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On Disposable Friends

“I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.
— Deuteronomy

At some point between the fall of the towers and Christmas of 2001, it became clear to me that I needed to conduct a searching inventory of my soul and rebuild, almost from the ground up, my sense of who I was and how I thought about the world and the life I was leading. At the time, I knew only that I had been mistaken about a great many things for a very long time and I was long overdue for an extreme makeover of the self.

To do that I used the only set of skills I was ever any good at, writing and reading, and began — in fits and starts at first but then with more dedication — changing into someone different from the person I had been for many years. This is nothing either unusual or dramatic. The reinvention of the self is something deeply American and mordantly dependable. Still, it seemed to me at the time, and it still seems to me today, that I have no choice but to begin and continue with my slapdash renovation until such time that it seems to me to be finished.

All of this is a worn out way of saying that it has become my discipline over the past few years to try and write my way to a new kind of liberty I still only vaguely see. This again is neither unusual nor dramatic. Many others do it. Many more use other tools to accomplish a similar goal; career-change, relocation, materialism, spiritualism, conversion, drugs, alcohol, rehabilitation, Jesus. As Americans, our options for reinvention are numerous with more being minted daily.

We are a restless people in America, a yondering race that seldom finds the here and now good for more than a few years in any one place — in our hearts or on the land. We meet and we part, promising to see each other ‘down the road a piece’, and often we do, but much more often we do not. Christmas card lists grow shorter until we get to the last name and then many go ahead and cross Christ off.

And as we move across the land and through our lives, so we move within our hearts and souls, in our persuasions and in our politics. In so doing, we often come to the belief that people we once thought of as significant are, indeed, disposable in the pursuit of our own personal satisfaction and goals.

Disposable people are just another product of our disposable culture. And the stark truth of this matter is that disposable people are the case much more often than it is not.

We like to say that there is one special person on the earth for each of us, but the truth is that there are probably 10,000 special people on earth for each one of us. It’s not romantic to say so, but with more than five billion people on the planet, the odds loom large against such romanticism. Instead, we come to the realization that there are lots of people hanging about that will do and, in the words of Molly Bloom, “Well, as well you as another.”

But what is desirable to the individual can become disastrous to society. It is a commonplace in our disposable culture to contend that a divorce between two people is a solution to the recurring problem of incompatibility. And this is true. The problem is that when millions upon millions avail themselves of this personal solution, it becomes a disaster to the society. It becomes normality. Divorce, especially the risibly named “no-fault divorce” underscores the disposability of people and demonstrates it to all, old and young. Thus the whole cycle begins anew, growing ever larger than before until it displaces a society built on faith and trust with one founded on little more than a tweet or a share, the thin gruel of iThings, and the desire to be admired through possessions rather than works and deeds. Our souls become smaller than our smartphones data plans and hard drives. We have only so much room in them and to bring others in, some must be disposed of.

Once this disposability is realized inside the self, it is only a small step to the kind of culture that compulsively and without reflection puts material things above people as the real goals in life. After all, you will have lots of people in your life, but only one life — so you’d best grab what you can on the material plane while you can. “You take what you need and you leave the rest.”

One of the crucial questions of our blighted age is whether or not we are correct in regarding human life as something which is, under the proper conditions and self-ascribed definitions, something that really is “disposable” whenever it becomes inconvenient? And in our answer to this, we drop into the “No Fault” bucket not only automobile accidents but divorce, abortion, and euthanasia. This is how we pretend to live now, but it is just life made the slave of death.

I quit being a Democrat at some point in the months right after September 11. Since that time I’ve lost old and, I thought, true friends who have assumed, wrongly and in spite of my objections, that I had become a Republican. Trapped or self-banished into a bipolar political mind, these screenshadow friends assume and demand that all others around them share their binary, black and white realm as they argue for the grey zones they learned about in their youth. Should you appear suddenly as “not one of us” you have become the other; dismissable lest you trouble their sleep, disposable lest you clutter their lives. In a click, unfriended.

