Be courteous to all, but intimate with few, and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence.
– George Washington
I have a lot of people that I know well enough to sit down and have a meaningful conversation with. There are literally hundreds of people that I am socially connected to on more than a familiar level. I know their wives and husbands, their kids, where they work, what they do, hobbies, likes, dislikes, and probably several stories from their life that either they’ve told me or I’ve actually walked through with them. In my life they are my friends. But their is another tier of friendship.
In comparison to the above list of hundreds, the other tier of friendship is limited to six or seven people. In all of the world, of the near 7 billion humans on this planet there are about a half dozen that I would say exist on this more intense level of friendship.
With most people I will adopt either a cordial persona, regardless of what’s going on in my life, or I will default to humorous cynicism, making a characature of life by focusing on all that is wrong with it for laughs. Both of these presentations tend to be fun-loving in their own way, and this is the side of me that literally 99% of the world sees on a daily basis. But then there are those six or seven other people. And it is with them that I am apt to storm in on them, slam a door behind me, and lay open my mouth, mind, and heart with next-to-no filter or concern for social grace. This is a different kind of friendship; it’s a tough, resilient, and aggressive relationship that is based on covenant not convenience.
They have to be tough in two ways. First they have to be able to handle the authenticity of who I am. They get to see the sanitized version in social settings, so they know how that looks. It must be easy to get lulled into thinking that this persona is who I am, until the pressure has built to the point of release.
Second, they have to be able to look me in the eyes and tell me when I am whining, being foolish, or just dead wrong. This kind of toughness is difficult for all of us when we actually care about someone. Even if we know for certain that the correction is for their benefit it is still difficult because it always comes with the sting of discipline. They are a rare breed who can look at me and, without a trace of malice, say, “you are an absolute idiot right now, this is not okay.”
Six or seven people. I don’t think all of them even know who they are. Relationships develop that way. I don’t think we get to look at a stranger and say, “they are the one that one day will sit by my side at my family’s funerals, and will punch me in the soul to revive my deadness, and will catch the tears of angst that fall out of my uncorked eyes – all of this while they are dealing with their own pains, problems, and hardships.
I am grateful for these people. I am thankful that they are in this life with me. God made sure that they weren’t born 200 years ago because He knew I would walk the edge of sanity from time to time, and I would need them to pull me back.
I offer today this story that I heard a couple of weeks ago. The story is about a middle school kid in New Jersey who had a tough life. He’d been dealt a losing hand by those who had brought him into the world and he was trying to make sense of it. The story is not just about him, but it’s about a classroom full of his peers who ended up stepping into his story and being the kind of tough friends that I’ve been talking about.
Which brings me to this next story of a student who was doing badly in a middle school in Newark, New Jersey.
He was a mess. He would come in. His uniform would be dirty. He hadn’t showered. He hadn’t had breakfast. His book bag most likely had a hole in it, and all of his pens and pencils had fallen out. His homework wasn’t done. And so of course, he’d come in and he’d be angry.
And usually some would say something little to him like, “Your shirt’s not tucked in.”…because they do that. They just kind of pick at each other. And it would set him off. And then he would just be very loud, and just be like, “Oh, why do you always have to say this to me?” And slam his stuff down, “I hate this place.” And he’d just go into these very general rants. And usually that’s an indicator to us, when they use those very general statements, that they’re not processing through their emotions, that they’re feeling overwhelmed.
So this kid was in an unfortunate spiral. He felt isolated from the other kids just inherently, because his home situation was so bad. And then would get angry with the other kids, which then made them mad and made him more isolated. Then he got worse and worse, threw some stuff across a room, and it hit a teacher.
And there were points where he would come in, and he would refuse to do anything all day long. And he’d cry. He would break down and cry in the middle of class. He didn’t even know why.
And then finally one day in history class during group work, he was trash talking. And one of the best girls in the class, one of Ms. Grande’s best students, ended up in an argument with him saying terrible things. And Ms. Grande felt like, really? You too?
I pulled the girl, and she was like, “Well, he brings it on. He gets angry, and then what am I supposed to say?” I was like, well you could not say that…he’s dirty and he smells. And she’s like, “Well he does.” And I said, “I think this is a bigger conversation.”
So Ms. Grande took this girl and the three other girls who had been doing group work with this boy, and she took those girls into the teacher’s room. And all four of these girls were academically strong, and all of them had shown good leadership qualities in the school in the past. And she talked to them.
I had explained to them that he struggles just to get here every day. I was like, “You wake up in the morning, and you’ve got somebody that’s getting you out of the door, giving you breakfast, making sure your clothes are clean, making sure you get here on time. He doesn’t have that. He has nobody doing that for him.” And at that time, I knew that the power had been off at his house, that the week before, the water was shut off, that they had had part of their roof cave in.
He has an elderly grandmother that he tries to take care of, and she had been getting up in the middle of the night and wandering. And he would hear her and get up and carry her back upstairs.
What was their reaction?
Empathy. She’s like, “I didn’t know that.”
And it really was just a couple minutes before the kids told Ms. Grande, “We can take it from here.” And she left them to talk. Afterwards, the boy told Ms. Grande that it felt good. It felt good that these girls knew that he was trying to deal with his anger. And since this conversation, over time, the entire class has entered this discussion with this kid. And when this kid has an outburst, they will all talk openly about his anger.
The other day, this kid got a detention for missing part of his uniform. And he started on a rant in class about how they’re all against him, and all the time they’re on his back, and everybody’s against him. And it was the end of the world. And Ms. Grande finally asked him, “Who’s they? Who’s everybody?” And he started smiling. And she asked him what is he really upset about? And unlike in the past, he could untangle it. He could tell her.
– This American Life, Episode 449
Who have you given hunting license to in your life? Who are the people that will tell you the brutal truth about yourself, but not just tell you, who will tell you through tears? Who are those people that you will open yourself to, to be read unedited?
Those are your friends. They exist on a tier above the rest of the world. And to those of you who walk in that fashion with me every day, I say thank you. By God’s grace we walk together.
In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.
– Albert Schweitzer