a visit with my friend John Barrett, my friend and former colleague (and neighbor).

As I play back over the day, I’m filled with gratitude. I’m conscious of how many people feel alone, lacking people with whom they can share deeply, people who challenge them and help them grow. I realize how blessed I am by the presence of people like those I spent the day with yesterday.

With Whom Should I Surround Myself?

I’ve seen the following message posted on the Facebook status of a number of my friends: “Surround yourself with people who make you happy. People who make you laugh, who help you when you’re in need. People who would never take advantage of you. People who genuinely care. They are the ones worth keeping in your life. Everyone else is just passing through.”

At one level, I understand the sentiment being expressed. Our dearest friends can make us happy and make us laugh, help us when we are in need, genuinely care for us and would never take advantage of us. I cherish the companionship of those friends on my life journey and the love that we share. And I enjoy spending time with them. My dearest friends, who I love, are not only “worth keeping,” but I couldn’t imagine not loving them and “keeping” them.

At the same time, the words make me a bit uncomfortable, particularly when I think of the man who surrounded himself with sinners and tax collectors, and who sought, by his love, to transform them.

The danger of the words (and I’m not suggesting this was the intent of any of my FB friends who posted them) is that they might encourage us to put too much focus on ourselves, making us forget that there are times when are called to surround ourselves with those who don’t make us happy, who don’t make us laugh. Those who can’t be counted on to help us when we need it and who would take advantage of us in a heartbeat.

Because they surely need our love just as much (or more) than those who are good to us. And we need to be generous with that love, not treating them as “just passing through.”

Weaving Past and Present

One of the consequences of Facebook and other social media, and the internet in general, is the ability to connect up with people from one’s past in a way that wasn’t easy before. Some (many) are skeptical of the value of that, believing that if one has spent years without any contact with someone from the past, there is little reason to believe one would want to have contact now.

That has not been my experience. Both Facebook and e-mail have allowed me to connect back up with people who once had a place in my life in a way that has caused me real joy (and, in at least one case, has even allowed some healing of a hurt I had experienced many years ago).

Most of the time, my contact with people I have reconnected with from the past has remained electronic – e-mails and FB chats mostly. But yesterday, I had the incredible pleasure of spending time with two different people I hadn’t seen in over three decades, one for breakfast and the other for dinner. Again, I konw some people who think that is not a good idea, thinking it would be too strange or awkward to spend time with someone from the past. And again, that was not how I found it.

Both were truly wonderful experiences, albeit in very different ways, and I so much enjoyed the conversations and time together. I won’t say that in either case I could see anything of the teenage boys I knew years ago in the 50+ year old men I spent time with yesterday, but I could feel something of those boys, in the same way I could feel a piece of my own teenaged self revealed. And it was sweet.

I don’t know how long it will be before I see either again – Harry joked in an e-mail later in the day yesterday that he has calendared our next breakfast for 35 years hence (I’m hoping it is not that long!) and Will and I both travel enough that being in the same city at any given time is pretty much hit or miss. But, however long or short, however frequently or infrequently, there is something special for me in these encounters – encounters that pull together a bit tighter the different strands of my life. That reconnects me, not only to people of my past, but to laid down pieces of my own life. And right now I’m feeling very grateful for that.

Friends on the Journey

I just returned from a few days in Seattle. Although I was there for business, I stayed with my friend Joshua and his son, affording Joshua and me the opportunity for many hours of conversation about faith, our spiritual journeys, Christianity in its various form and the like.

My life is enormously blessed by the presence in my life of people like this friend – people who help me grow in my understanding of my faith and who challenge me by their questions and by their own lives. Some, like my friends Mark Osler (with whom I’ll be having another Mid-Day Dialogue of Faith next week, about which you can find out more here) and Chato Hazelbaker, sit only a few offices away from my own office at St. Thomas, affording the luxury of lots of face-to-face conversations over morning coffee or a meal. Others, like my friends John in NY, Doug who just moved to Rwanda, and Joshua in Seattle, live further away, meaning more limited face time and more electronic communication of one sort or another. Some, like John, have been walking with me for many years; others, like Joshua, have more recently become a part of my life.

But near or far, old or new, such friends are blessings – and necessary ones at that. No two spiritual journeys are identical, but we all need people with whom we can share our stories, who will challenge us, who will help us process and help us see things that we might not see on our own. We grow from our communion with them in ways we could not grow on our own.

I arise this morning tired from my travel, but enormously grateful for the love and friendship of the Joshuas in my life.

Through The Years

I just returned from several days in New York, where I attended the 25th wedding anniversary celebration of my friends John and Chieko. Among the guests were a group of us who had made the trip from NY to Tokyo for their wedding 25 years ago. Also included were some other people I had not seen in a number of years, including my friend Walter, with whom I worked in Hong Kong for a year and a half before I spent two years in Nepal, India and Thailand. (I still remember Walter, who had arrived in Hong Kong some time before I did, picking me up at the airport to take me to my apartment and help me get settled there.)

At the anniversary lunch on Sunday, John played some clips from the wedding video. In a moment we went from “grown-ups” in our early fifties, with children ranging in age from fifteen to twenty-one, to young and fresh-looking kids not long out of law school, single or newly married, ready to face adventure and trying to determine who we would be in the world.