I have no wish to “become a Republican,” nor do I have the slightest idea of how to be one. But it seems to be the default assumption of many that the measure of a man and the worth of a friendship has become entirely based on how one did or did not vote in November of 2016. It is amazing to me that such a simplistic reduction can be made. And yet it is and thus are millions of friendships that might have enlarged lives rendered, like so many other things, disposable.

As Gary Snyder wrote, “Aristotle’s in the crapper. They’re up to the part on ethics now.”

I am aware that friendship is a fragile accord between two people, subject to an instant’s revision, review and revocation. We all know that and accept it. I also know that, in life, we outgrow many people and they outgrow us; often those we have thought of as our best friends. Our least disposable relationship is to our children, our family second, lovers third, and friends — frankly– a distant fourth. Yet who would say life is worthwhile without them?

It has always seemed strange to me that there are people who, having lived in and battened on our republic, and who spend a great deal of time averring that they have no prejudice and are for fair-mindedness, equity and equality, now determine their personal lives and relationships around the thin measure of party affiliation.   It has been demonstrated to me recently and it will, I have no doubt, be demonstrated again in the future, as friends come and go during this newly turbulent era.

There is a fire in the minds of men now as there was at the beginning of the 20th century. Then as now, it leads to the pit. Like some surreal and slow-burning civil war the flames in this continuing conflagration pit brother against brother and friend against friend. And so they go, as the other things of life that were once good and have now turned bad, away along a path of life that you no longer can share.

In the last decade and a half some friends stormed out of my life in a rage and others just, well, dumped me like a teenager dumps last week’s flame. Others still have simply faded away. I am not innocent of this. I’ve done it as well. Some of them I miss, but others I do not. I’m sure those once and faded friends feel the same way. But why?

I think it is because these last few years, for those of us who think seriously about being alive in the world, have served up serious issues that require serious conclusions, and that to refuse to face these issues, even if they cost you friends, is a betrayal of life.

I’ve learned, if I’ve learned anything, that the casual catchphrase “Well, it’s not worth losing a friend over” has very real limits. And those limits do not involve whether or not one is a Democrat or a Republican, but whether or not one is ready to choose good over evil and life over death. In the end, it’s not political, it’s personal.

An old aphorism states, “Life is a series of lessons. Each lesson will be repeated until you learn it. At that point you will be given a new lesson.” There’s humor in that both dark and deep. I’ve had my share of lessons that are very hard to learn, lessons that I find I have failed at again and again. There have been lessons I learned wrongly, lives and people I have let go too lightly, and lives and people I have hung onto too long. I’ve been complicit in ending lives at the beginning and at the very end. Was I right to do so? I believed I was at the time I was called upon to make these decisions. Would I agree to these decisions now? I believe I would not.

One of the lessons I have learned bitterly tells me that I cannot know what I would do. These are decisions that cannot be made as hypotheticals and it is foolish to believe otherwise. The essential lessons of life are neither theoretical, nor legalistic, nor abstract. They are things that can only be decided in the world dimensional.

That said, I would also like to say this: Having chosen death too many times in the past, I like to think that I would always, in the end, now choose life. And that no matter how my friends would choose, we would all, at least, understand, and be able again to become and remain friends.

You will hardly know who I am, or what I mean;
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged;
Missing me one place, search another;
I stop somewhere, waiting for you.

— “Song of Myself” By Walt Whitman (1855)

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Joe Krill January 27, 2019, 12:05 PM

    Sometimes it is only when we hit an emotional rock bottom that we realize that we have a lot of confessing to do. Rebuilding on rock bottom is so much better than rebuilding on sand. You wrote, An old aphorism states, “Life is a series of lessons. Each lesson will be repeated until you learn it. At that point you will be given a new lesson.” Vanderleun, Thank you.

  • BillH January 27, 2019, 1:12 PM

    I don’t think I could do that. I’ve had several big jolts in life, some of which were life threatening, and it never occurred to me to change the way I lived or thought, and I haven’t as far as I can tell. And, I’m not particularly proud of the way I’ve lived and thought.

