Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Friends For Life

Friends?

A few times in my life I have had to pack bags of assorted crap with unpleasant sentimental value which I cleared out of my home - and send them to charities or give them away in order to get rid of them and have peace of mind.

These days I only choose friends who don't need anything from me - people who have no reason to want me around other than for my company, people who I cannot see any ulterior motives in, other than friendship and mutual interest and even compassion. It is sad that I have to penalize new friends - and even lovers - for the conduct of the ones who went before, who unwittingly made me a much wiser person. And I must add that having a dodgy memory can be a blessing in disguise. At least the things that formed me as a person, particularly the unpleasant ones, are no longer as clear as they once were, their edges less sharp and dulled by the passage of time.

In a more complicated sense, the similarities between interpersonal dependencies called "friendships" and the relations between political parties and the electorate are not as dissimilar as you may at first think.

Politicians are often referred to as dishonest, burocratic and often called schemers. In many cases it can be justified, but also there are some historical figures who are hailed as great leaders, statesmen, humanitarians and achievers - who coincidentally, also happened to be politicians.

Political parties all claim to have the "best interests" of the electorate at heart. They all claim to know what is "best", and what to do. They all claim to be defending this or that, whichever political objective is the current flavor of the month, be it "family values" or economic survival.

Sometimes we can see what they are all about, sometimes not. Sometimes they serve the public trust, sometimes they betray it and rip the democratic heart of the nation out through the back door.

One such example would be how the Nazis rose to power in Germany in the early 1930's, via democratic means, which brought an end to the Weimar Republic and resulted in the ultimate devastation of Germany - and Europe for a second time in the span of one human lifetime. Another would be Mussolini and his Fascist Party, who rose to power back in the days before the word "fascist" held the terrifying connotations we know today. All these parties and their leaders claimed to be the common man's "friend". I think this concept casts an interesting light on the word and the concept behind it.

"Friend – noun
1. a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard.
2. a person who gives assistance; patron; supporter: friends of the Boston Symphony.
3. a person who is on good terms with another; a person who is not hostile: Who goes there? Friend or foe?
4. a member of the same nation, party, etc.
5. (initial capital letter) a member of the Religious Society of Friends; a Quaker." - Dictionary.com.

Hmm.

When I think of the word "friend" and what the concept means to me, I would have to agree with points 1 and 3 above. Certainly the other points demonstrate less personal definitions and aspects of the word, indicating to me that being "friends" doesn't necessarily mean the same thing to everyone. Clearly this can be demonstrated by the simple example of "friends" and "friends with benefits". What started me thinking on this matter was that the other evening, my girlfriend raised an interesting hypothetical question: How do I know if somebody is my friend or not?

Speaking as one who has some small experience in this matter, I would have to say: Because they don't stab you in the back - especially when they have the opportunity, or have something to gain by it - and don't.

For all intent and purposes, this means that most of the people I have called "friends" in my life - weren't. Not that this in itself makes me cynical - just careful.

My definitions of a friend are somewhat soppy and sentimental, from the days when I still used to naively believe in true friends and "best friends", from the days before I got a bit burned and not just around the edges - but right through the centre as well. These days I very rarely allow anyone to get close enough to me emotionally to actually cause me any harm anymore. Thus I still have friends - but no longer believe in "best friends".

So then, how do I see a friend?

Allow me to describe the concept in term of how I see the ideal: A friend is somebody who gives you more of themselves than they take away from you - one who is worthy of your tears but who will not cause you to cry - a person who will walk miles with you, and even carry you when you cannot walk, and who will not leave you when you can't go on.

I can continue by referring to my own experience and saying what a friend is NOT:

For one thing, a friend won't lie to you.

For another, a friend won't break a promise, least of all a "best friend" - and especially not one so vital as "I will never abandon you".

A friend won't lie by denying he or she has issues with your coming out as transsexual/gay, despite the obvious vanishing act which accompanies it.

A friend won't promise you to keep your coming out as transsexual to him a secret, and then go directly to sympathize with your wife for your impending divorce.

A friend won't try to get fresh with your wife, or ask her out on dates - and especially not if you are a pre-op transsexual still in the unpleasant process of getting a divorce and are still living together.

A friend won't take advantage of your vulnerabilities, especially not when you have pulled strings to get him transferred into your department to save his job - and then when you have come out as transsexual at work, try to get you fired and make you even more uncomfortable by making insensitive jokes in company.

