Is There Anything I Can Do to Help?
Funny phrase, that. Until my recent bout of unemployment (which I’m still fending off, sort of), I took it entirely for granted. After reaching fairly dire straits, almost no income at all for over a year; no income at all for many months & running out of credit, only a few people uttered those words to me.
I’d like to be able to say they were my longest-time & dearest friends. They weren’t. I mean, one was, and two were people I hadn’t known very long at all. So there’s no real generalization I can make about who offered and who didn’t.
Right after I lost my job, the daughter of some neighbors stuck four $20 bills in an envelope and mailed them to me. And things hadn’t even gotten very bad yet–at the time she did that, I’d had no idea how bad they were going to get or how long I would stay unemployed. But what an amazing kindness. Another friend was someone I’d known a very long time. She came to see me with her family, over-paid me for some photo calendars I was selling at Christmas, refused to take any of the money back. Another old friend bought some of my calendars just to support me; I don’t think she knew how difficult a time I was having, but it meant a lot anyway. Finally, one very old friend was in the same boat I was (loss of job, etc.) and told me he’d help if he could. Which is the same thing–the exact same thing–as helping.
The rest of my “friends,” well, they were all nowhere to be found. An ex with big bucks wanted to buy one of my photos, which I couldn’t sell for reasons I won’t get into in this post, but suffice to say it would have violated my integrity to sell that photo, so I said No, I couldn’t. I think in his mind it would have been a way of helping me, but when I couldn’t sell the photo, it became clear that he was just “Giving to Get Something,” as Joni used to sing. He would help, but only if he could get some kind of return on his investment: No photo, no help. And this is someone I’ve known for over 30 years. By contrast, a friend I’d known for only a couple of years offered to help me the moment he heard I’d lost my job. First thing he did was offer to help me financially, Did I need a loan? Did I have enough food? And he wasn’t even that well off. I didn’t take it, but I will never forget it.
During this time every notion I had about friendship, what constitutes a friend, has been turned on its head. Except for a small (very small) handful of people, everyone I thought was my friend couldn’t have cared less about me, and people I barely knew were right there. Asking if there was something they could do. I didn’t take anyone up on it, but it certainly kept me from slipping off the deep end to know that there was somewhere I could turn.
I wonder if it’s part of this bubble society we have become. Drive-through friendships, facebook “friends” (now there’s a non sequitur); that sort of thing. People don’t get out of their cars, they just take whatever is flung at them through the window while they tap the brakes enough for the lights to go on but not enough to actually slow down. I don’t know. I get tired thinking about it.
I used to use the words “good friend” more or less synonymously with “longtime friend.” I’m not sure how I arrived at that. Maybe coincidentally it was true for awhile in my life, I don’t know. But this experience has pointed up how a truly good friend can be someone you just met, and a longtime friend might be just, well, something you’ve had long time, like a bad habit or an ugly sweater that doesn’t fit anymore and that you never wear but keep around because you are too lazy or sentimental to throw it out. You just get into the habit of calling people things & it doesn’t occur to you to reevaluate the friendship or even revise the title. But you know how your insurance company is always telling you to reevaluate your insurance coverage? I really think something like that is required of friendships; a little editing is called for. If you keep thinking of someone as your friend but when you get to the point where you are close to not having enough food and that person doesn’t ask “Is there anything I can do?” then what is the point of keeping that person around? of continuing to call that person your friend? I guess we are all reluctant to “edit” our social lives because it seems so important to have as many friends as possible, woe to the poor soul who has just joined Facebook and has only 10 or 20 or 50. There’s a little voice that ticks off a tiny excuse for that person: “S/he hasn’t been on FB very long.” As if the idea of having too few friends is something you have to excuse, like a big nose or bad breath, even if the person doesn’t know you are doing it.
So I’m editing my friendships. To the people who said “Is there anything I can do?” I’d take a bullet for you. The rest of you can kiss my ass.