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 voilà! 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.

Blessed are Those Who Mourn

In my life, I think I have never really mourned. I have lost people, and I felt those losses in varying degrees, but mourning as an act is a bit of a mystery to me. Maybe I mean grieving. Are grief and mourning the same? Are both equated to sadness? I remember when my grandfather died. I was 13. My dad kind of burst into my room one Saturday morning, waking me as the sun came up. He announced the news about my mom’s dad’s passing rather like a trumpet playing reveille, lacking both subtlety and delicacy. I’m okay.

To be fair, my sister was also not terribly saddened by Grandpa’s sudden and unexpected death. There was a military funeral, and we kids stayed clear of any adult for the duration, and we were slightly – no, totally – oblivious to anyone’s grief, and, yes, I do feel bad about that, so sue my 13-year-old self.

I haven’t experienced much loss. On my dad’s side of the family, people live about 100 years or so. But my mom is the longest-surviving person in her immediate family. Both her brothers had all-too-brief lives, and both her parents were gone before she was in her forties. The younger brother was very close to me, inasmuch as he was 12 years older. But we connected and were what you would call kindred spirits. And when he died I was very sad, and I cried. But he wasn’t much on ceremony, and we didn’t have much in the way of a ritualized memorial. His friends and coworkers all came to pay their respects, and it made me feel like an alien. I miss him, and I think about him all the time. But I don’t know if I mourned for him. And I don’t recognize grief like I see in others in their loss.

I have over the years become this kind of funeral singer. I have been a semi-professional singer for many years, and one would assume that might include weddings. But for reasons I can’t quite explain, since about 1999, I have sung at more than a few funerals for friends and relatives. I sang at my father-in-law’s funeral, and years later, my mother-in-law’s. I sang for the mother of my closest friend. And I have sung at my own grandfather’s funeral, that of my dad’s dad.

It seems I have experienced more loss than I thought. But that only reminds me of my apparent disorder. Maybe I have no soul. Maybe I’m a sociopath. I don’t know. I’ve watched my parents getting older, and I can’t ignore the fact that they will pass someday, likely before I do. In my mind I’ve rehearsed eulogies. I admit it’s morbid, but I have also been thinking I need a will, and this is a product of getting older. You will get there. My wife and I talked openly about burial wishes on the return trip from her dad’s funeral. It’s on your mind at the time, and you do naturally go there.

Last year when Prince died, a lot of people grieved. They made pilgrimages to his home. They erected shrines and memorials. People wept and wailed. And most of them didn’t know him. I think the same happens with other celebrities, where fans mourn that loss as someone in their families. Recently, there have been a number of notable celebrities who passed, but I didn’t grieve for any of them like some might have. This doesn’t surprise me, but I worry than I might be somewhat cold. (I did check, and I have a pulse.)

I think I would react differently if I lost one of my parents or my best friend. I don’t like to think about losing people, and so maybe I am human afterall. I don’t look forward to experiencing real loss. I guess mourning is different for everyone. It’s a step in the process. Grief takes its course like a river flowing to the sea. Mourning is the canoe or kayak, or for some people, the speedboat. It depends on the individual. Does it matter how close we were to that person? It’s clear that my wife has grieved more over her mother’s passing than I did. But as I said, I am not sure I have ever really mourned.