It's been a while, lately all manner of thoughts have been occupying my mind. This weekend made me think more about the bounds of friendship and what we owe ourselves and our friends. Science has said that we make fewer and fewer "real" friends as we grow older and for me this has always been true. I still prefer the company of dogs over humans but that's more to do with me than anything else. What does being a friend really mean?
The dogs I live with are protective, loyal and affectionate, at least to a point. They will defend me to their last breath, even at the expense of themselves. To them, I am one of the people who provide food, a warm, snuggly bed and lovies, regular hated baths, car rides and illicit treats usually consisting of half my breakfast. The dogs have comforted me when my life felt like it was falling apart, run joyfully with me because it was the best thing in the world. Stoically endured my awful singing, danced around the living room with me and laid reading in bed for countless hours. Baked cookies and cakes at 2 a.m. and listened while I ranted to rants about the latest boyfriend. They take me as they find me, giving seemingly unconditional love. Who knows what really goes through their heads?
Now here's the thing, I have friends, good, treasured friends, who will do those things with me too. My friends have been my support through many long years, laughed with me, cried with me, held my hand or I've held theirs. We've had good times, bad times and every time in-between. And that got me thinking, what's the difference then? Not that I'm comparing my friends to dogs! I'm asking about relationships and the boundaries.
I have the expectation that my friends care for me, that they are honest and loyal in their dealings with me and about me, as I try to be with them. But here's the fundamental difference. I expect that my friends will be honest with me. Oh, not for silly things, does this dress make my ass look fat, though really I'd prefer if they were upfront about that too. Equivocation is not always a bad thing. That's what good friends do. But I also don't mean blind, unquestioning loyalty or rose tinted glasses.
If I'm screwing up, or behaving badly or hurting people or generally being a shit, I expect someone will tell me to my face. My friends to be fair, aren't the unquestioning type. We push each other along, yes they will defend me but they'll also be the first people to admit that we all have flaws. If mine get too overbearing they usually aren't silent and I'd like to hope that I've done the same for them. Once upon a time a good friend sit me down and tell me, "you are out of control, I love you but I don't like you very much right now and I can't cope with you. You need to find someone else to help you because I can't." At the time I was in the throes of one of the worst bouts of depression I'd ever had and was barely hanging on. It was a salutory slap and in this time of political correctness, when we've all be told we must be more sensitive and aware, my friend was practicing self preservation despite herself. It was hard and at the time I couldn't quite wrap my head around it. But almost twenty years later I understand. Sometimes you have to let people go in order to help them and you can't save everybody. In my case it was an acquaintance, who happened to have been around and had gone through a similar experience months earlier who caught me. During a long walk around the block we had a frank conversation. And he got me the help I needed in the form of a really good psychiatrist who gave me the room to breathe again. And to apologise to my other friend for putting her in the position.
We've all had that situation, where someone comes and says, 'oh my god that person has been so awful to me, this is what happened'...or some such. Do we close our ears and refuse to listen because we are loyal and would prefer not to hear anything about our friend? Or do we acknowledge that though we may not have experienced that aspect of our friend admit that the other person has the right to their opinion? Do we continue, despite all evidence to the contrary, continue to defend the person or refuse to acknowledge that in fact there is a problem, all under the guise of "loyalty". Is it because we cannot face that our judgement might be flawed? Or that we refuse to see people as they are? Pollyanna complex? Do we say something to them? Do we confront them with our knowledge and ask for an explanation? Or do we stick our fingers in our ears and go la la la la?
To me it is one thing to be a supportive, loyal friend, or to make the decision to continue to be someone's friend, but it's another thing to be wilfully blind and continue to make excuses for someone because of "friendship". Someone asked me in a training session once, "would you continue to be that person's friend if you knew they'd raped someone and it was covered up and they were allowed to go on doing what they do". Ask yourself that, it will tell you a lot about who you are. People are allowed to make mistakes, to screw up or to just have a bad moment, there is no such thing as perfection. It is what we do after that defines us.