Friends can really queer your deal.
You think you’re all competent and able and a friend comes along and starts feeling sorry for you for whatever reason, obvious or not, and you become a six-year old looking for a big hand to hold crossing the street.
Sympathy and understanding from friends, the kind that puddles around coffee cups at Starbucks and makes for extra slow walks on the beach, makes people weaker not stronger. My resilience doesn’t grow with frequent watering from a sympathetic friend, it just gets dry and brittle.
Same goes with indulging fear. If my friend legitimizes my fear and makes it a central topic of discussion, my fear is normalized. It’s something that we now share while we both hang back from trying things that are risky and scary. There’s nothing more satisfying or more dead-end than having a friend who is on board with accentuating your fear, sympathizing, discussing, making it funny, making it permanent so you can both sit on a small, narrow bench being spectators.
Today I watched my 8-year old granddaughter and her friend at the playground. Her friend made every moving part go faster, leaped in the air to grab a ring three feet away, slid to the end and jumped off; she kicked off her shoes and ran full speed to jump on a merry go round, running against direction as fast as she could and then jumping off into the wood chips. She is, I thought to myself, utterly fearless to the point of actual reckless abandon. She was wild, near to feral, shoeless, long hair flying, legs swinging while she cross the monkey bars hand over hand. No worries, no fears, no hesitation, no recognition that maybe she ought to be more cautious, maybe she would be wise to be scared.
And, of course, her glee and fearlessness were contagious. She made me want to roll down a big hill, swing a vine over a river and fall in, climb the chestnut tree and drop nuts on passers-by. But I stayed sitting, watching, while my granddaughter did a one-handed slide and pumped harder on the merry go round. She’s making her stronger, I thought to myself. Her friend is making her stronger and more courageous. She’s making her forget herself, forget that she was supposed to be scared, forget that she was probably too little to do what she was doing. How luscious that was.
Right away, I jetted ahead to the thought that the same friend could power drive her way through all kinds of dangers, taking my granddaughter along as her sidekick. The playgrounds get more complicated when kids get older, I know that. The risks are more complex and life-changing that a one-arm hang on the slider.
In my mind, though, physical courage and personal confidence are intertwined. Trusting one’s body to do what it’s told and having a strong mind are suits hung in the same closet. I think, as women, we don’t understand that as well as men and it’s too bad.
I’m glad my granddaughter has this friend, a girl whose fearlessness rubs off on other people, including adults who are watching. I’m glad we weren’t at the park with a friend afraid of everything, hanging by one or two hands, jumping on to a moving object, and getting dirty. I’m glad my granddaughter isn’t standing to the side with a friend who whispers to her, giving her messages that make her knees weaker, patting over her fears and making them so layered they’ll never be overcome.
I want to say this to my granddaughters (both of them, one here today and one across the country): Find the friends who help you be brave.
Doing that would serve us all well.