Reflections on Friendship
What steps can we take to invite and support real friendships for our sons and daughters who live with disabilities? We seem to see other children moving along in a sea of friendship, and we see our children struggling with isolation. The natural ebb and flow of play, enjoyment and affection seems out of reach, and we worry about the prospect of a life-long pattern of separateness. What can we do?
To begin, Im not sure that I know anything about making friends. The older I get, the more I think that we discover each other. Then if we’re lucky, pay attention, stay faithful, and don’t mess up, we have a friend for life.
We hope that our children who live with disabilities will receive the blessings of friendship. As we seek that blessing, it may be useful to examine how the ordinary patterns of discovery and friendship work, and see if we can follow those patterns, but perhaps in a way that is more focused and intentional.
How did our most important friendships come into being? Where were we when we discovered each other? Among the dozens, hundreds, even thousands of people we’ve met in our lifetimes, how is it that some of us are still friends after all these years?
At the simplest level, we were there in the same place at the same time. If I’m not there if I’ve been sent away for special [you fill in the blanks] friendship doesnt have much of a chance.
Now I was there at a Janis Joplin concert at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco in 1967 with about a thousand other people. We were close-packed. It was, after all, the Summer of Love. We were young, feeling groovy, and we loved the same music. But nobody from that concert is in my life today. In fact, nobody from that concert was in my life the next morning. We can spend a lifetime going from one activity to another and still be alone the next day (and for the rest of our lives), or we can try another tack.
If we think about it, we see that one basic condition for the development of friendship (love-at-first-sight being a wonderful possible exception) is that we keep going back to the same place over time.
But just going back may not be enough. Twenty years after that night at the Fillmore, I was attending a large church in Winnipeg. The church was packed for four services every Sunday. But one could go back for a month (or a year) of Sundays and still not find friendship, because the ordinary pattern of the service didn’t really lend itself to making connections. You had to make connections around the edges of the service.
The edges are always there: times when were arriving and departing, waiting for the first notes to sound from the organ, coffee after the service. But if you are shy or dont know how to make time in those brief moments, you still might miss the boat.
In 1993, a fellow named Fred conducted a little survey inside this big congregation. Fred made an interesting discovery: there were seventy-six small associations within the church, each focused on something different. Coffee might be just a brief moment for the people who made their way downstairs after the service, but the people who made the coffee were pretty solidly connected to each other. They were a bit political, so we drank fair trade coffee (http://www.globalexchange.org/campaigns/fairtrade/coffee/).
As the coffee-makers gathered every Sunday, they talked. They got to know each other well. They appreciated each others contributions, gifts and interests: Mary makes wonderful lemon cookies. Frank just found a new connection for fair trade tea. Mark and Jess discovered that they both love sailing.
While we were making coffee (or doing any of the things that focused the other seventy-five small associations), we had a chance to discover each other. We shared time, space, conversation, and most importantly, we shared a common interest. This is even more powerful when the interest is passionate. When we share a passionate interest, we begin to feel that we share an identity.
In our community, the people who were working to save the Englishman River Estuary came from all walks of life. They represented a wide range of ages, incomes and backgrounds, but they all shared a passion for this beautiful place. As they worked together on something they felt passionate about, many of them discovered new friendships across those ‘natural’ boundaries.
Passionate interests don’t have to be big deals, but it helps if they’re about more than ‘consuming’ something. Making music brings people closer together than listening to music. Listening to music (especially if we keep going back and the place is small enough) brings people closer than merely buying (or these days, downloading) music.
So what does this have to do with our children?
Understanding where and how adult friendships flourish tells us that there are some things we can do to make friendship more likely for a child with disabilities:
- Children need to be present with other children.
- Children need to be in a place that allows time for them to connect.
- It helps to have a bridge-builder on the scene. The school playground allows time for children to connect, but in the absence of conscious bridge-building, an isolated child can remain isolated for a very long time.
- Introductions help. We have the power to introduce children in ways that define them as alike or as other. Shared interests and gifts make children alike. Defining children by their disabilities makes them other, so it helps to focus on shared interests and gifts and let disability fade into the background.
