The Mean Old Man and the Single Chair

The following story was inspired by a true story about a mean old man and his single chair.  My friend Don Johnson told me this story and I have put more details into it.  Nevertheless, I must thank Don for the basic outline and for the great way he told the story which as I said inspired me to write this tale.  I hope you will enjoy it.

Old man scowls, leans forward and shakes his cane

When I was a young boy my parents, two sisters and I lived in a mobile home or trailer as some would call them.  Though, we never trailer-ed it anyplace.  Villagers said we lived in a trailer park and kids at school would laugh and joke about us being “trailer trash.”  I got in lots of fights with other kids over these insults.

Every day, my sisters and I would walk to the pickup site for the school bus.  Back in those days, kids could still go to school without a chaperone.  We even went out trick or treating by ourselves and kept any food or candy that we collected.  The one house we did not go to for tricks or treats belonged to a mean old man.  My parents and the older kids in the trailer park warned us to stay away from his house.  They all said that he was very nasty and hated everyone.

Each day after coming back from school, school let out at about 3:15 PM, the school bus would drop us off and my sisters and a few of my friends would walk home.  We would go by the old man’s house.  He would inevitably be sitting on a makeshift porch in front of his trailer in an old rocking chair.  We would stroll by his home and occasionally wave but he would never wave back.  As we went by, he would fix a relentlessly hostile gaze on us which could put fear in anyone’s heart.  We imagined he was mad at the world and that certainly included us.  Inevitably, we picked up our pace and tried to hurry by his place as fast as we could.

istock_000006097067large

A few years passed and the mean old man simply seemed to grow meaner.  One day after the bus dropped us off, a few of my friends and I were walking home.  As we were passing the old man’s home, he was sitting in his usual place and just staring at us.  My friends started laughing at and taunting him with various insults.  “Hey grandpa, what’s it like being so mean?”  “Hey old man, can you help us find our cat?”  I told them to stop it as he had never bothered anyone.  They turned their taunts on me and said “If you like him so much, why don’t you go talk to him.  We dare you to go talk to him.  They cried out at me: “Chicken!  Chicken!  Chicken!”

I tried to ignore their jibes, but finally, I had had enough.  “I am not afraid. I will go talk to him.”  I started to walk down the path to where the old man was sitting.  My heart began beating faster and faster.  I wondered what I was going to say.  Nothing occurred to me.  The old man was staring at me intently.  I could hear my friends laughing and hooting behind me.

As I reached the old man, he looked very angry.  “Ok”, he said, “What do you want.”  I said the first thing that came into my mind: “Well, I was just wondering why you don’t have another chair so someone can sit and talk with you?”  “None of your business”, he answered, “Now why don’t you just run off and go back with your friends.”  I could not think of another thing to say.  As I turned to leave, I said “Goodbye, have a nice day.”  The old man mumbled something which I thought might be “same to you” but I could not be sure.

Saturday and Sunday passed quickly and Monday we were back in school.  After school adjourned, I decided that I did not want to be go home with my usual friends so I took the “late” bus from school.  I got off at the bus stop and started home.  As I passed the mean old man’s house, he was sitting in his chair.  Much to my surprise, he had a single chair sitting right next to him.  Somewhat emboldened by this turn of events, I walked up the path to his house and stood in front of him again.  He looked at me and asked me “What do you want.”  I said “Well, I notice that you have a single chair free, would you mind if I sat and talked to you for a while.”  “OK” was all he said.

black man in a rocking chair

I sat down and started to tell him about all the things that I was doing in school.  I told him about my classes, my teachers and my friends.  I talked about my parents, my sisters and my grandparents.  He listened intently to all I said and never interrupted or asked any questions.  Realizing that it was getting late and that my parents would be worried, I said that I was going to go home but I would see him again tomorrow.  He simply nodded and said “Goodbye.”

My trips and visits to the mean old man’s house continued for many days.  The days stretched into weeks.  Over time, we started to talk more about his life.  I found out that his name was Bill and that he had been married but his wife had died about ten years earlier.  He had not had any children.  Bill was a veteran and we talked about his wartime service and experiences.  Bill was always more interested in what I was doing and asked me many questions about my school and life.  Bill said that he did not have any friends and no surviving relatives.

I asked Bill if he did not have any friends in our local church but he said that his wife had been the church goer.  He had occasionally gone to church with her, but after she died, his stopped going.  Bill confided in me that he had never been a social person and had always found it difficult to make friends.  Most of the friends whom he once had were his wife’s friends and after she died, they stopped coming to visit.  He was all alone now.

