Friendship is one of those bridges that seem designed for two-way traffic. Friendship provides allies in our attempts to live a worthwhile life and at the same time provides an opportunity to test out our ability to be the kind of person we aspire to be.
Our body’s neurological system also provides a 2-way bridge: conducting traffic from the mind into the body (efferent nerves allowing us to express our intentions in action): and from the body back to the mind (afferent nerves that report on pain, temperature, pressure, and feelings occasioned by vision, hearing, and touch). This two way traffic joining body and mind is essential for realizing vision and intention through words and actions, and then to receive feedback on the results. In the light of such feedback we have an opportunity to take the baby steps or giant leaps which make up our lives as we stumble into the future. Honoring this feedback is essential if we are to escape the ruts that seem constantly ready to deepen under uselessly spinning wheels.
The Noble Eightfold Path includes a group of steps (Integration) that express this need for feedback and reconciliation—as we traverse the bridge from Wisdom (Vision and Intention) into Behavior (Speech, Action and Livelihood). Integration (Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration) allows us to be human in the midst of our highly conditioned existence. Similarly with friendship–which gives us an opportunity to connect our individual life with the larger world in which we live–a two-way bridge of relationship and feedback connects us.
Not everyone is open to friendship. And those of us who are—in my case perhaps as part of a prevailing discomfort among the dissociated fragments of my alleged ‘individuality’—can thank our lucky stars when some of our friendships go deeper than the convenience of parallel activities and compatible backgrounds. What a blessing it is when others remind us of aspirations and resonances with the infinite, which our daily lives may not encourage.
Looking back over the course of my life, the kinds of friends I have had along the way provides a weather vane for what was going on both outside and inside my evolving individuality.
Our friends, like the entire spectrum of our relationships, show us how we spend our time, as we meet obligations and, if fortunate, develop our interests and capacity for spontaneous appreciation.
Perhaps it’s always been the case–and I am just not aware enough to have noticed–but I have the feeling that not every friendship has had the power to inspire me to change my behavior on behalf of a greater good.
In the past several months I have rediscovered appreciation for some of the longer-lasting relationships that life has brought my way.
When Foster and I co-founded “Friends in Time” in the early 90’s, to try to help people with ALS (and soon MS), Foster proposed the corporate name of “Friends in Life”. But that name had already been taken and so–fresh from the six-month retreat, in which the cycles and opportunities delivered by a living dynamic of time emerged as central for me– I proposed “Friends in Time” and, since no other corporate entity had requested that name, it stuck.
One of the primary ways in which this felt meaningful to me, and still does, is that most people suffering from progressive neuromuscular, physical, or brain disorders, are unlikely to ever personally receive the benefit of the ‘cure’ which most national organizations make it their priority to find. So people in the grips of a process which imposes constant loss, piling up without an opportunity to grieve before the next one arrives, need friends to show up in present time, not in a future time when they will not be able to benefit. It became the mission of “Friends in Time” to respond—borrowing Santayana’s phrase—in the ‘flying moment’.
Foster and I co-founded Friends in Time a few months after my wife and I returned from a year spent in Berkeley, California, where we had moved so that I could (commuting by bicycle from home) attend a six-month intensive retreat at the Nyingma Institute. It’s just occurring to me now, as I explore the importance of friends in my life, that I must have developed a greater respect for friendship during this retreat. I’ve long been aware that my life was changed, and continues to change, under the impact of those six months, but the role of ‘friendship’ in that process was less obvious.
The advice–“in the unlikely event of a loss of cabin pressure put your own oxygen mask on first”–is familiar to anyone who has flown on a commercial flight. And also familiar to most of us is the idea that if we aren’t kind and forgiving to ourselves, then we won’t be able to be kind and forgiving to anyone else. In the climate of the retreat and its many ways of investigating the past, there arose for me a recognition that, to my detriment, I had little respect for the several people I had been earlier in my life.
