“At the sight of misfortune you take fright…”
American humorist Arnold H. Glasow once said, “A true friend never gets in your way unless you happen to be going down.” This begs the sensitive question of how to get in the way when your friend is on the way down. For our purposes, going down can be interpreted in two ways: 1) the friend in question spirals downward morally or emotionally and needs to get back on track, 2) the friend is suffering from loss, confusion or both and seeks answers and companionship.
Some people shy away from others in need, even close friends. They may tell themselves it is none of their business or act as if help would be offensive. This may be true, but it may not. It may be an excuse masked in fear. We don’t like seeing other people’s vulnerabilities. “It’s too hard for me.” Really? Seeing friends who are depressed or under the shadow of addiction or marital crisis reminds us often of our own weaknesses and anxieties. But friendship is cyclical, and friends do cycle out of relationships when they feel betrayed or neglected at times of need. Maimonides speaks at length of the importance of rebuking a friend who has lost his or her way but privately and tenderly so that the friend understands your interest is out of love and commitment. You care. You are invested.
The second circumstance can be more nuanced and difficult: being a friend to someone who is suffering not because of his or her own doing but out of tragic circumstances. We want to be present but don’t always know how to be present. Does the person want to be left alone or is loneliness threatening and painful? Does the person want to talk about the problem or avoid it altogether? Is a friend looking for conversation or distraction? It is hard to get it right, especially when there is no right.
Both situations qualify for inclusion in Job’s category of misfortune above. Job had a life that went from sweet to sour in a matter of days. He had a wife and three friends, but each of those relationships proved more alienating than comforting. The Talmud advises us not to be like the friends of Job, helping us understand what not to do when friends needs us. What did they do wrong?
When Job lost his children tragically and sat in mourning with scabs and wounds, the biblical text sings the friends’ praises: “When Job’s three friends heard all about these calamities that had befallen him, each came from his home…They met together to go and console him” (2:11). The three friends could not recognize Job, such was his devastation. They broke out into loud weeping, tore their robes and “sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. None spoke a word to him for they saw how very great was his suffering” (2:12-13).
The silence of the friends during the early days surfaces their kindness, as Confucius wrote, “Silence is a true friend who never betrays.”
The problem was that these friends did not stay silent. They began to speak. They began to judge. Do good people suffer? There must be a reason for tragedy. As each of them speak, Job realizes just how alone he is. His losses were not enough. His suffering was compounded by the knowledge that his wife did not understand him nor did his friends. He felt alienated from and punished by God. Whom do you turn to when there is no one to turn to?
Job finds the strength to reprimand his friends: “A friend owes loyalty to one who fails,” he tells them. He calls his friends fickle – like a wadi. A wadi is a dry riverbed. It has the shape of a riverbed but has dried out, offering the illusion of commitment but, at close inspection, there is no water. Job’s friends look like friends but, like riverbeds in the staunch heat, “they disappear where they are.” In the end he arrives at a terrible conclusion: “You are as nothing.”
We cannot be nothing for our friends in need. We need to be something. That something may be just about being present and silent. Sometimes a hug can penetrate a soul much deeper than words.