Tejas

I am not a very good friend. I have friends, but I think I do not excel in being one. Now, when I talk about friends, I’m using the classic definition, not the modern, social media version. In fact, even on Facebook, when I add a “friend” I have a rule that we know each other well enough that either they have had dinner at my house, or I at theirs. Ironically, my next-door neighbors, whom I have known for 14 years, do not qualify in this regard. This rule helps keep my contact list on social media limited, and that’s fine with me. How many friends does one really need?

I make casual acquaintances very easily. I have many work “friends”, those who I get along with very well. But I don’t really know them, and they don’t know me. One or two work friends have become my best friends over the years. They had Thanksgiving dinner at my house. We’ve gone camping together. We trust one another, and we will be friends for the rest of our lives. But when I look around, I realize I’m not that good at being a friend. I don’t know why I feel this way since the only framework I have for this is within my own experience and the little I have picked up from what I’ve read. I mean, what do we have as a guide to how to be a better friend?

Anyone who has grown up in Texas, and who attended public schools here, may remember taking Texas History in about 7th or 8th grade. Having lived my entire life in this state, it’s hard for me to see things objectively; but, I have many friends from abroad, and that gives you a bit of perspective. As such, I clearly see how unique Texas culture is. People here seem to have a dash of nationalistic fervor from time to time. How is it that being south of the Red River, and west of the Sabine River can make such a difference? One of those things that they taught in Texas History was the origin of the name of this state. The Caddo word “tejas”, meaning friends, eventually became Texas.

Friends are what, just the people you know, the people in your village? I don’t live in a village. I live in a major metropolitan area of about 6 million people. Sadly, as I mentioned before, I barely know the people in my neighborhood. My best friends live on the other side of town, several kilometers from my home. We met through church, and through mutual acquaintances. It’s strange who we consider friends. Sometimes we make friends with people who are unlike ourselves. Maybe it’s easier that way. I don’t think I’d want to hang around with another “me”.

As I said, I have no idea what kind of friend I’ve been. I’m often clueless whether I’ve offended someone. I am distracted, and I can be a bit obsessive. Of course, all my friends are perfect in every way. Seriously, I don’t know why people consider me their friend. It’s a mystery to me. They tell me their deepest secrets and worst fears. They confide in me. They ask me for life-altering advice. And they reach out to me earnestly seeking companionship. And what have I done? For one, I’ve wasted my life on social media. My real friends are not there. True friendship cannot be maintained in such a way.

If I want to be a better friend I know what I must do. I will have lunch with them. I’ll visit them when they’re sick. I’ll help them with a project or when they move house. I’ll attend their performance. I will accept invitation to dinner. And I won’t look for any excuse to get out of it, because friends are better than that. Friends do what’s right. Friends are trustworthy and reliable. Friends help you when you’re down.

Recently, a friend of mine passed away. She was sick for a long time, and it was difficult and sad to see her wasting away. I visited her before she died; she had asked for me. Later, her daughter asked me to be a pallbearer at her mother’s funeral. I never realized how much I had meant to her. I didn’t consider myself to be one of her closest friends, and yet, here I was, transporting her remains to their final resting place. It was devastating, but it was my obligation to do this last thing for her, and for her family. I’ve served in this capacity three times now, and yet this one was more significant. This was the first time I helped to bury a friend.

And what kind of friend was I in her life? Naturally, we go to this place after losing someone, doubting ourselves and becoming self-critical. (Maybe it’s just something I do). I imagine what she would be saying to me. She might say I was a better friend than I realized. Perhaps I would be a better friend if I told them what they meant to me. I think I’m going to schedule lunch with one of my oldest friends this week. I like visiting with him, and he and I will have some interesting stories to share. I need to do this more often. I think this is the answer I needed. What is my guide to being a good friend? It is my conscience.

 

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Sticks, Stones, and the Effect of Language

About a million years ago, a proto-human picked up a stick and bludgeoned a deer with it, and voilĂ ! dinner. And ever since, this was the way of mankind. Rather than talk things through, we communicated with sticks, some pointy, some thick and club-like with stones lashed to them. Later, we developed language, a way of describing all those sticks. We needed words as a delivery system for our more complex thoughts. And eventually, we would develop insults, and later, passive-aggressive tones. Hooray!

About a million years after this stick incident occurred, we were taught a pearl of wisdom that said words used against us were not going to harm us. This “sticks and stones” maxim reminded us that insults were the last refuge of the ignorant, and no words could injure us, no matter how harmful. It was a way of fending off bullies, by equating them to knuckle-dragging, thick-sculled cave men. The thing is, those insults and verbal jabs do take their toll. I argue that being punched does less harm in most cases, especially when I was a middle-schooler being punched by a pint-sized assailant.

But the words are sometimes used as ammunition by people other than our classmates and peers. Teachers and parents were capable of much more harm to us. I never would have believed that grown-ups could inflict such cruelty, but I was twelve, and I grew up believing that adults knew what was best for us. But they were as clueless as any 30-something today, perhaps even more so. At least now, people have a wealth of information at their disposal, practically the entire repository of human knowledge by way of the internet. You might expect there could be no excuse for being ignorant, and yet many of us are. We should know better, but we don’t.