  • Mizz E January 27, 2019, 3:06 PM

    I read this essay on friendship many years ago and have referred to it oftentimes. ->
    “We are all essentially alone, and sometimes the people whom you love can make it through, and sometimes they can’t get to you no matter how much they try. And it is also true that friends, even the very best, have a cut-off point, a point at which they have to beg off to protect themselves–even if it means that they save themselves at the expense of you.
    I wish I could claim that all the people whom I’ve loved have always loved me back, or that my needs and those of the people closest to me have always dovetailed perfectly. But friendship doesn’t work that way, and people’s needs aren’t always the same, so it is only fair to say that I have often wished for something no one had to give, and in that I know I’m not alone.
    Some people feel angry when they think of moments when they’ve had to stand alone, and question the value they once put upon friends who weren’t there when they needed them. But I think the thing to remember is this–you don’t get from friends what you give to them, you get what they have to give, and that is the thing you must not forget. People can only give you what they have to give.
    It is difficult to remember this when you know just what you need and none of your friends have it to give, and especially difficult when you have given it to them in the past. But you will save yourself a lot of grief if you keep in mind that you don’t have you for a friend, however much you might wish you did. You have that person out there instead.
    Perhaps you will take chicken soup to a friend who is sick, and they will forget your birthday just the same. Or maybe you will have them to your parties and they will give none to which you might be asked. But maybe they will hand you a piece of truth one day, in a sentence tossed off with a sidelong glance, and if it’s something you couldn’t have found within yourself, you will have been repaid in full.
    It helps to bear in mind, if somebody is particularly sensitive and understands everything you feel, you might have to hold their hand a lot when the world does them in. And if you know a take-charge person whom you can surrender your life to when it gets too much for you, you are likely to find yourself having trouble wrenching it back again after they are through.”
    – Canadian author, Merle Shain (1935-1989).

  • Leslie January 27, 2019, 3:36 PM

    Thanks, Mizz E and Vanderluen. We are essentially alone. Holding others lightly, even our children- makes the comings and goings less painful. People give only what they are able, no matter what they want to do. No amount of wishing, hoping or praying will change that. The day that is understood, is the day we become free to just love.

  • MIKE GUENTHER January 27, 2019, 4:19 PM

    Very nice essays from both Mr. Vanderluen and Mizz E.

    In my limited experience, I think that everyone will have in their lifetime, one or two real friends. I mean the kind of person who will tell you when you’re full of crap and won’t get upset when you return the favor. The kind of person who will move Heaven and Earth to help out if needed or asked.

    I was fortunate enough to have had two such friends in my life. Unfortunately, both of my true friends have gone to their final reward. All the rest are transitory friendships.

    My wife has one friend like that, even though they are polar opposites politically. Theirs is a fifty year friendship.

  • Sam L. January 27, 2019, 5:20 PM

    ” It is amazing to me that such a simplistic reduction can be made.” It’s what Dems/progs/libs DO, Gerard. Anyone who is not wholly and totally with them in all aspects now AND IN THE FUTURE, is UNCLEAN. And must be shunned.

  • AbigailAdams January 27, 2019, 6:37 PM

    So, Gerard, are we in the keep or discard pile?

    🙂

  • ghostsniper January 27, 2019, 6:37 PM

    Having few friends is a good place to start. The more “other people” you have the less “you” you have.
    Friends are expensive, in time, and it’s an expense that cannot be paid back. So I keep my circle small, and tight, and infrequent. My best friend is my wife (married 35 years in 2 weeks!), but she don’t count. My otherwise best friend for the past 8 years is the neighbor 2 doors down and I haven’t seen him since right before christmas. We send emails every few days and plan to meet up at some, as yet, undefined time to discuss the amazing home I am designing him and his family. When we do get together the first 1/2 hour will be like a conversation in an old noir movie, both of us talking over each other. After a couple hours we will part til who knows when.

    That allows me time for the most important person I know. Me. If not me, who? This is the only life I’ll ever know so why shouldn’t I live it to the hilt, the best way I know? Scattering a little bit of me here and there and everywhere is not the real me. The real me takes time. So do you. But almost nobody is willing to invest in themselves.