Weeks turned into months and it became my habit to routinely stop by Bill’s house on my way home from school.  We talked and I told him about my day and he listened and asked questions which made me think a great deal about my choices and decisions in life.  I could share things with Bill that I did not share with anyone else.

Then one day when I was coming home and passing Bill’s house, I saw that someone else was sitting in the single chair.  Not wanting to interrupt, I waved and walked on by.  The next day we resumed our discussions as usual but the following day, the chair was again occupied.  Over time, the single chair was alternately occupied by myself and many other people.

two old men on a porch

I found out that Bill had started to go to church again and he had met people from all walks of life.  Some were retired and some were not.  The people who met Bill found him to be a very interesting person. They would stop by and sit in the single chair next to Bill and talk about various and sundry things.

High school came and went.  Bill and I had many talks but just as often, he had someone else sitting in the chair when I came by.  I went off to college and saw Bill much less except when I came home to visit my parents.  Bill and I discussed writing to each other but we both agreed that we were not writers.  I finished college and found a job in another city.  My times with Bill had dwindled to a mere pittance of what they once had been.

A few more years passed by.  My parents notified me that Bill had died.  I came home to go to his funeral.  It was well attended and nearly a hundred people were there.  Many nice things were said about Bill.  Everyone talked about what a good listener he was and how he always cared more about what others were doing or thinking.  He was one of the least egocentric people you could have met.

single chair on a porch

About two weeks after the funeral, a letter arrived in my mail.  It was from my home town but I did not recognize the address.  I opened it up and inside were two pieces of stationary.  I opened the one with the typing on it.  It read, “We were going through some of Bill’s possessions and we found this note on his bedside.  We thought he meant to give it to you but never got around to mailing it.”  I opened the second piece of stationary.  It was in rough scrawl which I recognized as Bill’s handwriting.  Bill wrote the following:

Dear Tim,

You are the best friend I ever had. 

Thanks,

Bill

I still keep this note.  It is perhaps the nicest compliment I have ever received.  Whenever, I miss Bill, I pull this note out to remember him and the many talks we had.  Bill in his rocking chair and me in the single chair beside him.

Time for Questions:

My writers group said that the “Mean Old Man” was iconic and that every neighborhood had such a character.  Can you think of someone in your neighborhood like this “Mean Old Man?”  Did anyone ever try to talk to him or find out what bothered him?  What happened to him?  Why do you suppose children are often likely to befriend such people?

Life is just beginning.

“My mother says that when Mrs. Rowley is mean, which is generally the case, it is really because she is just unhappy, and who could blame her with a husband like that . . . She says this is really the only reason people are ever mean–they have something hurting inside of them, a claw of unhappiness scratching at their hearts, and it hurts them so much that sometimes they have to push it right out of their mouths to scratch someone else, just to give themselves a rest, a moment of relief.”  — Laura Moriarty

Friends and Friendship: Part 2:

I confess I ended a number of friendships this past year.  I decided to simply “let go” of people who don’t call me or who do not seem to have any interest in whether I am alive or dead.  I can’t say this task was easy.  I have misgivings about when and how I have approached the effort.  My solution has been to simply not call or contact others unless they contact me.  I have for many years felt like I was the one doing most of the work in several “friendships.”  I am not sure whether it is the “parsimony” of old age (i.e., only so much time left on this earth) or simply laziness.  Somehow though, I thought: “Well, if they want to see me, they can call me for a change.”  Maybe it simply means that I do not care about friendship enough to invest the work they need.  I even had misgivings over my “best friend.”   I began to feel that we had drifted apart over the years and no longer had the basis for a friendship.

In Friends and Friendship Part 1, I described some basic theories of friendships and went back to the ideas of Aristotle to help describe what friendship is and the types of friendship possible.  I outlined my theory on the importance of intimacy to friendship.  Here in Part 2, I want to identify ten behaviors that I think are necessary for a true friendship.  I am not sure ALL of them are necessary (You may have good friends without all ten being present) but I do think most of them are essential for a friendship.  I would like to describe each behavior and why it is important and its role in helping to create a true friendship.  I think friendships take time and effort.  In this respect, I don’t think friendships are any different than a good marriage.  You can’t take your partner for granted and ignore them day after day and expect your marriage to last.  I believe the same is true for friends.

