Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Gift of Friendship

I reread my May 19, 2009 entry on this blog and repeat most of it here for a different context. The theme dovetails with my last two entries.

My wife was installed as the new president of Webster University this weekend. One of the best things about the weekend is the number of friends who drove or flew in to share this experience with us. (We tried to think of close relatives in the area, Beth's colleagues who could get here easily, etc.). Even people from Beth’s beginning years of teaching (1970s), and the family of her deceased first husband, came for the weekend.

Beth taught high school in my hometown for ten years, and then after we married we moved east for doctoral degrees, then west for jobs, then two other places before we came to St. Louis in 2009. We like to think of friendships and professional relationships associated with these different locations.

So many people enter and leave our (all of our) lives, casually and profoundly. Why do some friendships last and others don't? The philosopher Martin Buber wrote about the rapport between people (he used different terms like “the I-Thou encounter” and “the event of meeting”) that brings us out of the objectivity of the everyday world into an event of mutual respect and affirmation. You could push that idea a little and say: sometimes that “event” of friendship is limited to a certain time, and sometimes the rapport lasts a long time. What makes the difference?

I think of people to whom I was very close, but the bonds didn’t last over the long haul. Beth and I had several great friendships during our three years in Virginia. But just four years later, when we returned for my graduation, only one of those friendships (actually a couple-friendship) remained: the rest had fallen out of touch with us. Now, even that friendship has faded, but fortunately other friendships have been renewed.

I think of jobs and situations where Beth and I worked hard and “gave back” to the community, and yet fewer friendships resulted or remained over time. On the other hand, I’ve one friend whom I met only once, in 1983, and we’re still in touch over all these years! I've had fewer long-term friendships from my college years compared to my masters’ degree program, but thanks to Facebook I’m thrilled to have reconnected with several people with whom I went to college and renewed ol’ friendships.

Beth and I like to stay in contact with people and send over 100 Christmas cards each year, But something about that seems rushed and minimal. I feel like I should do more. The busier life becomes, seems like the less time we have for friendships. I used to be a faithful letter-writer but now I’m pretty much a telephoner and emailer. As I say, Facebook has been a tremendous help, in spite of the well-known drawbacks of online social networking.

I believe in God’s providence, and I’ve had occasions to connect with friends at opportune moments. I called a friend on her birthday several years ago and, as it happened, her brother had passed away very recently, so we talked about that. So many times we (all those of us who exchange cards) hear of losses in our respective families only at that one “catch up” time, Christmas.

I read a book, coauthored by two pastors, concerning church leadership. One of the authors confessed that he was all about goals and getting tasks done; if he had to discard people along the way to achieve the goal, he’d do it. But the man wrote that his wife never could discard anyone; she’d rather “lose” a goal than to lose a friendship, and so, he writes, the two of them compliment each other. That’s good! A person needs good goals and good friendships.

Expressing feelings to friends can be difficult, but it's so important to do. A dear friend says, "I have a philosophy about life. The world would be a much better place if people took a moment to let people know about the positive impact they have had on others’ lives. Too much time is spent on negativity. The good in people simply isn’t recognized; too often it is taken for granted." I liked my friend's philosophy so much that, with her permission, I quoted her in an article:

In the book Uncommon Friendships (Mariner Books, 1989), James Newton describes his friendships with Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, Henry Ford, Alex Carrel, and Charles Lindbergh. Amazingly, Newton never asked to meet any of them. He recounts life-lessons that he learned from these men and their families, but I was struck by a comment about the author early in the book, “With Jim, personal relationships come first.”

Beth and I try to live that way. In spite of her busyness, Beth’s many friendships is a testimony to her own loyalty to people. Meanwhile I keep in touch with folks via email, Facebook, and occasional telephoning. Writing this essay reminds me of some friendships I need to renew. I think it was Georgia O’Keeffe who said, “Seeing a flower takes time, just like being a friend takes time.” Friendships are always time well spent!

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