A gathering of some of my oldest friends -- including Todd Taggart and his wife Mary -- on my 60th Birthday
The Blog is intended to be a place for me -- "The Man Behind The Curtain" -- to add my two cents to the topics we cover in the podcast, where my role as Director and Editor is hidden behind the curtain (a reference to "The Wizard of Oz, "who as we all know is no Wizard at all -- just a puller of levers and a facilitator of others' better angels).
Due to a two-year writer's block, I have been slow to contribute to this section, so I have opened it up to Guest Bloggers. If you have something to say about one of our episodes, by all means send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Right now, we are working on our next episode -- on Friendship. It turns out this is a subject of deep importance and very much on our listeners' minds. It was at the suggestion of a very good old friend that we take a look at this topic, and this entry is written by him.
Todd Taggart is a wonderful fellow. He's brilliant, witty, talented, modest and loyal. We miss him and his lovely wife Mary terribly since they moved east to Stowe, Vermont. It was an email from Todd that turned our minds to Friendship, and what follows are his thoughts on the topic.
By Todd Taggart
The topic of friendship is not an easy one to write about or discuss. When I began to think more about it, I found it more complicated than I wanted it to be. I can do some research and see what others have said over the years, but there are a lot of ideas that pop up, and make it seem like it’s nearly impossible to have the friendships we’re expected to have! I did read that the word “friendship” comes from the word “love.” And love is also a complicated topic—Everyone wants love and would like to offer love, but we don’t always know just how to get there. Perhaps friendship and its relationship to love only complicates matters.
Let’s face it. There are few things better than friendship, and certainly friendship includes one’s partner or spouse. What is more important than friendship? You can live without friends, just like you can live without art, but without them, is life worth living?
It seems that when something beautiful is shared with a good friend that the thing is far more beautiful. A beautiful sunset or vista when viewed alone is still beautiful, but when shared with a friend it’s many times more beautiful, and not just twice a beautiful—it’s not an arithmetic progression, it’s logarithmic! And similarly, when one is full of sadness or sorrow, after a death of someone dear to you, or whenever the overall feeling is one of despair, the pain is deep. But when friends are supporting you, the pain feels like it’s spread among them, and it helps to make it almost bearable.
On the one hand, I feel like I have quite a few friends, but on the other hand, very few that I can really talk to the way I’d like to. How many of us have “best” friends that we can talk to about anything? I have before, but I don’t these days. And there are levels of friendship. Those friends you might consider your besties, other friends that you enjoy, but for whatever reason they are not the ones you’d call when in a pickle, or when you want to share some news.
Lately, there has been some talk in news about the crisis of friendship among men, and about loneliness among both men and women. When I first saw this news, I wondered among my friends, how many thought they could include themselves in the “crisis.” I wondered, how many felt as I did, that there are lacks in my friendships, that they could be stronger, and therefore better.
Friendship could or should be a source of support, joy, fun, happiness, understanding, or a source of solace in a time of misery or pain. How many of us can get up in the morning and look forward to checking in with a friend, any time of day, and know that they appreciate and welcome your contact, or conversely that they do the same, and with some constancy. That it’s not another item on their daily chore list to cross off. I’m not one who can say that, but I’d love to be! At the same time, I’m aware that as people age, the meaning of friendship can change. It can become more valuable, as it often represents a longer history and deeper connection, while at the same time, the number of close friends can decrease as priorities and life circumstances shift.
I grew up in a small Mormon community in Wyoming. Everyone knew each other, and almost everyone was related. Of course, best friends knew each other intimately, and could talk about anything. When I went to California to college, I met people whose best friends seemed to me to be more removed from each other than what I had known in my community. And as these people became my friends, I never quite felt the intimacy that I had known where I grew up. I’m willing to admit this could just be me, and it could have been simply related to age. I’ve not researched whether this is a thing! (Friendship in small towns vs. metro areas.) I’ve also spent many years in a 12-step program, and I won’t reference it in any way, other than to say I continue using what are called the “tools,” and particularly the principle of “humility,” which in 12-step speak means “remaining teachable.” It’s critical to any growth I hope to have.
With this opportunity to examine friendship, I hope I can help clarify for myself where I sit with my friends and maybe even chart a path to improve my relationships. My own inclination is to assume that most people would want good friends, or might want to improve their relationships with friends, but I’m quite aware that some may feel they have everything they need with immediate family or otherwise.
I read somewhere that whoever looks upon a true friend, looks in a sense at an image of himself. This makes sense to me, because I would prefer a close friend to treat me the way I’d hope and expect to treat him.
