Betty Duffy

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Good Friend

One of Grandma's gifts was her capacity for friendship and her loyalty to friends. I can't think of a single friend whom Granny let go. She kept every friend she ever had, and her friendships ended only when the parties died.

My Aunt recently sent out this missive to all the grandchildren in my generation with some attached snippets from my deceased grandmother’s diary. My Aunt thought we might enjoy reading about her old friendships and courtships. Very true—my Grandmother saved many of her richest treasures for us to find after her death: A love letter to my Grandfather just weeks before he died, and these diaries.

I remember, as a girl, going to visit my Grandmother’s friends, and she had many: Meady, Ruth, Helen...the list goes on. It only strikes me now, how significant it was that these women were in their eighties at the time, and had known each other since they were children. A life-long friend is such a rarity, but my Grandmother had many because she took the responsibility of maintaining them.

I wish I could say the same for my ability to maintain some of the wonderful friendships I’ve had over my lifetime, but I have not always been a good friend. I’m a disaster at long distance friendship, don’t care much for talking on the phone, and assume that I live too far away for people to want to come visit. I’ve had friends with whom I could meet up after years had passed, and say, “Isn’t this great, we can get together and just pick up where we left off?” We say that to make ourselves feel better about dropping out of one another’s lives for years at a time, but it’s not that great, really. It would be better if we had stayed in touch.

And now we can stay in touch on Facebook, which allows me to have in my little online address book everyone I have ever known in my entire life (almost). In a recent Harper’s Magazine, Jaron Lanier wrote: “I know quite a few people…who are proud to say that they have accumulated thousands of friends on Facebook. Obviously, their statements can be true only if the idea of friendship is diminished” (The Serfdom of Crowds, Jaron Lanier, Harper’s, Feb. 2010).

Facebook friends require nothing of me. They’re easy. Maybe my Grandmother didn’t have the resources that we have today to keep our friends at a distance, but I like to think that she maintained her friends out of an innate and unshakeable generosity. Real friendship comes with requirements.

I’m sort of like a Labrador Retriever. I come when I’m called. I like nothing more than to be in your presence and eat your food. My sister wrote recently about love languages, how she responds to gifts of service, and likes to do things for other people. That’s not my love language. I’m not a thoughtful giver, nor a gracious receiver of gifts. I’m not a hugger. I’m too proud to ask for help, and often too scatterbrained to offer it. If there are Marthas and Marys in this world, I’m a Mary. I just want to be there. We don’t even have to talk. It should probably come as no surprise I’m a difficult friend. Any friendships I’ve maintained have lasted only because of the other party’s persistent summoning of this hungry and selfish pooch.

All of this is to say that I’m grateful for the people who haven’t given up on me. I’ve been lucky to make friends with women who are good at bringing people together, magnetic personalities, who open their homes, again and again, and call the Labs in to come and eat at their tables. My Grandmother was that type of a woman, a Martha, and Marthas make the world go round.


Margie said...

Reading this spotlights - and validates in a way - my own lame stabs at keeping up with friends. My best friends are those, as you said, who've kept up with me. They're long-term, but only b/c they haven't let the flame go out. In this post, you've written the words that I've known but have never had the courage to publicly admit. So thanks. And now I feel moved to send Easter cards since I wasn't able to get Christmas cards mailed. After all, I think about and miss my friends, although my actions beg otherwise.

Katherine said...

I'm going to be inspired by Margie and send Easter cards (even to my irreligious friends) because I didn't get my Christmas cards out either (although I did get all the addresses together - no mean feat). I think that I will make that a Lenten resolution. I take up good church things like the daily office (it almost stuck one year, too) and lectio divina as well as giving things up (going for deliberately missing out meals this time). I think that Easter cards fall into that being part of the effort to bring people into discussing Christianity.