A friend won't accept you to your face and then disappear from your life except to phone once every few weeks to satisfy his conscience before vanishing from your life altogether.

A friend won't accept you to your face and then make nasty jokes about you behind your back - or even to your face.

A friend won't take advantage of your willingness to help by accepting free advice and assistance such as hormones, doctors appointments and surgery and then throw you away when you are no longer of any use to them.

A friend won't lead you on, knowing you have romantic feelings for him or her, and go on accepting expensive gifts and love just because there is nobody better that tickles their fancy.

A friend won't leave you and put you through hell and then come back to ask forgiveness, make more promises to not do it again - only to break that promise six months later.

I suppose it would be sarcastic of me to conclude this list with the observation that a friend won't promise you to be "friends for life" - and then try to kill you, unless of course he or she has the "very best of intentions". Hmm. Cold comfort.

I think this last point has notable and far-reaching implications in terms of modern politics, particularly in terms of homophobic parties who claim to be defending "traditional family values", "morality" or "religious freedom" and even "democracy" - while on the flip side they campaign to re-criminalize homosexuality and follow it up with advocating that the death penalty be imposed by a Christian state for the "crime" of homosexuality.

What I can't understand about the present undercurrent in African politics is this move to unify Africa as a political and economic entity in the African Union - or as Gadhafi calls it, "the United States Of Africa". Doesn't the South African public KNOW? Are Opposition parties not taking this seriously as a threat? After all, nobody has asked us what we think about it or to vote on it. It seems the government and the ruling party - "friend" to all South Africans, supposedly, has just assumed it is what everybody wants, to be part and parcel of this conglomerate - where states are being cajoled into changing their internal laws to suit each other so that they can find it suitable to engage in trade. They certainly seem intent on immersing SA further and further into the troubled waters called SADC and the AU - and through them, this pipe-dream called "the United States of Africa". As most states on the continent have strict and inhuman anti-gay laws in place, with more joining them each year - I wonder which way this will swing if SA were to join this body?

Friends for life?

I suppose the cynic would say: "That depends on how long you live".

"So you got burned by a friend" Many will say, before adding: "That's life"

That's life? Is it really?

Sometimes friendships evolve into romantic relationships. Sometimes friends turn into bitter enemies. Sometimes this takes a single pivotal event, sometimes a gradual build-up - sometimes a jealousy, or a betrayal. sometimes it results from a loss of interest, sometimes a conflict of interests.

When I was a child, I used to think I would live to reach 100. While by modern standards of life expectancy this is quite possible, today at 36 I realize that even now I feel I have a lot less energy than I did at 8 - and if this is any indication, I wonder how I will feel should I actually reach 100? Perhaps at this point the old saying "the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" comes into focus? Perhaps I should add the word "vulnerable" to this saying?

Regardless, it is ironic - very, very ironic, and I know I tend to use this word a lot - that the only thing that separates "friend" from "fiend" - is a single letter.

In reality, nothing is forever. Pets die. People die. Even things as long-lived as stars die. In the end, everything dies, why not friendships? The truth is, when common interests fade, when focuses shift, when priorities change - friendships fail. Sometimes we are shattered, sometimes we don't even notice. What makes it even more sad is that sometimes we don't even care. What makes this tragic is when we become so hardened and scarred and bitter that we stop feeling altogether - and stop trying.

What would be even more tragic is if people stopped paying attention to what our friends in political parties are doing in our name as the electorate, and which will affect us - and our friends. The truth is, friends are important - not just in the wishy-washy sense of "best friends" - but in the sense that many people only choose to be friends with people they are comfortable with - and conversely, only care about people they consider friends, and are not concerned about the rest.

""First they came ..." is a popular poem attributed to Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) (although the precise origin of the poem is not known) about the inactivity of German intellectuals following the Nazi rise to power and the purging of their chosen targets, group after group." You can see the original version on Wikipedia at the link above, but I have changed it here to better suit our current South African political climate and to illustrate my point:

First they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for the evolutionists, and I did not speak out - because I was not an evolutionist;
Then they came for the atheists, and I did not speak out - because I was not an atheist;
Then they came for the prostitutes, and I did not speak out—because I was not a prostitute;
Then they came for the homosexuals, and I did not speak out—because I was not a homosexual;
Then they came for the transgender, and I did not speak out—because I was not transgender;
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Could it be that "friends for life" might not only mean being friends for the duration, but something to strive towards in order to assure the continuation of life?

After all, "that's life" - and we are all in it together.

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