- One of the important ways in which children might be alike is that they share a passionate interest. It also helps when we have the time to identify, mobilize and celebrate gifts and contributions. Community exposure isnt enough.
- Even when a child is present, there are places that are more or less conducive to connection. Places that are primarily based on consumption or competition are not particularly fruitful (see 14,000 Islands, Navigating the Boundary with Community, at http://www.communityworks.info/articles/14000.htm).
- Competition can quickly define us as other, so it makes sense to look for places where cooperation is the hallmark.
Robert Fulghum, (Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten) suggested a civilized reengineering of the game of (Musical Chairs). In this version, the object is not to exclude people, but to find ways to include them, even when there are no chairs left. People do remarkable and often quite pleasant things to find room on their laps for one another. He has seen groups find seats for everyone even when there are no chairs left they support one another in the air, like a suspension bridge. He once watched the entire student body of a college make room for one another in their human latticework.
Following Natural Opportunities for Connection
If we think back and remember where we met our best friends, we see that many of those friendships emerged in the context of doing something interesting together over time. We went to school together. We worked in the same company. We were members of the Naturalists Society. We sang in a summer stock production of Annie Get Your Gun.
We may begin with one shared interest and discover others. The last time we were in Tennessee I said to Jake, who is becoming a real friend, You know that if we lived in the same town, we’d be getting into trouble together. What I mean is that I’d be connecting with more of the elements of Jakes life (he’s a BMW motorcycle rider), and he with mine (I’m a sometimes-sailor).
Repeating the connection makes a difference. When Peter moved out to BC, I introduced him to my old friend, John. As I look back, I remember that I kept creating occasions for the three of us to get together, and we’ve done so for years. Peter and John are good friends now, and their friendship has a life that is independent of me.
The depth and quality of the introduction makes a big difference. We don’t just introduce our friend to another person, we share our enjoyment; we give a good account; we announce the ways in which we think they might connect.
Numbers have something to do with this: Most of us have met thousands of people in our lives, but only a handful of them have become good friends. We need to create many opportunities for connection.
Once we discover each other, we still need to pay attention, deepen the invitation, and be good to each other. Friendship is a gift, but once we open the gift, we need to be on purpose if friendship is to endure.
The highest form of friendship is something that might be called a covenant relationship (my friend Don talks about the fact that good friends make unreasonable commitments to each other). When we marry, when a child is born or when we adopt a child, we make a promise. And we see that there is often an unspoken promise at the heart of a deep friendship. Wendell Berry reminds us in Standing by Words:
As the traditional marriage ceremony insists, not everything we stay to find out will make us happy. The faith, rather, is that by staying, and only by staying we will learn something of the truth, that the truth is good to know, and that it is always both different and larger than we thought. We must accept the duration and effort, even the struggle, of formal commitment. We must come prepared to stay.
As we make the journey with our children and our friends who live with disabilities, we seek that promise, and we hope to find it extending beyond the boundaries of the family.
The Circle of Friends
Almost two decades ago our friend Judith Snow described what seemed to be a new form of a promised relationship the Circle of Friends. Judith tells us that hers was not the first circle. She says that people have been building circles for thousands of years. But Judiths Joshua Committee the group of committed friends who helped her get out of a nursing home and begin a new life, and who have been with her for twenty years may have been one of the first where overcoming the challenges associated with disability played such an important role.
Judith says, I think that what I have isn’t a disability. If I have anything, it is an invitation. She says that what we call a disability is a powerful invitation to be more intimate, more cooperative, more inventive, and to make new kinds of promises.
Judith’s Circle (you can find books about this at http://www.inclusion.com) has become a model for the development of circles all over the world. There are others: Mennonite Central Committees pattern for Supportive Care in the Congregation, the Personal Support Networks described in Al Etmanskis book, A Good Life (http://www.agoodlife.org), and the Canadian First Nations tradition of caregiving societies. Each of these examples reminds us about a couple of important things:
First, there are times when we need to be more consciously on purpose about expressing the invitation times when the quick-acting rules of attraction or the recognition of shared identity is slowed down by the presence of a disability.