I am definitely one who has some of her long term friends only because they made an effort to keep up with me. Having experienced that for the first time, I've managed to retain some friendships from my own efforts, too. But most of the time I get caught up in what game theorists call the prisoner's dilemma (I think it needs a better name but that's for another time). In such a dilemma, two people who cannot communicate their intentions to each other stand to benefit if both cooperate. If neither of them cooperates they will both lose out. If only one cooperates, then the other will benefit. When looked at logically, see that the two outcomes are to either receive a benefit or to not receive a benefit, then the best rational choice is always to cooperate. If one cooperates then one has the chance to benefit. If one does not cooperate then one does not receive a benefit. But the catch is here: if one cooperates and the other doesn't, the he gets the benefit and you don't.
We all value reciprocity, especially in friendship, and none of us wants to be taken in. There is asymmetry and unfairness in the third outcome where the first person cooperates and the second person doesn't but the second person does receive the benefit. I get stuck in this way of thinking and sometimes it gets in the way of me trying to keep up with friends. If I e-mail X, then she'll have a nice e-mail in her inbox and she'll have happy feelings that someone has thought of her and made some effort for her. But then, I'll think, X didn't e-mail me back the last time I e-mailed her nor the time before that. That doesn't make me happy. And then I decide not to try - same outcome as not receiving a return e-mail - and I don't benefit. I choose the only option where there is no chance that I might benefit.

It's not a perfect or full analytic description of the business of keeping up with friends but for me it explains much of the mechanism for the way some friendships fall by the wayside. But that choosing of the one outcome that guarantees that no benefit will accrue reminds me of the dwarfs in C.S. Lewis' "The Last Battle", when at the end the dwarfs have adopted the slogan 'the dwarfs are for the dwarfs' and cannot see that they are outside in the sun with good food, even when God tells them so. They are more focused on preventing the possibility that someone might get a free ride benefit that they can't even choose to run that risk with God. It's a part of that story that has haunted me since I first read it as a nine-year old. Please excuse this comment's wandering digressiveness!

Harmony said...

Thank you for this.

Sarah said...

The best part of true friendships is that one recognizes the other for whom they truly are, respects that, and doesn't ask them to be anything other than that. You, my friend, are a good friend! You in your ways, others in theirs.

BettyDuffy said...

Margie, "I think about and miss my friends, although my actions beg otherwise." Absolutely!

Katherine, I enjoy digressive comments, especially when I stand to gain something from them ;)in this case, knowlege of the prisoner's dilemma, which is something I have sensed taking place in some relationships, but I was unaware that it had a name and a body of research behind it.

Reciprocity is challenging, especially when people crave different things out of a relationship. For instance, with my sister and I, when we get together, because she likes gifts of service, she spends a lot of time scurrying around getting things done, like putting dinner on the table, and organizing activities. It is an act of love and friendship she provides for the family. Meanwhile, I wish she would put those things aside and come sit with me and talk. I think she is not reciprocating, because she is not talking. She thinks I am not reciprocating because I am not scurrying. We are both making an offering to one another, just in different languages. I suppose the Prisoner's dilemma would apply here in terms of "perceived" reciprocity.

You might enjoy this link on email reciprocity:

Sarah, you make the world go round!

Karyn said...

My grandmother has maintained many of her friendships, even school friends. However, she has lived in two houses - the last one for 58 years. How much of the older generation's ability to maintain friendships is due to their staying put and to their, oftentimes, lack of desire to take on new technology (the phone and real letters are required if you don't use email or facebook)? I'm not saying they're wrong, just that maybe we should go a little bit easier on ourselves.

JMB said...

I think Karyn makes an excellent point: most friendships last because of proximity. The second reason? A long life and a short memory!

Beautiful post! I like the Lab reference.

Dorian Speed said...

I just love, love your blog, which I have recently discovered. You write like someone whose children will post her photo on My Parents Were Awesome.

I have some of the same doubts about my own ability to be a good friend. What I like about Facebook is that it lets me at least be caught up enough with some old friends that our reunions aren't completely awkward - "So, you have three kids now, right?" It's not perfect friendship, but it's good.

But not so good that I cannot give it up for Lent, as it is also a major distraction and causes me to think in five-second "status updates" throughout the day.

BettyDuffy said...

Dorian Speed, Thanks. Love that link you posted. Doubt my kids will think I'm awesome, but my parents were awesome. Awesome enough that I put a picture of my mom on my blog (she's the blonde on the far right).

Rachel said...

You are welcome for keeping you at the party by hopping in your van thus preventing you from sneakily driving home instead per your temptation. Glad you stayed to dance!!
Love, Martha