Comes another autumn and nature’s reminder that life is most authentically itself because of its impermanence. The cycle is indisputably natural, and yet much of it is tinged with irony, especially here in northern climes. Trees lose their covering just when they seem to need it most, the loons take their plaintive songwhich would have been so in tune with the season of loss and longingand fly, the overabundant tomatoes we’ve hardly kept pace with in their September ripening die with the frost, at the same moment we regret having given away so many. Death is life’s opposite and enemy, but also its most defining moment. It is the cessation of life and a metaphor for the implacable threat to the fragile beauty of what we hold most dear.
Friendship is the instinctive and defiant alliance we form against death. When that bond dies, then, the loss is at once cosmic and profoundly personal. Over the course of the past decade I’ve been losing my best friend. I have been watching him die a slow death, and he has taken part of me with him. Physically he is as fit as he was when we first met 23 years ago on a fall afternoon, tossing a football on the Washington Mall and nursing beers late into the night, trading stories of Jesuit high school, sharing our faith and doubt, and sculpting our vision of the perfect woman we hoped to marry someday. What I have seen fade in him is not his idealism but an emotional and psychological hold on reality. At every step along the way, despite being separated for most of the time by continents and oceans, we have stood together and stayed inside each other’s mind and heart, supporting and listening and telling the hard truths that no one else could know or would utter. Then came the day when the very honesty that cemented our uncommon bond drove a wedge between us.
When it turned out that the choices he was makingspecifically, staying in a physically and emotionally damaging relationshipwere harmful to him, I said so. Ever since that day 10 years ago, our friendship has been a frustrating dance of truth-telling and recognition and resolution and denial; it has become a threadbare string of incomplete conversations around the relationship I think is destroying him. The honesty that had always been the hallmark of our unconditional love for each other became a thorn in his side, another burden he had to bear in a life that had spun out of control.
While I was relentless in my assessment of his situation, he wavered between resolve to save himself from further harm and resignation to make the best of it. Faced with a Hobson’s choice between no relationship at all and a deeply painful one, in which I either broached the unresolved subject uppermost in both our minds or else assiduously avoided it, I did not abandon him. Or maybe I did. Years of walking the line between honesty and compassion, between nurturing our intimate bond and confronting an excruciating inability to see my friend through a crisis, left me dispirited and depleted. While his insight into the reality he lived may have been clouded, he never lost his keen insight into my character and feelings, so he knew at every point exactly what I would be thinking and how difficult it was for me. Finally, at some point last summer my sadness became overwhelming, and I walked away.
Knowing that friendship without honesty is unworthy of the name assuages all too little my feeling of having lost a friendship when I could have kept it. If the past is any guide, soldiering on would have been a painful and confounding roller coaster. Arguably such is the test of a friendship, to be solid and steady ground when the other has lost his moorings. Tough love wore me down, though, and I became incapable of trudging along any farther under the crushing sorrow and disappointment his choices brought me. On some levelperhaps on every levelI sacrificed friendship for principle. There was a time when the concept of being true to myself seemed pellucid and obvious and meant everything, when being true to my friend and true to principle were identical. Not any more.
The choices we make, however inelegantly executed, demonstrate our demons as much as our values. A loss of innocence and a death, a lost friendship is a rite of passage. But to what? However measured and inescapable the decision may be, turning away from a friend is a choice fraught with guilt and self-doubt. Unless one sets out to be either friendless or without principle, being unable to reconcile the unambiguous exigencies of principle with the untidy realities of friendship is a failure, no matter how manifestly inevitable it may seem. And while keeping a friendship in spite of one’s principles may be a poor friendship indeed, there may come a moment when standing alone with one’s principles makes one wonder if the price is too high. For, right or wrong, when we turn away from a soul mate in dire straits, we forsake part of ourselves and are thus torn apart.
While certain that speaking and hearing hard truths is divisive but necessary, nevertheless as I survey the ruins of a once noble and beautiful temple, I ruminate: Am I the friend I think I am?
Of this journey is to let the wind
Blow its dust all over your body,
To let it go on blowing, to step lightly, lightly
All the way through your ruins
James Wright, The Journey