Reflections on Friendship
David and Faye Wetherow
Reflections on Friendship
What steps can we take to invite and support real friendships for our sons and
daughters who live with disabilities? We sometimes 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 may
of reach, and we worry about the possibility of a life-long pattern of
separateness. What can we do?
To begin, I’m 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 doesn’t 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 we’re arriving and departing, waiting for
the first notes to sound from the organ, coffee after the service. But if you
are shy or don’t 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’
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
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
Children need to be present with other
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’ isn’t 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.
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 together 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 good 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 Jake’s 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 Judith’s ‘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
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 Committee’s pattern for
Supportive Care in the Congregation, the Personal Support Networks described in
Al Etmanski’s book, A Good Life,
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’.
It’s far more complex. A couple of years ago, Faye began speaking about
something she calls ‘the
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
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
We carry dreams for each other and encourage each
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)
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 Perske’s 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. They’re 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
Because mutuality might be harder to see
at the outset (it’s 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
Key Circle Questions).
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, we’re 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 don’t 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.
© 2003 David and Faye Wetherow ! CommunityWorks
This article was first published on the
Apraxia-Kids website, and
is reproduced here with their kind permission.