Deep down I can be a real asshole. This is no revelation to some of you, I’m sure.
I remember an event when I was nineteen years old. To put some context: nineteen years old, I was living at my parents place. I never graduated with my high school class because I did not yet grasp the importance of discipline. Naturally there was a rift between myself and some of my friends, who at this time had begun “doing things” with their lives, though I’m not sure if memory makes this rift larger than it truly was. I didn’t graduate because I did not put the effort into my school work and this was perhaps tantamount to saying that my friends were not worth the trouble it would take to stand by their side at graduation. To drink with them and be merry was not good enough of a reward for the work of high school, I seemed to say. I failed courses and stayed away. At that age I wanted nothing more than to be happy.
I was not.
I had a best friend at the time who was part of my class. She and I spoke on the phone hundreds of times. I remember there was a period when we talked almost every night. We chatted about a lot of things. To respect her privacy I will change her name to Betty. Betty Teach, we’ll call her.
The event was this: one night I was at home. It was late. Betty Teach stopped by out of the blue and knocked on my door. I greeted her and from the look of her countenance I immediately knew something was wrong. She was upset. I wasn’t sure about what. She wanted to go for a walk, so we did. We walked and talked, but for once it was I who listened.
Betty told me that she didn’t think we were really friends. She told me how whenever we spoke on the phone, the conversation always tended toward my favour and I hogged the discussion. Often, I just complained to her about my problems over and over again. She was my proverbial punching bag. At the time, I understood where she was coming from, but I do remember arguing to her that we were friends, but five years have passed and the things I said or did not say have escaped me. What I do remember is her saying that essentially I was selfish and that our relationship was mostly one sided.
She was right.
Of course when you’re nineteen years old, even being demonstrated in a polite way that you are indeed selfish, it cannot escape one’s brain that woe is upon them. Poor me, I thought. This whole time I thought I had a great friendship! It really wasn’t great, at least not totally, for both of us. I guess I can’t do good at friendship!
Notice how self-centered all of those thoughts were.
Now, maybe 5 years doesn’t give one a great birds-eye view of the past, but it at least gives one the perspective of being on a small adjacent hill. I cannot say that I have learned all that I will learn from this event, but I can say that I’ve learned something very important. If it wasn’t for Betty Teach’s courage to confront me about how selfish I was being, I may never have learned this important lesson. I may have gone on thinking that it was okay to continually take in a relationship, rarely to give.
Fast forward to a few months ago. I’m in the process of making a new friend, let’s call her Isabella-Bo-Bella. She’s a writer finishing a Bachelor’s degree in English and I’m a guy with a website. We get along, laugh a lot, and like any friend should—I offer to read anything she’s ever written. I offer to give her critical feedback, if she likes, though I don’t know whether or not I will be of any use. A few weeks pass and she approaches me with a thick stack of paper. “If you wouldn’t mind,” she says. I say that I wouldn’t mind at all.
The work that I look over for her is actually the portfolio she intends to submit for application to a Master’s program that has to do with writing. The judges who look over such portfolios are made up of very accomplished Canadian authors. I treat what is asked of me as an immense honour and I give it all my attention. Her work is very good. Like all unfinished work (it was not her final draft) of course there are a few quibbles to be had, but I make my few suggestions and fix what little grammar issues I notice. My input is not very large on the whole. She has a great body of work as is.
I return to her the stack and we chat about it. She takes notes on the things I have to say. She’s a note taker. We talk and she thanks me for taking a look at it. I feel great.
Fast forward again to last night. My wife and child are away on a trip with family and I’m feeling kind of down. I love my wife and child, if you couldn’t tell from some of the articles I’ve written on this website. When they are gone I feel down sometimes. It’s just how it is. Every screaming baby I hear makes me miss holding my own screaming baby. I think about the cultural distaste we have for screaming babies on airplanes and it makes me sad. Maybe there is someone listening to a screaming baby on an airplane and thinking of their own child for whom whatever reason they cannot see. The thought almost brings tears to my eyes.
But I digress…
Last night I receive a text and later I’m on the phone with Isabella-Bo-Bella and feeling incredibly full of joy. Isabella-Bo-Bella has gotten into the program. A program that great numbers of creative writers try to get into, that accomplished Canadian authors evaluate. She is thrilled and I’m wishing her a sincere congratulations.
The joy I feel is indescribable—and I didn’t even do anything! One chunk of time is all I gave and in all likelihood, my suggestions to her work had no impact on whether or not she got into the program. As I said, she is very talented. But I still gave her that time, whether it was useful or not. I took her desire to get into the program and put my support into action.
And this feeling of joy, Dear Reader… It lasts until the morning. I feel like I have been a better friend to Isabella-Bo-Bella than I ever was to Betty, and the difference is only the degree in which I have given. For that I regret how I ever treated Betty, it’s true. But I thank her for the lesson she taught me those years ago.
Winston Churchill spoke great words to an Academy one time. His speech to the graduates was shorter than a few minutes and it ended with him saying, “Never, never, never, never give up.”
Those were great words, but these days I mentally end them with this:
“Always, always, always, always give.”