    I get bored very quickly. Most people are boring. Depending on the situation I am in boredom can overcome me in as little as 30 seconds. I gotta get out. I try to avoid people and situations that cause that. I know my limitations and try to not get to the end of the wire.

    As far as the dem-rep thing goes. It doesn’t exist out here in meatspace. My 8 year friend and I have never once mentioned politics. And only lightly have we touched upon topics that could easily be drawn into the political sphere. I am not a registered voter and never will be. There are things within each party that align with my thinking but neither will ever capture me entirely, and I am strongly averse to the whole notion of another person holding judgement in how I live my life. I reject the very premise, and I also reject the majority rule nonsense. I will never rule over another human being and require the same from others. Simple.

    When you take a relationship into the dead end venue of politics you have doomed the relationship. Why? Because no 2 people are the same, no matter how similar. You only have to scratch slightly below the surface to find that out. If, in a conversation with an associate anything politics occurs I quickly de-escalate the situation with a joke then I change the subject, then I terminate the meeting and lets flames die down. Why take a person that is 99% friend and 1% politic and turn them into 100% enemy? I’ve been a business man standing on my own 2 feet in all ways since 1986 and I have not earned 1 cent off of an enemy but I have earned a lot during my career off of people that are not my enemies. I would rather live in a world full of potential friends than potential enemies and being involved in politics or religion is a sure way to insure the latter. As my ol’ gray haired mammy told me many years ago, “Son, never discuss politics or religion with others for in each, everyone thinks they are an expert, and between you and me, none of them are.”

  • walt January 27, 2019, 7:15 PM

    Once was lost, but now found: I spy Mizz E dropping by. I hope all has been well.

  • Mizz E January 28, 2019, 5:22 AM

    Howdy Farmer Mc! All’s well. Blessings, Besos y Abrazos.

  • ghostsniper January 28, 2019, 6:49 AM

    “…you will have been repaid in full.”

    If you view friendships with ocular glands perched upon balance scales you will be disappointed.
    Every time.
    It’s not about the getting, or the needing, or the receiving.
    It’s only about giving.
    It’s about giving your best for a friend you are thankful for.
    Again, if you only have a few, this is easy.
    It is at the root, after all, of what friendship is all about, as opposed to associations.
    Don’t confuse the two.
    In the (imaginary) words of a famous person:
    “Ask not what a friend can do for you, ask what you can do for a friend.”

  • rabbit tobacco January 28, 2019, 7:55 AM

    We know better than we do. Emerson

  • JiminAlaska January 28, 2019, 12:02 PM

    The problem with reading the thoughts of young whippersnappers like Gerard; makes me contemplate my own life’s changes, mistakes, progressions, etc. Remembering friendships made & lost, moves from one edge of the continent to the other, biting my nose off to spite my face, again and again, over and over.

    However the thing about these musings always leads me to right now, whenever right now is.

    The thing is I’m quite satisfied with now, when I think about it, and everything preceding led to now and, if I could change my past, now wouldn’t be.

    So! Actually, no problem reading the thoughts of young whippersnappers like Gerard, makes me appreciate all the then’s that led to now. Thanks Vanderleun!

  • RigelDog January 28, 2019, 3:44 PM

    Thoughtful essay and oh-so-timely for me. For several weeks I have been caught in a dilemma of what to do with a “friendship” that has been poisoned by several pointed political darts aimed at me by the “friend.” I feel these jabs (I never initiate or reciprocate the same against her) have destroyed all trust in the idea of us being friends, but wonder if I’m over-reacting. If she actually valued me, would she want to bring up a sore subject and then howl with outrage when I don’t agree with her take on these issues? At the same time, she’s dealing with a terrible and painful physical problem so I’m pretty sure God doesn’t want me to call her out—I don’t want to add even one crumb of unpleasantness to her pile of problems. It’s just absolutely insane that the mere mention of Trump’s name (and he is NOT my cuppa, although I did vote for him) makes her emotional circuits overload. How did we all get to this place?? I can’t imagine rejecting a friendship because the person loves Hillary or hates Trump, but I am not accorded the same basic respect. I don’t know how to fold that into the idea of a “friend.”

