In speaking of friendship, I once heard a fellow quip, “A friend is someone who, in a pinch, you can borrow a cup of sugar from. But, a true friend is one who will help you bury the body.”
Putting aside the witticism, I once had a true friend.
He was both a good neighbor and a good friend. Over the years, my friend helped me out of more than one tight spot. I was appreciative and tried to return those favors; but, I had fallen short. To his credit, he never kept a score card and I knew, if I needed his help again, he would be there for me.
Such is friendship.
A few years ago, however, I felt our friendship was being imperiled by the polarization in our politics. Though we both considered ourselves to be conservatives, I leaned towards moderation, while he was entrenched on the far right.
This was attested to by the red baseball cap he would proudly wear – especially whenever I was in his presence. I didn’t really mind the taunting red cap, but I did miss the one he wore when we rode motorcycles together – the beat up one with the Harley emblem on it.
He was always the rebel and, like his cap, a bit worn and defiant.
We still shared conservative values and agreed on core issues, but during the Trump era we began to drift apart on the more controversial ones. That we disagreed didn’t seem unusual, but what did seem unusual was our growing inability to calmly discuss our differences.
It seemed that as the national political temperature rose, our exchanges heated up as well. Our usual tempered discourse that would include, “Now I respect your right to say that, but …” was replaced with, “That was a stupid thing to say,” or “I remember when you used to be a patriot.”
Discussions of conflicting positions were no longer open-minded exchanges and the gray area in between disappeared. Everything became either all black or all white. Consequently, the opposing position couldn’t be partially right – it had to be totally wrong and, hence, not worthy of either consideration or compromise.
This fanatical, take-no-prisoners approach became the viral mainstay of right-wing politics, and it had infected my friend. I feared he was becoming a cultist fully committed to his political god, while he, no doubt, feared I was worshipping at the altar of left-wing socialists.
Ultimately, he became an extreme partisan totally committed to the party line, while I didn’t care for party – any party. Instead, I became an independent and sought out others who were interested in marching to their own drumbeat.
The political storm had engulfed us, and we were unable to weather it. Subsequently, we distanced ourselves from each other and ceased discussing any pressing issue of substance. Regrettably, those issues also included personal ones – even medical issues that we were both confronted with.
We became unable to express our thoughts and feelings in the human context – our anxieties and fears. We had lost the bond of trust and shared humanity that had made us friends. And, as a result, we both became the lesser for it; we became acquaintances.
When I was undergoing cancer therapy, my mind wandered a bit. I imagined us renewing our friendship in a returning world of normalcy. But, after recovering, I gave up my imaginings and just accepted things as they appeared to be.
Our estrangement remained unchanged, and we avoided each other until he eventually moved away. We still would occasionally run into each other at the rare social gathering. But, when we did, we only engaged in phatic conversation; we never again spoke on any topic of intrinsic value.
Not too long ago, I heard from a neighbor that my friend had died. I was saddened, and I felt … diminished by the loss. John Donne in his famed poem, For Whom the Bell Tolls, had it right; the bell had tolled for me as well.
Too late, I realized that the friendship which bound us together was far more important than our political differences. I realized it had made each of us more human and mutually enhanced the quality of our lives. And lastly, I realized that only a fool loses a good friend due to the animus of the times.
I miss my friend; and sometimes I wonder if he ever missed me.