How good a friend are you?

Many would contemplate this question for a minute and then reply, “Not a very good one.” A friend of mine answered that question by saying, “I’m a crappy friend. I do many things well, but not friendship.” And yet this same woman who works about a seventy hour a week job as a doctor, once spent every free weekend for over a month taking care of her dying friend. When I pointed out that she showed incredible friendship to this woman, she replied, “Well she needed me.” But in the course of her daily life she finds herself too busy to call or email friends and therefore she assumed she was not a good friend. I disagree. I think she’s an excellent friend.

We have ideals about being a good friend and, when we don’t measure up to those ideals, we judge ourselves negatively. For many years I also judged myself as not being a good friend. My mother had many friends and everyone loved her. She was a stay-at-home mother and made all of our bread, desserts and delicious home cooked meals each evening. But even doing all of that, she found plenty of time for her friends. Every day in my childhood I remember seeing my mother pull up the vinyl chair in the kitchen to the wall phone. She would sit on that chair for hours and call her friends to share every detail of their lives. Those friends knew my report card, what we were having for dinner, and how the new washing machine worked. Day by day I saw my mother talk on the phone to her friends and that became my ideal of a good friend. In my mind, a good friend spends hours on the phone and talks about everything that happens in your life.

When I became an adult and then a mother, I tried to copy my mother’s example. But between working and raising children, I just didn’t have the time to be on the phone. Each year, for my New Year’s resolution, I would vow to call my friends more. And each year I would spend every free minute that I wasn’t working either alone or with Barry or our children. The calls seldom were made. I developed friends who were mothers with children the same age. We watched each other’s children and went to the park together. But even though I was spending these fun times with other mothers, I still judged myself as not a good friend.

This year a good friend flew up from Los Angeles to be with me the day after my knee operation. While lying on the couch in such a vulnerable place, I told her that I wished I could be a great friend like she was to me. And she replied incredulously saying, “But you are! You believe in me and love me and ignore my weaknesses to see just my strength and beauty. I know that I can count on you when I need you, just like you can count on me. It’s OK that we sometimes go months without being on the phone together. You tell me often how much you love me.” When she spoke those words, I thought of my mother on the phone with her friends for hours every day. I no longer needed to cling to that image as my ideal of a good friend. I could just be the kind of friend that I am.

One thing I feel is very important is to communicate how much we love our friend and value the friendship. Hopefully we do this often with our partner, children and parents, but do we also express our love to our friends? It is wonderful to show how much we care, but it is also important to communicate it with words.

Barry and I love the movie Waking Ned Divine. We have watched it several times and enjoy it every time. In this movie, two old Irish friends, Michael and Patrick go to visit their friend Ned. They discover that Ned has died while holding the winning ticket to the lottery. They hatch a plan to have Michael pretend that he is Ned and then call the lottery people to claim the money. All goes well until the lottery man says, “Of course, I will have to visit your village and ask a few random people to make sure you are who you say you are.” Because of this, they decide to include the entire village of about twenty people in their plan and share the money with them. The people want to know how they will recognize the lottery man from just some stranger or tourist. Michael and Patrick tell them that the lottery man sneezes a lot.

Later, during the funeral for Ned, Patrick stands up to give the eulogy. While he was speaking, the lottery man walks in and starts sneezing. Now everyone at the funeral knows it is him. What to do?? There is a long uncomfortable silence, and then Patrick starts talking about Michael, pretending that he is the one that died, even though he is sitting in the front row looking up at Patrick. This is what he said in his beautiful Irish brogue. “Michael O’Sullivan was my great friend.” And then there was a long pause in which Patrick’s eyes fill with tears before he goes on, “And I don’t ever remember telling him that before. The words that are spoken at a funeral come too late for the man who has died. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if you could visit your own funeral and listen to what is being said and perhaps even say a word or two yourself. If Michael were here right now and could hear what I am saying, I would congratulate him on being a great man and thank him for being my friend.” Michael started crying and soon the whole village was crying. It was a very touching scene.

Do we have to wait for a memorial service to fully express our feelings of love and gratitude about our friend? We can tell them now while they can still hear us. At one of our retreats there were two men who had been friends for many years. They were both engineers and worked together at very demanding jobs. Also they each had a bunch of children so there was little free time for just hanging out together. On the last day of the retreat, the one friend reached for the other’s hand and said, “We have been friends for a long time but I don’t remember the last time I told you how much I love you and how much I value our friendship.” The other man then shared an equally touching appreciation and love. There were tears in both of their eyes as they hugged. Taking the time to share love and appreciation is always beautiful and powerful. You will never regret having done so. Friendship is a treasure.

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