When I was 6 years-old, my great-uncle Fritz died and I wanted to go to his funeral, not because I was especially fond of him, I barely knew him, but because I’d never seen a dead person, except in the movies. My brother Glenn, the veteran of several funerals, had told me that sometimes dead people came back to life, sat up in their caskets, and chased people around the funeral home. He told me you had to drive a stake through their hearts to finish them off. Being 6 years old and innocent in the ways of the world, I believed him, and begged my parents to let me go to Fritz’s funeral. The two times I’d seen Fritz alive, he’d been sitting in his recliner watching television, and barely moving. The notion of my great-uncle Fritz chasing people around the funeral home intrigued me. I had to see that. But my mother said funerals were no place for 6-year-olds, which made me think my brother was telling the truth. But now that I’ve officiated at several hundred funerals and have never seen anyone rise out of their casket and chase people around the funeral home, I’m starting to think maybe my brother was lying to me.
I remember a funeral I officiated at a number of years ago. A well-known woman in our town died and she had arranged for me to officiate at her funeral. I remember thinking it was going to be packed because everyone knew her. She’d spent her entire life in Danville, worked in Danville, owned a business in Danville, and I thought the funeral home would be packed.
I got there early, and sat and waited for people to arrive, but when it was time to start the funeral, only ten people were there, and that’s when it occurred to me that there was a big difference between being well-known and well-loved.
We’ve been talking about depression and the habits we might cultivate to lessen not only the probability of depression, but to also lessen its effects on us. We started by recognizing that the first step to overcoming depression is to see your doctor in order to treat the biological causes of depression. Most depression is not behavioral, but biological, in nature. Having said that, we readily acknowledge there are behaviors and habits we can embrace to lessen the effects of depression. To that end, we’ve talked about the importance of seeking medical assistance, and then beyond that, the importance of facing reality, of cultivating the habits of optimism and hope, and today I want to add to our list the importance of friendships and their role in our well-being.
Last year, I was speaking with a young man I knew to be struggling. I asked him if he was happy, and he said no. When I asked what it would take to make him happy, he said he wanted to be rich and famous. He’s not alone. A recent YouGov poll revealed that half of Americans want to be famous and a majority of them are willing to sacrifice relationships in order to be famous. If given the chance, many of us would prefer to be well-known than well-loved.
But statistically, we are literally more likely to win a million dollars playing the lottery than we are likely to become famous, which means if our goal in life is to be famous, we will end up disappointed and depressed.
We stake our happiness on the most improbable things.
When I was a high school senior, I asked a classmate on a date. She was a varsity cheerleader and the homecoming queen. I was 5’11,” weighed 110 pounds, and was president of the Spanish Club. In other words, a real catch.
My dad said, “Ask her out. You never know unless you ask.”
So I asked her out, only to be shot down. It was like watching a news reel from WWII when the American Hellcats were shooting down Japanese Zeros. I went nose-first right into the ocean.
Oh, I was depressed. But three years later I shot up to 119 pounds and met Joan.
Each of us, at one time or another in our lives, has made our happiness contingent on improbable circumstances, be it fame, wealth, or romance. This has kept us from realizing a very real source of happiness available to all of us—our friendships. Listen to this: More than half of all Americans say that no one knows them well. Forty-four percent of high-school students report persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.
We are experiencing a crisis of connection, when more and more people find themselves isolated, friendless, and disconnected from others. One cause of our isolation is our dependence upon technology to provide connection and entertainment. Our friends are on Facebook, and we watch television shows about relationships rather than experience relationships ourselves. Isn’t it telling that one of the most popular television shows of the past 20 years was called Friends, when half the people watching it didn’t even have a friend? I asked a man this week if he liked his neighbors and he said he didn’t even know his neighbors. He knew the names of every player on the 2016 Chicago Cubs roster but didn’t know the names of his neighbors.
Too often, we approach friendships the way we approach romance. We act as if relationships depend upon magic, upon some mystical spark, upon lightning to strike, which either happens to us or doesn’t. Consequently, we view relationships as something that happens to us rather than something we deliberately cultivate. When the homecoming queen wouldn’t date me, I moped around the house for a week or so, whining to my mother about how I’d never find anyone, until she knocked me on the head. Literally. I was shocked. She’d never done that before. She said, “That’s not how life works. If you want to find someone, you have to ask someone.”
Friendships and relationships aren’t magic. They are the consequences of our determination to be connected to others.
Does it always work? No, sometimes we get shot down. Sometimes friendships and relationships we thought would last forever come to painful ends.
I was at a gathering of religious folks not long ago, people of different faiths, and we were discussing the books sacred to our faith.
Someone commented about the Bible and said that since I was a Quaker, that was no doubt the book central to my faith.
I told them I was more of a Winnie the Pooh man.
A.A. Milne wrote his own sort of gospel, which I appreciate more and more as I age.
There’s a beautiful scene in Milne’s book, The House at Pooh Corner, when Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.
“Pooh!” he whispered.
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
That is as wonderful a definition of friendship as I know, someone we can be sure of. We don’t ever stop needing that in our lives. No amount of money, no amount of power, no amount of fame, even matters without having someone we can be sure of. When that works out, our lives are infinitely and immeasurably more lovely.