  • ghostsniper January 29, 2019, 4:43 AM

    “How did we all get to this place??”

    We? No. They.
    If they choose to be insane over lies, let them.
    Continue to be your sane self.
    Just walk away from the misfits of society, allow them to wallow in their irrelevancy.
    Let them burn the bridges, and forever pay the price.

  • David January 29, 2019, 8:37 AM

    Funny reading this today, as I was just thinking about what a “disposable” person I have become to some other people, some people that I thought I knew well, that I THOUGHT I had some kind of relationship with.
    And truthfully, you only have a very few good friends in your life. The best friend I ever had died a couple of years ago, and there likely won’t be another like him coming along. We had a big falling out 10 years ago over something that was actually quite stupid, but it upset him so much, it kind of ended the friendship. There were times we could have reconciled, but it just didn’t happen, and then….he died.
    Friendship is not exactly “love”, but then again, sometimes a really good friendship is. Love is neither boastful or proud, it is humble and forgiving. We forget that, and the whole idea of being disposable as a person is a symptom of the times we live in, the cruel impersonal nature of the “information age”, where all that counts for more than being a good human being.

    Try to be the best human being you can. It is a struggle for me every day. I am so flawed and troubled by things that I have done and said, and I carry the baggage of my life around that reminds me of all my mistakes. We all have to learn to forgive ourselves and leave that baggage behind, before we can find a really good friend and our selves be a friend to another human being, out there somewhere in all the social rubble of the now time.

  • Vanderleun January 29, 2019, 8:47 AM

    Amen.

  • Curtis January 29, 2019, 9:59 AM

    A very thought provoking piece of work.
    Thank you.

  • Jaynie January 30, 2019, 6:32 AM

    Emotionally touching piece. Thanks, GVDL. Myself, find it challenging to make friends, my rather poor social skills, as well as my taste in people, narrow things down a lot. Still, like a dog with a bone, still think often of a few of the people who walked out of my circle. Almost as if I require an explanation, politics would be weird. And too facile.

    RigelDog, hard decision. Can you and she not simply decide that politics is topic verboten? There is a great big area outside of politics. Once, back when BHO was re-elected, I had to quash politics as a topic with lefty friends. And . . . topic still off the table.

    So good of you to empathize with her pain and not want to add to it. And that after getting sort of hit by her harsh opinions. Noble. It is tough.

    Great advice, David.

    Not a fan of this chill divide in our society and I think it is from the left, but that could just be my perspective.

  • Arie Korving January 30, 2019, 4:02 PM

    Incredibly well stated.

  • Howard Nelson January 30, 2019, 6:27 PM

    Try the Jordan Peterson, Jesse Lee Peterson, Ben Shapiro, Milton Erickson approach:
    “I want to understand your opinion. I respect your honesty. What specifically has formed your opinion? I want to agree with you and share your opinion and have any questions and misunderstandings corrected. If you care enough about me and believe in yourself, will you help me change for the better?”

  • Montefrío January 31, 2019, 9:31 AM

    @RigelDog

    Went through a very similar experience with a friend of 45 years, wife of my closest friend and godmother of my eldest. She was (passed away in June) always a mild abrasive , but in the final phase of cancer, became abusive on the subject of Trump and left vs. right (I’m the rightie). I ignored it, knowing she was medicated, etc. The last email, barely legible, was sent hours before she died. Her husband said she was annoyed I couldn’t get to her funeral. All was well. I was thankful I ignored the provocations and her husband, daughter, my ex and I all drank a toast to her two months ago in our first reunion in many years. The best memories remain.

  • AesopFan February 5, 2019, 7:55 PM

    “I was thankful I ignored the provocations and her husband, daughter, my ex and I all drank a toast to her two months ago in our first reunion in many years. The best memories remain.”

    So wise.