Back to that sticks and stones analogy. Physical injuries tend to heal completely. There are of course cases where lasting damage occurs. Broken bones, like those in the little phrase, may heal, but it might affect the way you move further on. I broke my thumb when I was 14 (I was practicing throwing punches after being tripped earlier that day, and my thumb caught the edge of the chair and went “crack!”) That hurt like hell, and I felt really, really stupid. But the physical pain went away after a while, and my body “forgot” the pain. Decades later, when the barometer falls or when geese migrate, my thumb gets stiff or a little sore. It’s not my body “remembering” the original injury. Instead, this is a lasting result. Be that as it may, this injury troubles me a lot less than some of the things people said to me over the years. Even though the words dissipated in the atmosphere just after being spoken, they still echo in my mind to this day.

You see, words can indeed cause long-term emotional pain, far beyond what a physical injury might have. We must therefore be extremely careful when choosing our words. We might start by developing effective feedback skills. This might be one of the most important parts of being a manager or any kind of leader. Saying the wrong thing can create problems further down the road. It is very difficult to undo the damage once this happens. You cannot un-say the wrong thing. Positive yet constructive criticism is like a precious resource, because it is rare that we receive it, and not very many people know how to deliver it. Saying something like, “I’d like to tell you where I see your strengths,” rather than, “do you know what your problem is?” for instance.

Once we have delivered valuable feedback, we can encourage others to learn this skill, as they begin to appreciate its worth. It will be like currency in a world where good communication is rare yet valuable. Right now I fear it is rare but unappreciated. Eventually, as we mature, we do see the value of it, but by then a subsequent generation has already been at the helm of our society. It’s important for teachers to develop this skill and pass it on. It needs to begin early on in a child’s development, earlier than we thought in the old way of thinking. Back then, children were not regarded as contributors to our society, but our understanding of the brain’s development has improved, and we know better now, so we tell ourselves.

Words have amazing power. We use them to inspire one another, to incite crowds, to soothe, and to charm. The right words are absolutely necessary for certain events, like toasting the bride and groom, delivering a eulogy, or giving someone bad news. Our words can injure. Words can be a weapon. Words can even heal. With the right words, a skilled negotiator can change the world more than any number of rockets and tanks. And the simple statement of, “whatever” can stop some of us in our tracks. Yes, sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can injure you for a lifetime. So be careful with what you say.

Violent

Plenty has been published in literature, produced in films and television to depict (or predict) a world where violent behavior had all but been eliminated due to a draconian system of justice, where even petty theft or vandalism could result in severe penalties. It goes without saying this is the west’s impression of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), true or not. In the 1980’s we were instructed on what life in the Soviet Union was like, how the Russian people had no freedoms, no choice. The indoctrination of American youth during the Cold War could have been as equally oppressive as any Communist regime we imagined.

Singapore is famous for administering harsh punishments for seemingly insignificant offenses like littering or vandalism. They are very proud of their low crime rate, and it should be obvious why that is. So one might ask himself, why don’t more countries do this? Before attempting to answer this, I am reminded of something that puzzled me for years. Japan has very strict gun laws, severely restricting gun ownership, limiting sales, and granting the government shockingly sweeping authority regarding firearms, at least by American standards (but the US has fairly relaxed gun laws by comparison to most of the world). In Japan, perhaps as a result of these policies, nearly all gun violence has been eliminated. The big question is whether restricting gun ownership has resulted in a reduction of gun-related incidents, or was it something else?

I posed this question to someone who lived in Japan, and he told me something I did not expect. He is a gun rights advocate, and, like me, has had experience with firearms from an early age. Despite this, he and I don’t agree on every aspect of gun control. That said, he told me that the reason there is almost no gun violence in Japan is not because guns are hard to get hold of, but that the Japanese culture figures significantly into the equation. Of course, there are guns in Japan. But even the Yakuza gang rarely uses guns to commit crimes. Consequently, homicides in Japan are pretty uncommon. It’s worth noting that gun violence in Canada is also rare, even with dramatically fewer restrictions over gun ownership. What, then, is the explanation?

As a means to deter crime, I suppose courts in the US could throw people in prison for nearly anything, like spitting on the sidewalk or jaywalking. Many municipalities have passed some crazy laws that stay on the books, but we typically don’t incarcerate people for overdue library books. (I’m reminded that I need to write about Emmett Till, the black teen who was brutally murdered for allegedly making sexual advances toward a white woman, Carolyn Bryant Donham. In the Jim Crow South, and elsewhere in the US, simply being black was a crime.) Looking at our past, one must conclude that America possesses a most violent culture, one that can barely be contained. The US is chock full of guns. Our art is violent. We have been in a continual state of war since the beginning of the 21st century. We are constantly exposed to violence through video games, television, and film. Simply put, we are a violent people.

Could we eliminate crime by making the punishments so severe that they would serve as a deterrent? Many states still administer the death penalty, and yet capital crimes are still committed. This doesn’t appear to be the solution. One thing that is certain: violence tends to bring about more violence. I admit I have thought about making certain individuals wish they’d never been born. I won’t go into details. Is this something in the human genome? Are we taught to be violent? Can we unlearn this tendency? This may not be something we can overcome in the next 100,000 years. If that depletes your last hopes, do not despair. Humanity should be able to progress if we don’t destroy ourselves first. Carl Sagan was confident we could reach the stars with this contingency in mind. We are continually evolving, but that takes time, and our evolutionary gains have not kept pace with our technological advances. In other words, we’ve become efficient killers with our advanced weapons, but we haven’t developed the ability to conquer our base instincts. We are dangerous animals until that happens.