And with that, I offer my first failing: taking friendships for granted. I had a friend who died three years ago. He was a friend I took for granted. He was from the States but lived in Spain and would call me about once or twice month. I wonder if I ever called him. (I was the only friend from the States who ever visited him in Spain—I mention this to perhaps allay a little guilt?) But we always had plenty to talk about, and he would ask about everything in my life, how I was doing, how my wife was doing, how the kids were, and we would talk endlessly about music. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was one of my best friends! I was pretty good about asking the same of him. I really miss our conversations! I try to maintain some connection with him by regularly communicating with his wife by email. And I try now to not take the friendships I do have for granted. But I do not work enough to strengthen them!
There are times when we meet friends of friends and they become our friends, but often on a different level than the friends we might have come to know on a more organic way. I think our closest friends often share our perceptions of reality and share a similar sense of humor. For me these two things humor and perceptions go hand in hand. The beliefs we have in common are probably closely related to these two things.
In theory, one should be honest and trusting with a friend. I think under this good trait, I might need to examine how my behaviors are. If I were completely honest with all my friends, I probably wouldn’t have any. However, I could be completely honest if I withheld all judgement, which is an ongoing work in progress. I realize it’s a very high station to relinquish judgement, but it is for the best. When one judges, one is judging oneself at the same time, and it usually does not provide the relief or peace we seek. I can be trusted not to betray a secret, although there have been times when I’ve shared something that I should not have, and usually the case has been that I forget that it’s supposed to be a secret, and I often don’t see why my friend would want it kept a secret. Perhaps because of my own lack of certain boundaries—some share any and everything, others share very little or nothing of themselves.
I do expect empathy from a good friend, just the way I expect to provide it to a friend in need. And I think this requires good listening skills and active engagement. And this requires a certain self-awareness that most of us could use. To illustrate: One of my fellow 12 steppers and I decided to take weekly walks and talk about how our “programs” as they call it, were working. My friend started out by saying that he tended to interview people and ask them all about themselves, and then he would find they would never ask him about what was going on with him. So we decided that each of us would speak for about five or 10 minutes without interruption, and then the other person would do the same, and we would go back-and-forth. I realized very quickly that this was easier said than done. At first I continually interrupted him with “Oh, I know exactly what you mean, that happened to me…, etc.,“ but he reminded me of our agreement and kindly cut me off right away. That was a quick lesson for me on how difficult it is to just listen to somebody and really hear someone.
I can also mention that I have friends, where I’ve had long conversations by phone, and it has been like my friend above mentioned. I interview, and listen, but I do not get the same courtesy. I’m always surprised when someone I consider a good friend never asks about what’s going on for me, how my family is doing, etc. For me to not ask a friend about how he or she is doing, or not ask how their kids are doing, well, I may as well not have made the call. And it’s not because of good manners. How can you want to know someone well, and not know their immediate family?
A good friend is ready with support and encouragement, and I find few friends that would not provide it. However, I find it’s quite difficult to ask for it. Another illustration: I was working on reconfiguring a workspace, and I had little construction knowledge. I asked a good friend in the construction industry for some advice. He provided far more than advice. He not only drew up a plan, but came in and physically helped demo, and rebuild. The experience was eye-opening for me. It not only felt completely non-transactional, it made me realize that people like to be asked for help, and that asking for help is just as important as getting the help! Of course, there are many kinds of support and encouragement, but to share in the experience of “support and encouragement” with the friend is extra rewarding, and I hope, to both of those involved.
In considering my friendships, I’ve probably failed to respect some boundaries. I’m good about respecting other people’s time and priorities, the frequency of communication, although I usually would prefer more communication than my friends do (well, as far as I can tell). I’m aware that many friends and many whom I’m close to in my family have different opinions and I’m careful not to push mine, or even argue mine, but that could be due to laziness. And I’ve come to believe that the strength of one’s opinion or at least the volume with which the opinion is expressed is inversely proportional to the soundness of the opinion. I’ve also seen where lack or boundaries can cause heartbreak, as in the case of a relative of mine. She cannot help but ask questions of her daughter that do not need to be asked. If she would only stop and reflect but for a moment and ask herself why she’s posing the question that would be enough. Her curiosity, maybe even nosiness, has driven a wedge between her and her daughter!
Physical boundaries only take an experience or two to figure out: I have probably been guilty of hugging someone who would prefer not to, but I think it is generally a good to do when greeting friends. (8 hugs a day, they say, will put you in a better mood.)
Just as I do my best to be reliable and dependable for any friend, in the best friendships I hope for the same. There is “predictable,” which isn’t quite the same as “reliable.” I have plenty of friends that I would say are reliable and dependable, but that doesn’t mean punctual. An effort to be somewhat punctual is another level of reliable/dependable. When I’m waiting way too long, I would consider punctuality a higher level of reliable! It’s more thoughtful and considerate. My time is as important as yours, etc. Not all my good friends are aware of this. And of course, any time I point these things out, I’m aware that I have failed at some time or another with this as well. I do strive to improve.
