James’s life has been difficult, to say the least. In and out of foster care, he entered the prison system at a young age. Now in his forties, he has kidney failure and lives at the hospital nursing home – a subpar facility that somehow makes prison seem charming. As a consequence, he’s developed a life motto, of which he repeats often: I just go with the program.
Going with the program for him means taking life as it comes, including the lack of autonomy and personal choice that accompanies various forms of incarceration.
But for James, to go with the program means to live a guarded life, one that lacks meaningful relationships of all types. As if to protect himself from the cruel institutions he inhabits, he’s eschewed friendships and instead says he only has associates. He’s able to get necessary benefits from these associates – benefits that enable his survival in whatever program he’s in. I’ve come to learn the difference: associates are the people who surround us. To have a friend is to allow oneself to be vulnerable life to trust another. This vulnerability is exactly what James has tried to avoid.
Making friends is the opposite of going with the program. In James’s understanding, an associate is more akin to someone who fulfils a function. To have an associate is to have someone in your life who is obligated to do something for you. It’s like a contract-based relationship.
But by making friends, we choose who to share our time, our desires, and our deep life struggles. An article from The Atlantic suggests that paradoxically, as we journey through adulthood, we experience a tension between our own autonomy and these very friends. For example, it is often our closest friend who encourages us to move far away when we are given a special career opportunity. The more we move, the more friends we make and lose.
In the last decade, I’ve lived in seven different cities. Each departure has come with a painful grief that later becomes gratitude for the friendship. To trust anew in each city means to open myself to new vulnerable relationships. This Brene Brown suggests is the only way we truly thrive as humans. But as I grow older, the moves are harder and more vulnerable – perhaps because ambiguities in life means I must courageously trust more of my life story to new friends. When it’s time to say goodbye, I’m forced to make new friends in a new place. But I’m also forced to admit to the friends I’m leaving that while our friendship won’t necessarily end, it will necessarily change.
I look at my watch. It’s time to finally say goodbye to James, knowing that I most likely will not see ever him again. I finally get the courage to say I must leave for the last time, and that I will miss him.
James looks at me intently. His eyes communicate simultaneous surprise and disappointment that this is our last conversation. He slowly forms words and says to me, “Well certainly I will miss you, too. But I just go with the program.”
Did he just go with the program in accepting conversation with me three years ago? He certainly could have said no, like some others have. But for whatever reason, his yes to my invitation blurred his own understanding of simply going along with the program with associates. It’s true – I wasn’t vulnerable with him in the way I am with the other people I’m saying goodbye to in New York. I guess I wasn’t a friend to him, but I think I was something more than an associate. In our interactions, he’s had the courage to be vulnerable about his deep life insecurities, his past mistakes, and his fears for the future.
Saying goodbye to James reveals my own blurred notion of friends and associates. Whether I’d like to admit it or not, we both entered the relationship like associates. Perhaps because he let himself trust me, he blurred that clear-cut line he established so that he could simply survive the programs he’s been in. And for me, he’s not the definition of friend – if by that I mean someone who I share intimate details about my life with and trust my moments of deep vulnerability. Yet, in the space we carved out together each week, we both took a risk and shared something about ourselves.
It is obvious to miss best friends when it’s time to say goodbye but we don’t expect to miss associates. In meeting with James these last three years, I’ve learned to suspend my own categories and let myself form a relationship that isn’t quite associate or friendship.That’s what makes goodbye vulnerabile in a unique way. Whereas I expect to see a good friend again, I won’t see him. This is it. We must simply treasure the time we had together. I can only hope I’ve left an imprint on his heart that way he has on mine. And perhaps he’s reflecting on our relationship in ways similar to me.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user woodleywonderworks.