The single most life-changing element in those six months is that I developed an ability to appreciate earlier times in my life. After I had returned to my life in Albuquerque, I began to think of this shift in temporal terms: as the rediscovery of previous versions of myself which I had relegated to an amorphous stream of uninteresting, mostly unfortunate, episodes lived in the doldrums. It was a revelation to see my past in a new light, and to recognize that there had been significant moments of growth, change and challenges successfully met. This discovery allowed me to feel supported in the present by the demonstrated ability of earlier versions of myself to make a go of it when situations became challenging. It’s not as if there is a team of Michael’s (like firefighters lounging in the station), ready to answer the call to action. But it does feel that a relationship—akin to friendship—has formed among a band of momentary appearances in a stream of time in which a spirit of collaboration can be found. Such affiliations, between who I am now and who I felt I was back then, provide access to another kind of time: a time not parceled out in a familiar sequence of isolated, unrelated moments, but more a flowing stream of possibilities which embraces past, present and future in no particular order.
To not be completely stuck in time and space—in the prison point of a self who holds its world at a distance—allows me access to a wider community which–along with friends, family, and neighbors–includes other selves who, at different stages of my life journey, can each take pleasure in shared aspirations and their realization.
It’s hard to express this without sounding like I’m doubling down on an individual self who is his own best friend and who doesn’t need others in his life. But the opposite seems true: when feel open to who I have been, I find myself also open to others and the familiar challenges that each of us has to deal with.
A while ago, I heard a man on the radio speaking about how we, as a species, are not taking care of the Earth. He was a minister of some kind and he was deploring how it has become hard to even talk about our responsibility to the Earth–as if everyone has been swept into one corner or another and from there comes out fighting at the bell. So much energy gets absorbed in outrage towards whoever we consider responsible for the deplorable state of affairs, that no real conversation can occur.
He then used a phrase that caught my attention. He referred to our “Neighbors in Time”, thereby connecting the Biblical exhortation to “love thy neighbor” with our responsibility for the world that we will leave our children. This brought my attention forcibly to how, in addition to despoiling the time and space we share with all living beings, we are also leaving a damaged world for the generations that will be here after we ourselves are dead.
But how can we learn to reach out in time, and feel inspired to preserve the things we would like to leave for our children, when we don’t seem able to envision a future different from whatever has become familiar to us from the past?
As exhaustion and a conviction that individuals are powerlessness sweeps across our planet like a Tsunami tide, do we even believe that we have a personal future? Do we suspect that our individual difficulties are symptoms of a universal collapse?
In Zen there is a concept of impeccability: “Don’t ignore the reality that our ship is heading toward the rocks, but keep carrying out your duties like they matter.” Perhaps we will find that our own hands were on the tiller all along; and to our surprise see a safe harbor coming into view. Keeping this wider perspective in mind can encourage us to be both modest and courageous. Modest: because we acknowledge that our individual lives are only a small part of a greater whole. Courageous: because we dare to devote our efforts not just to our own small, anxious individuality but to that greater whole.
However, of all our many neighbors, which are we supposed to love? Some live on our street; some are not yet born; and some are looking back at us when we remember our own past. And with what kind of love do we try and love these neighbors? Is love a quality of our individual minds and hearts, generated and ignited by our own efforts? Or is love like rain falling from the sky, which we capture in our rain barrels and which washes the streets clean? When John Lennon sings, “All there is is Love,” he is asserting that love is not something that one person is better at than another, as we might be taller or smarter than our classmates. Love is not the outcome of genetic inheritance or individual effort. Love is like the rain that falls on all of us. People who are more loving are those who have turned their parched faces to the sky, have cupped their hands and lifted them brimming to their lips. Appreciating what has been given, they share their good fortune with others. And in the hands of such lovers, rests the hope of our world.
In a way, it is easier to care for the faceless mass of humanity, especially those who have yet to be born, than the irritating neighbor who seems so rooted in his own narrow convictions. The unborn are doubly innocent of the ignorance that falls over our adult consciousness like toxic rain. But how can we espouse a future world with ethnic variety and a growing population when we see our world as already overcrowded and our values beset by threats on every side?
