More About My Friend

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Human beings are mysterious. Over the past hundred years or so we’ve learned more about hidden motivations than most knew before, and there seems to be a general agreement on what constitues evil behavior, though there’s a lot of argument about the details. I think there’s less agreement about what makes a person good. There doesn’t seem to be a checklist of unequivocally good qualities, perhaps because on the level we usually live most things are ambiguous, depending on context as to whether they’re good or not. One’s greatest strength can also be one’s worst weakness.
I think about this as I review what I know of my recently departed friend’s life. He didn’t accomplish a lot of the things most people associate with being a good person. He was never rich or famous, his two marriages didn’t last, he never had children or a successful career. He had artistic talent, but I don’t think he developed it as much as he could have. Of course in his later years illness prevented much of that kind of work.
Not fulfilling his potential in these ways might be considered tragic, or even a punishable offence. I’m not sure it was either.
What was it that made so many people care about him? Essentially, that he was a nice person, and I don’t know how much more deeply I can analyze what that meant in his case. I compare him, though, with the man who ran for decades the farm owned by the Quaker school many of us attended. I don’t remember him ever saying anything profound, but I had no doubt he was among the best of the faculty and staff there, someone I always felt comfortable with, though I never spent a lot of time with him. The details of his life were much different from my friend’s. He accomplished a lot of the things my friend didn’t, but I think they had at least one thing in common: you could find few people who would ever say anything bad about either.
So why did people care about him? The question reminds me of Paulo Coelho’s The Witch of Portobello, in which the main character tells her lover, “I don’t know why I love you, and I don’t care.”
The other quote I’m reminded of is from Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, when he was asked about his friend and bandmate, Ron McKernan, who had died young. The interviewer wanted to know what was special about McKernan.
Garcia replied, “What makes your friend special? He was special because he was special…”
That implies subjectivity, that friendship or attraction is a purely random thing, which somehow feels not quite right. It seems less random when a lot of other people are attracted to that person as well, but that can be pretty random too, as with music and movie stars. People feel they have a personal connection to them without ever having met them.
I think he made his world a little better as he passed through it. That impression has been confirmed by what some of his other friends have written since his death. One friend wrote that you could be yourself around him, and that she’d seen a lot of people with tensions between them at his place not being tense there. That suggests the acceptance and attention he gave were objective to some degree. He didn’t feel he had to like or dislike anyone because someone else did.
He may not have made dramatic differences in his world, but I think he made a difference in the small ways that add up. I think his greatest strength was his ability to make friends and be a friend, and I don’t know if that can be quantified. He wasn’t able to give people much in monetary terms: he only had much money once (that I know of), and that was quickly spent. So he couldn’t, and didn’t try to, buy people’s friendship. The friendships he had were freely given, and given because he was giving something back, however indefinable that may be. If he had charisma he used it in a low-key way, to draw people to him that he liked. That was his criterion, and he liked a wide variety of people.
He was hospitable. I stayed in his apartment while visiting a number of times, and I suspect a number of other people did too. His apartment was the place to go after festivities at the Quaker school many of us went to were over, but it wasn’t only for graduates of the school. He had quite a number of local friends too, and the circles overlapped.
It’s as if he used his abilities in friendship to create a place in the ecosystem for himself. He didn’t do it for money, but for a different kind of nutrition. He needed people, and people needed him too. I don’t think it was desperate, rather, as someone said, the place and the person where and to whom you could talk about anything. People need that. He gave space for people to get it in part because he needed it too.
His friends will miss him. Now we have one less place to go where we know we’ll be welcome. I’ll mourn for him for my own selfish reasons, but I’m also glad he’s not suffering anymore. That’s the part about death I always dislike: the suffering leading up to it. I prefer to see someone go quickly and easily. It took some time for him to leave, and he may have been frightened before he did, but I hope not.
One of his friends suggested that he chose to leave when no one was around, and that maybe he could already see friends on the other side. I hope that was true.

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