As with any relationship, effective communication with friends is always helpful. I’m not the best communicator, an area I need to work on. I do think because of my Wyoming background, where adjectives are not used, there is a tendency to get straight to the point. Sometimes the point is subverted by humor if it’s a difficult one to discuss. And sometimes the humor can be both passive aggressive and/or sarcastic, as an old therapist called it “sideways speak.” At the same time, I have friends who often speak around a topic, never actually addressing the topic, and I find myself wondering why. To wit, I have one friend, who I chatted with recently. He lives overseas, and we haven’t seen each other for many years, but we stay in touch. At the beginning of the phone call I said that I have some questions that I’d like to have answered in a direct fashion. He has a tendency to dissemble and not stay on topic, and for several years I’ve had certain questions of him. Like how is his ill wife doing? How and where are his kids? Does he work because he has to (he’s 72) or because he wants to? etc. After two hours of listening I almost got my questions answered. Another friend who knows this person-of-the-long-conversation asked why I stayed on the phone for 2 hours with him. I told him because he was a friend!
There does seem to be an unspoken bond with those we’ve grown up with or met early in our lives. Even if we have gone in different directions the pull of shared experience and memories can be much stronger than what we can objectively make sense of. Sometimes, even with friends we currently consider to be close friends it’s really the shared history and not necessarily the camaraderie or the enjoyment of companionship that keeps our friendship going. I’ve been to two funerals in the last year where I saw many of the people I grew up with. The feelings I’ve had at these “events” are hard to describe, other than to say very warm. And it has a lot to do with shared experience and memories, and of course, people are vulnerable, open, and warm at most funerals, or at least at those I’ve been to in my old stomping grounds. But these are not friends where I’ve had continually cultivated a friendship.
Understanding a friend is critical and this includes understanding his background so that I can understand why he thinks the way he does. I have friends whose politics are completely different than mine, and while I can’t really seem to understand how they could arrive at a vision of reality not square with my own (and therefore of the world as we know it😊), I can understand why they might think that way based on their background, upbringing, and experience. And the only way to keep them as friends is to forgive their thinking, and to forgive my own thinking—that I know better.
For me celebrating a friend’s success, means only to appreciate them for getting through life relatively unscathed. I have few friends who have won accolades or awards, but when they do, I am genuinely glad that they did, and glad to be in their company. At the same time, I see some friendships where competition gets in the way of real emotional connection. I can see how a little competition might bring energy and excitement to the friendship and help to strive toward goals or to improve in some area, but it also starts to wear, and makes the friendship feel forced and tense. It makes one feel on guard. Friendly competition, where it is all in wholesome fun, is one thing, but when so much of the relationship seems to spark unwarranted competition, it’s time to reevaluate the friendship, or to have a very frank discussion. I suppose, I could mention schadenfreude, thankfully is not something that has consumed much of my energy. I’ll admit that there are times when I see someone who never seems to suffer any kind of hardship, and seems to live just to have a great time, I can get a little judgmental. Mostly, however, I do not have friends that fit into that area. The one person or couple I thought lived an enviable life suffered a tragedy shortly after I made this comment to my wife. At that point, and this was about 30 years ago, I could say that there was no one I knew that I envied. And that still remains the case. And of course, anyone who has lived 72 years has suffered some pain, and it’s not hard to extend oneself to comfort a friend who is going through a difficult time. We know how wonderful it is to have support when we need it, and how wonderful it feels to be able to offer it.
To me one of the most admirable qualities in a friend is loyalty, and I have to admit that on this matter my better angels have often been on vacation. Of course, I realize now that between my projection (let me give this character flaw of mine to someone else, I don’t like it in me) and insecurities, that talking smack about a friend is more about me then them. When I was less mature on these matters and saw others whose loyalty was steadfast, I only saw them as being insensitive to the perceived offense. I remember reading years ago, when working on a paper for a Shakespeare class that the only value that Shakespeare seemed to hold as sacrosanct was loyalty. I wish I remembered more, but at least that’s something worth recalling. Loyalty should mean more to me than it does, but I tend to conflate it with blind loyalty, such as one might have to a political party, or even a country. Even so, I have to agree with Shakespeare, loyalty in a friend makes one want to be worthy of the friendship, and perhaps is even impetus to be a better person and friend. And maybe this is one more way of saying that whoever looks upon a true friend, looks in a sense at an image of himself.
It still seems like there is so much more to the topic. And as I reread everything I’ve said, I feel like there are so many exceptions. Some of these topics could be taken much deeper; there are sub-topics to explore: friendship at a distance, old age and friendship, making new friends, is friendship important to everyone, friends on the spectrum, etc., etc. But this is it for me, for now!