If we don’t love our neighbors now then we aren’t likely to plan on our children loving their neighbor’s children in the future. Yet the Bible is pretty clear that we should be looking after the Earth and caring for the well-being of our roommates, especially the simple-minded, with whom we share the pastures of Earth. When Christ advised us to “Treat others as you would like to be treated.”), I think he would have thrown the money changers out of the feed lots and chicken warehouses. But alas, that venerable advice has fallen on stony ground, as we continue to rifle the till of Earth’s God-given bounty.
Sometimes I wish I could have thanked the people who have helped me, helped someone who needed help, or simply felt appreciation for the human connections that showed up when I needed them to brighten my world. But such relationships often flowed one-way and the best I can do is to pass the favor on–once I recognize my indebtedness to those who are no longer around to thank.
In my own life, there was the woman who saved me from drowning when I was two years old (extending my life by 73 years and counting, at considerable risk to herself); there was the teacher, Mr. Matthews, who trusted me to sail his sloop and when it was found blowing towards the rocky shoreline in the sudden squall that had come up after I had tied it, came and told me that my bowline knot was perfect and the rope had snapped; and there was my mentor, Eric, who—when he couldn’t follow me into my new interest in Eastern spirituality–allowed me to discover for myself that I didn’t need a second opinion to affirm its value.
Two other people, whom I haven’t thought about much over the years, came back to my mind this week: my high school Latin teacher, Ms. McMann, and Patrick, a fellow student in my Grade Eleven Latin class.
I was not a good student in high school. My grades, with very few exceptions, were typically at the low end of the Bell curve from the “brightest” kids who scored in the high 90% in all their classes. I felt out of the loop in an educational environment that left me scratching my head and wondering why I kept missing the mark. Instead of feeling confident that my own mind was sufficient to live a worthwhile life, I kept aspiring to succeed in the only place that seemed to be offering knowledge.
Latin was one of my least brilliant subjects. The reason I had picked Latin as one of my electives was because my mother wanted me to get a “classical” education, even though math was the only subject in which I excelled. Sometimes I had to stay after school, while Ms. McMann helped me plod through the Latin assignments that I had not got right at home. Looking back, she was the only teacher—besides Mr. Matthews who taught me the value of trust—whom I can remember teaching me that the world holds people who cared about what happened to me. Perhaps that’s why Latin now feels like a subject that supports my interest in words and their meanings.
She also taught me something about the nature of knowing which remains with me to this day: knowledge is like the wind in the high branches of a Ponderosa Pine, blowing in an environment in which kindness and concern for other beings is more brilliant than any contrivance of reason or any feat of calculation. When someone helps you learn because they recognize your potential, you not only improve your grasp of a particular subject; you experience the innate intimacy that is the hallmark of true understanding.
I suspect that Patrick may have been the smartest kid in my high school–funny, playful, quick–but I later discovered that he must have harbored a deep sadness which I never saw. We hung out at school, I expect both of us feeling marginal there, we did a few things together outside of class, and I remember that one day he wrote a Latin phrase on the black board while we were waiting for class to begin: “Semper ubi sub ubi.” (“Always where under where”).
I doubt that I’ve ever known anyone else capable of making a pun using Latin. Patrick’s pun remains in my tiny glossary of famous Latin phrases, such as “Veni, Vidi, Vici” (“I came, I saw, I conquered”) which Caesar said after invading someone else’s land.
Along with my memories of another friend, Gary, who also didn’t make it past thirty, my memories of Patrick are mixed with a sense that I could have been a better friend. In spite of their brilliance, neither found a way to conquer the world. I wonder if, fifty years ago, when he fell in front of a speeding train pulling through a subway station in Montreal, Patrick took his own advice, and was wearing clean underwear.
May all of us who ply the waves of the ocean of Being not forget that the primal luminosity, which allows us to be individuals living here on Earth, is not ours to possess and can never be completely extinguished by those who do not leave a place for us.
May none of us forget all those fellow beings who feel that they have no place; no space inviting them to step forward to be known for who they are.