As you read my friendship behaviors, please remember that I am not advocating that anyone take their friendships lightly or that you simply jettison friends who do not meet my criteria. I am simply saying that if you want to have good friends there are some behaviors that are necessary to create, maintain and continue a friendship.  Given the need to invest time and effort to keep good friendships, the idea of 2,000 or even 200 Facebook “Friends” is ludicrous.  If you can maintain even one good friendship in your life, I would consider you lucky.

If the time comes and you decide to take stock of your friendships, please remember one thing:  You do not have to “let go” of old friends.  You can rejuvenate or refresh your friendships by once again becoming a friend.  If your efforts are not reciprocated over time (and not necessarily fifty-fifty) you might want to reevaluate just who you should spend your time and energy with.  This might sound “cold and calculating” but if you have found a better solution please send me an email or drop a comment in the box.   I would sincerely like to keep as many friends as I can and if there is a way to do it without time and effort; I have not yet found it.

1. Disagree respectfully:

I cannot imagine a friendship where we agree on everything 100 percent of the time.  However, I also cannot imagine a friend who would insult me, disrespect me or try to make me look foolish.  I would not call that a friend.  I expect my friends to listen to my ideas and even if they do not agree, to at least try to understand where I am coming from and not deliberately try to denigrate or diminish my theories or opinions.   I have no problem with friends presenting facts or logical arguments against said opinions, but I don’t believe a friendship can be based on disrespect unless it can be done in a caring manner which is sometimes possible but usually very difficult to effect.

2. Overcome anger:

I have often noticed that real friendships seem to start “after” friends get angry with each other.  Perhaps, more than the anger signaling the start of true friendship is the process by which you are able to overcome the anger with your friend.   If we can’t confront the anger with another, it is unlikely that we will become good friends.  I remember once going to a marriage seminar and they said there were three things you needed for a good marriage:   1. A communications process.   2.  A fight-fair process.  3.  A realistic budget.   I was very intrigued by the fight-fair process. What this entails is the ability to communicate with your spouse or friend about things that make you angry or disappoint you.  It goes beyond daily communication to encompass “extra-ordinary” situations that arise when something does not go as we expect it to.  For many of us, this is a daily event.  If you can’t communicate with and overcome your anger with another person, you probably do not have a true friendship.

3. Share common interests:

Perhaps, you met your friends at Curves or work or playing bingo.  We meet people all over and I allow that ninety five percent of the people we meet are simply acquaintances.  They never become true friends because they never go beyond sharing common interests.  Nevertheless, the sharing of common interests helps create a bond that is fundamental to a good friendship.  It is indeed possible to stay good friends with someone long after the initial interests have disappeared simply on the basis of the shared history that you now have with that individual.  For instance, you might have been on a trip together or been in the service together.  These shared memories act as the cement to continue to provide a sense of common interests.   At some point however, these former interests become faded and need to be replaced by new and more salient experiences that can be shared together.  Without such interests as a foundation, I have seen many former friendships simply fade away.

4. Help each other when in need:

There is perhaps no truer saying that “A friend in need is a friend in deed.”  The power of the feelings that are manifested towards someone coming to our aid in time of need is beyond comparison to any other single aspect of friendship.  I remember a good friend of mine who once told me during my divorce: “The hell with your ex-wife, I am here for you.”  I will never forget how grateful I felt towards him for the fact that he was willing to unequivocally provide me with emotional support when I needed it.  Friends may help you in many ways, but perhaps no help goes further than the emotional support that we provide towards friends when they need it.

“There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves, it is not my nature.”
Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

5. Don’t expect your friends to be perfect:

This is a simple but profound truth:  None of us are perfect.  If you constantly find fault with others, chances are you will not have many or even any friends.  It is not always easy to accept the faults in others.  For instance, I disagree with one of my friends over some of the people whom he calls friends.  I would not have a racist or a bigot as a friend.  I am willing to overlook many warts and blemishes in my friendships but I draw the line at liking or even tolerating people who hurt or pick on others.  Perhaps I should be more charitable.  I admit, I write off many potential friendships because I will not tolerate hateful attitudes towards others.  Nevertheless, I do recognize that the more that you can handle and deal with the imperfections in others, the more friendships you will potentially have.

6. Care about each other:

This might be the single most important bond for a good friendship.  Do you really care about what happens to the other person?  Are you willing to go out of your way to take an interest in their needs and lives?   Caring can take many forms and might be attending a funeral at one of their relatives or driving your friend to the hospital or giving them a ride to the airport.  A few years ago, I remember a friend who told me that whenever any of his friends were in need, he simply showed up with helping hand, or a pie or a shoulder to cry on.  He said that he did not ask the common question “How can I help you?”  He simply went ahead and tried to help without being asked or given permission.  His initiative seemed to me more powerful than the common refrain “Let me know if I can be of help.”  I would be much more grateful towards the friend that simply showed up rather than waiting to be asked.

