Friday, September 01, 2006

Price of Friendship

Friendships come in many forms. Some people are proud of their large collection of friends, most of whom fall in the category of acquaintances, at least in my view. Some others have only a few people they'd call friends, but they tend to be lifelong and close ones. People in today's 'me-first' society tend to be rather selfish and choose to be friends with someone only if there is something to gain from the relationship. Most of us would rather talk than listen and observing 'friends' interact one often notices a lot of monologues, politely done in a sequence, but little else. I complain or brag first, then it is your turn. When something happens in life where the other person could use a real friend, it is all too easy to disappear and remove this individual from the list as he/she has outlived his/her usefulness and might become a burden or a liability instead. People going through a divorce or a major illness soon find out that most of their supposedly best pals are nowhere to be seen. A head of a non-profit organization might invite potential wealthy, usually elderly, people into their homes and lives, making these folks feel like like they are special. Of course, it is easy to fall into this trap, but this form of friendship comes with a steep price tag as hefty sums of money in the form of donations are expected in return. Perhaps the 'victims' realize they are being used but usually denial steps in and the cruel truth remains hidden.

Talking about buying friendships, there was an excellent Op-Ed in yesterday's New York Times, titled "The High Price of Friendship". Although the facts told in it are nothing new, it is a good refresher course about this country's 'coalition friends' and the enormous amounts of money we pay countries so that they'd officially be 'on our side' and send often minuscule number of soldiers to Iraq or Afghanistan. Little Estonia and Albania receive millions for their participation and have become our trusted friends and allies, even though the public opinion, in at least Estonia, is not as pro-invasion as we'd like to pretend. The article is worth reading; its questioning of the wisdom of paying for a coalition of friends that are there for the money alone. It is sad if America can only find sympathy and understanding by buying it, and a sign of what the rest of the world thinks of our values. Clearly the fact that a year after Katrina people's lives and the city of New Orleans itself are still in shambles is hard to understand. How can a country that can't take care of its own back yard tout itself as a model for other nations? Last week the Christian Science Monitor published an article, "Numbers show a second-rate US" , in which statistics from a Washington think tank, the Economic Policy Institute, show that the United States is near or at the bottom of industrialized countries in poverty, both among adults and children. My native Finland, on the contrary, has the lowest percentage of people living below poverty level, of any country. Perhaps that explains why it is difficult for me to appreciate the value system here. While freedom of speech is wonderful (unless someone influential doesn't like what you have to say and sends the police to your house), one should also have the freedom of education and guaranteed health care. And why is it that the country that parades itself as an example of freedom has locked up more people in prison than any other place, except for North Korea and perhaps China? We are also evidently very pro-life, yet we put to death more people than countries that are really low on our list of human rights.

Back to friendships: although many dear people to me have passed away, I still have others who have remained close since my childhood and youth. There is very little they can benefit from our relationship, other than knowledge that after all this time it feels good to care and love. They certainly wouldn't act like a longtime 'friend' of my wife's who accidentally bumped into her in a record store, turned white as a sheet and ran out like a dog with its tail between the legs, without uttering a word. There are people, and then there are people. One of my favorite shows, 'Curb Your Enthusiasm', has an episode where Larry David finally agrees to donate his kidney to Richard Lewis. The recipient is so grateful to his friend that he offers to do or give anything in return. Larry sees a golf club, a putter he likes, and asks to borrow it. Of course the friendship doesn't stretch that far and Richard refuses the request. In the show the once doomed friend feels great after his transplant and goes vacationing with pretty girls; the donor in turn gets very sick, dies but is returned back to the living. The series is outrageous but portrays people with their usually shallow relationships and chit-chat talk more truthfully than any other show, to the point that it is often painful to watch. If you haven't seen it, rent a season's worth or catch it on HBO: chances are you'll become a fan. Warning: it doesn't have a laugh track, so one needs to decide what is funny and what isn't.