Perhaps that thought set me to imagining myself talking with people I haven’t spoken with for the past 30 years. Such imagined conversations are illusory in at least two ways: its audience is no longer alive; and the self doing the talking is voicing a perspective which the speaker, didn’t have three decades ago.
Often in the mornings, when I am reading something in whose depths I am drifting, I lay the book down and am soon roaming through my memory banks, lost in a flowing stream of tumbling associations.
This morning, when I came back to the surface, I remembered some interventions in my life that changed everything–one even saving my life.
There was the “middle-aged Miss Marjorie Roberts”, who (according to an October 1944 newspaper article) rescued me from the icy waters of the Saint Lawrence River when I was two. Another neighbor heard her cries for help and found her holding on to the slippery rocks with one hand, and me, no longer breathing, with the other—exhausted and unable to climb the steep rocks out of the river’s current, which would have swept me away if she had let go for an instant. The article reports that I had to be revived with artificial respiration.
There was Eric Grinyer, who came into my life the year I became a teenager, and introduced me to the world stage of ideas, philosophy, and literature—starting with George Santayana, who must be the most poetic and playful of all the thinkers who grapple with what it means to be a human animal on planet Earth; and graduating to George Steiner, consummate literary critic of western literature, who asserted that when the holocaust erupted in the heart of western civilization we lost the right to ever again assume that the Humanities humanize.
Steiner introduced me to Franz Kafka in his “Language and Silence”; and in Kafka, I discovered a mind that understood what it is to feel an outsider in the world; and he rendered understandable my own sense of not belonging. Coherent, articulate and adamant–in the midst of his alienation from a world that was turning brutal around him– Kafka not only prophesized the holocaust, he helped at least one teenager growing up in a Montreal suburb to better understand and accept his own confusions.
The extent of the gifts I received from Miss Marjorie and Eric has gradually become clearer. Just as I had to reach a point where I valued my own life before I could appreciate the courage of a woman who pulled me out of the frigid waters of the Saint Lawrence River, I can now appreciate that Eric—after setting me on a path of discovery–did me a favor by not pretending he approved the direction I had taken.
Friendship can manifest in strange ways. In the misadventures of the comedians Laurel and Hardy we can see that two bumbling idiots are better than one. In their catastrophic adventures, there are always two elements present: they are idiots and, whatever happens, they are in it together. When Hardy says to Laurel “Here’s another fine mess you’ve got us into,” what leaps out is the pronoun “us”. They blame each other for whatever disaster has arisen, even though when it comes to a capacity for disastrous bumbling, either one of them, unaided, could sink a ship on dry land, start a war, or create a hundred “fine messes”. Meanwhile, through everything, they never abandon one another.
It’s a gift even to have a feeling that life is a gift. There are so many elements in our environment that cause dismay and so many unresolved conflicts in our typical psychological make-ups which generate confusion and frustration, that the capacity to feel gratitude may be a fleeting perception, confined to a particular activity or experience.
What allows a perception of appreciation and gratitude to arise? Good fortune in the whirling slot machine of life? Finding a path that provides a sense that our efforts mean something in a larger sphere than our individual scrambles from day-to-day?
Anyone who finds themselves being rescued from the sloughs of despond, from the boredom of routines whose purposes they can no long recall, or the hollow rewards of achievements that mean little 24 hours later–is bound to accord a special status to whatever they feel has inspired them.
It is as if we are gardeners, planting in the fields of our daily lives, and we repeat whatever seems to have led to beneficial harvests in the past until we no longer see green shoots appear.
Family, friendships, livelihood, spiritual practices, religious community, creative pastimes—we cultivate each separately and try to find a sense of wholeness connecting them within our lived lives.
But better than the partial, short-lived rewards of particular outcomes is an unaccountable feeling which allows us to appreciate the sheer fact of being alive.
Perhaps the living pulse that runs through the network of connections which makes up our life on Earth, and which allows us to fathom a greater, unifying wholeness, is gratitude.