We shared memories of our youth and told stories of our children. And we laughed a lot. It was a beautiful day and the warm feeling of it remains.

At the end of the day, some drove south to New York City. Others drove north to New Hampshire. Others flew home to places ranging from Minnesota, Florida and Texas in the United States, to Germany and Austria in Europe.

But wherever we go, and whatever distance separates us physically, we carry a piece of each other in our hearts. We left hoping to see each other soon – and some we will see, others, not. But whether together physically or not, there is something special shared between us that is always present, and it is a beautiful thing.

I give thanks to God this day for those who have such a part of my life through the years.

Friends of My Youth

I just spent several days in NYC visiting family and friends. One of the events of the trip was a gathering of some grade school friends at L&B Spumoni Gardens in Brooklyn, one of the favorite places of our youth.

Many of us had lost touch for many years and we reconnected after a reunion of the Sts. Simon and Jude Class of 1971 about 7 or 8 years ago. Since that time, we’ve keep in touch via group e-mail, following what is going on in each other’s lives and offering what support we can to each other during times of difficulty. Episodically we try to gather a group for some square pizza at L&B. When I knew I’d be making this trip to attend the opening of a gallery show of my cousin’s, we arranged this latest gathering.

No matter how long it has been since we’ve seen each other, we gather with love and with joy and we manage to pick up where we left off. As someone observed during the evening, there is something special about being with a group of people who have known you all of your life. There is no artifice or gamesmanship or, as one person observed, no “putting on airs.” There is a sense of, we all know who we are (and were) so there is no reason or temptation to try to impress each other or puff ourselves up in any way. We all know that there is nothing we can say or do that will make any of the others love us any more or any less or think any more or less of us. And we all know we have each other’s backs no matter what. It is refreshing, as well as secure and comfortable. When we end our times together, there are always a lot of hugs and “I love you”s and we part with the knowledge that we carry something of each other with us wherever we go.

I have made many friends since my grade school days at Sts. Simon and Jude and I cherish and have great love for all of them. But today I give thanks in a special way for these friends of my youth.

Images of Friendship

I’ve written about friendship before on any number of occasions. I’ve been fortunate to have some wonderful friends in my life who have shared my joys with me, companioned me through difficult times and supported and encouraged me in so many ways. I think of Joe sitting through two hours of miserable traffic in the pouring rain to pick me up at LaGuardia so we could eat dinner together during one of my visits to NY. Of John waiting to greet me after my younger cousin’s wake with a glass of wine and a broad shoulder to lean on. Of Doug flying from San Diego to Minneapolis to spend three days helping me unpack after my move here three years ago. Of Robin, who I had not seen in several years, putting her arms around me at my father’s wake murmering, “I’m here.” The memories flood and I could fill pages without having to think very hard.

And, of course, I’ve done the same. Flown far distances or sat through miserable traffic to be where a friend needed me to be. Provided support to friends who were experiencing pain and suffering. Sat on the telephone with, or next to someone, who needed to talk even when I was tired or had something else I was supposed to do. Not to mention just the joy of sharing meals and conversation and sometimes just being silly together.

Someone once shared with me that his image of friendship was captured by the image of sand in an hourglass – finite, such that once the grains of sand run through, it is over. I remember how sad I was when he said that to me, horrified at such an impoverished view of friendship.

Friendship is love. Friendship is caring. It gives and takes in accordance with the needs of the one or the other, with no reckoning of or concern with who got more on a particular day. And most importantly, friendship doesn’t run out. Friendships continue to grow and flourish so long as the friends allow them to.

As I do every day, I give thanks this day for my friends.

Facing Rejection

I recall an incident that occurred when Elena was a young child. She was lying in bed crying because some girl at school had been unfriendly to her. “I was nice to her. Why doesn’t she want to be my friend?” At the time, Elena basically divided the world into two categories: those who were her friends and those who were not yet her friends. I don’t think it had ever before occurred to her that there was another category. It was hard to explain to my young daughter a lesson that isn’t always easy even for an adult to deal with – that the fact that we want to be friends with someone doesn’t necessarily mean they will accept the offer to allow a friendship to grow.

Even harder than the pain of the spurning of an initial offer of friendship, is the rupture of an established relationship. Something happens and all of a sudden, where there was easiness and warmth, honesty and openness, there is coldness, distance and a closed door. Sometimes the cause is identiable – some word or act is the impetus. Other times the person rejected is left wondering what happened to damage the relationship that was there, the pain of the loss all the greater for its inexplicability. (And you can’t force someone to explain to you why they are rejecting your friendship any more than you can force them to accept the friendship.)

We can pray that the rupture heals. And sometimes it does. But if it doesn’t, all we can do is ask for the grace to grow and learn from the experience. In his blessing, For Lost Friends, John O’Donohue beautifully expresses the grace we seek at such times.

Though a door may have closed,
Closed between us,
May we be able to view
Our lost friends with eyes
Wise with calming grace;
Forgive them the damage
We were left to inherit;
Free ourselves from the chains
Of forlorn resentment;
Bring warmth again to
Where the heart has frozen
In order that beyond the walls
Of our cherished hurt
And chosen distance
We may be able to
Celebrate the gifts they brought,
Learn and grow from the pain,
And prosper into difference,
Wishing them the peace
Where spring can summon
Beauty from wounded space.

Amen.