Amber can’t talk, and when she’s excited about something her body moves in a way that is easy to interpret as distress. So we need to be on purpose about introducing her and inviting people to experience who she is underneath her disability interpreting her expressions and movements, and revealing her interests and gifts.
Second, it may take more-than-one-of-us to make and keep the promise, especially when we’re challenged by time and space and other responsibilities. One of the beautiful things about Judith’s Circle is that it includes a natural way of renewing itself. When Doris and Alan moved out of town, the people who remained in the circle were in a position to invite new partners.
The Pattern of Friendship
We know that friendship goes far beyond simple attraction and hanging out. Its far more complex. A couple of years ago, Faye began speaking about something she calls the Family Pattern (http://www.communityworks.info/familypattern.htm). Originally we intended this to describe what a family (ideally) offers to each of its members and especially to its children. But the Family Pattern could also be a picture of what good friends can offer each other, and what circles of friends might offer to our sons and daughters who live with disabilities.
- We sense (or promise) that our relationship will endure, that we’ll be there through thick and thin, mistakes and misunderstandings, even times when we’re unattractive, disagreeable, or out of sorts..
- We recognize, mobilize and celebrate each others’ gifts. We look for places where our friend’s gifts might blossom and we build bridges to those places.
- We see the essential beauty in each other, and we celebrate that.
- We carry dreams for each other and encourage each others’ dreams.
- We share our time, our worldly goods, and our ‘standing’ in the community. We share the things that delight us (I lose a lot of books that way).
- We connect each other with trusted (trustworthy) people.
- We’re watchful we look out for each other’s well being and best interests.
- Sometimes we offer direction. Our First Nations friends in British Columbia have four different words for the idea of ‘encouragement’, and one of those words means pointing out when someone is on a path that might be harmful.
Ordinary Ways and Tender Work
In Bob Perskes words, I have the will to believe that all of the qualities, experiences, and blessings of friendship can be available to our children and our friends with disabilities. But because we are working to overcome the distance associated with disability and the fact that the ordinary rules of attraction may not be immediately in play, we know that we will have to be on purpose about this. The good news is that all of the ways are the known ways of friendship, family and community. Theyre not disability-specific or special, but they are more intentional.
- Because the ordinary balance of time and energy may be stretched by the presence of disability, we may have to think in terms of inviting and supporting an intentional circle of companionship. But the ways of doing this are familiar literally of the family.
- Because mutuality might be harder to see at the outset (its likely to start out as a mystery), we will need to be more conscious and self-reflective. Once again, the ways of doing this are nothing special (see Key Circle Questions, at http://www.communityworks.info/articles/circle.htm).
- Because it is tender work, we need to move in a way that allows people to feel safe, loved, loving and very gently engaged. Friendship is a discovery, not a requirement, and it helps to remember the value of small beginnings. At the outset, were not asking for a lifetime commitment: Murray, you know that Amber is interested in peace-making. Could you come for coffee and help us think about how she might get connected with the Monday night group?
The good news is that to find friendship, we dont need a program. All of this is within the reach of families and friends. As Wendell Berry reminds us in Home Economics:
We hear again the voices out of our cultural tradition telling us that to have community people don’t need a ‘community center’ or ‘recreational facilities’ or any of the rest of the paraphernalia of ‘community improvement’ that is always for sale. Instead, they need to love each other, trust each other, and help each other. That is hard. All of us know that no community is going to do these things easily or perfectly, and yet we know there is more hope in that difficulty and imperfection than in all the neat instructions for getting big and getting rich that have come out of the universities and agribusiness corporations in the past fifty years.
(David and Faye Wetherow live in British Columbia, Canada, and share their lives with an adopted daughter. They conduct planning and training sessions for individuals and families, government and community agencies, schools, parent associations and self-advocacy groups throughout the United States and Canada. They can be contacted through CommunityWorks at http://www.communityworks.info.)