“It’s the friends you can call up at 4 a.m. that matter.”
Marlene Dietrich

7. Occasionally reach out to each other:

I believe it is important for friends to have some form of regular contact with each other.  I cannot understand or believe that a good friendship can endure without some form of mutual interdependence.  Whether, you come by for dinner, attend a movie together, take a trip together or simply call or even email your friends, it seems (to me anyway) that friendships need some form of regular lubrication that mutual contact provides.

I have said that Facebook friends are generally not true friendships. They do however; provide regular contact between “potential” friends and people who you truly call good friends.  The simple “like” button provides a very powerful and instant means of letting others know that you appreciate, admire or support something they are engaged in.  I have given many likes and received many likes on Facebook and I always feel closer to those individuals who take the time to “like” or note some issue that I care about.  Liking is not a very big effort but it forms that sense of mutual contact that I think is the lubricant for a good friendship.

“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. “Pooh?” he whispered.
“Yes, Piglet?”
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s hand. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

8. Apologize when you hurt the other person:

Good friends do not deliberately hurt each other.  However, hurts both physical and emotional will often be inflicted.  I cannot tell you how many times I have bumped into Karen, stepped on her toes, or unintentionally inflicted some pain on her while we were together.  Fortunately, it was nothing ever very serious.   More serious to our relationship, has been the emotional pain and hurts that I have too often inflicted on her.   Some of them were intentional, some were not.   None were ever deserved though.   At such times, I think it is critical and essential to apologize to the other person.  Whether or not it was intentional is not the point.  The point is that you have hurt the other person and if you truly care about them, you want to know how you can help alleviate the pain.

A number of years ago, I was on the Oprah Winfrey show. The subject was apologies.  The expert that Oprah had on the show said that a true apology has three parts:  1. Saying: “I am sorry.”  2.  Listening to the hurt or pain you have caused the other person.  3.  Setting things right.  Part one, saying you are sorry is often the easy part.  However, many of us expect that as soon as we say we are sorry, the other person should forgot about it and get on with their lives.  Simply issuing an apology may not help the other person move on.  The difficult part is listening to the feelings, emotions and disappointments that your actions have led to.  People may all respond differently to different insults and individuals are responsible for their own feelings.  However, we all have feelings and in a good relationship you must care about the feelings of others.  Whether or not you have caused the feeling is a moot point.  Can you listen to and empathize with the pain that is in the other person?   This is often the only way; that they will be able to move beyond the pain and truly rejoin a relationship with you.

“The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.”
Bob Marley

9. Kidding or joking with each other:

Insulting a person or demeaning a person deliberately is a far cry from kidding someone or even “roasting” another person.  The first is done with malice and hatred, the latter is done with love and admiration.  I have never been really good at humor and my efforts to be funny have often backfired.  Good friends are friends that you can joke with.  Of course, everyone has their sensitive spots and tolerances and knowing these are important to a friendship.  The deeper the friendship, the more likely you will have a greater tolerance towards each other in terms of how much you can push the boundaries of joking and ridicule.  Most of us have learned that texting, emails and online communications do not lend themselves to humor and spoofing.  That is why an entire arsenal of symbols 🙂 has arisen to show the other person that “no malice” is intended in our comments.  In our face to face communications, our body language readily communicates towards our friends our intentions and whether or not they are playful or benign.  I cannot conceive of a real friend who I could not joke with or make fun of from time to time and of course vice verse.

10. Trust your friends:

The amount of trust you would put in a friend might be the single most obvious indicator of how strong that friendship was.   But what do we mean by the word Trust?  We often hear the phrase “trust me” used today.  What does it mean to trust though?  ASU Online defines trust as follows:

Trust is both an emotional and logical act. Emotionally, it is where you expose your vulnerabilities to people, but believing they will not take advantage of your openness. Logically, it is where you have assessed the probabilities of gain and loss, calculating expected utility based on hard performance data, and concluded that the person in question will behave in a predictable manner. In practice, trust is a bit of both. I trust you because I have experienced your trustworthiness and because I have faith in human nature.

A friend is someone who you can expose your vulnerabilities with.  In Part 1 of this blog, I discussed the importance of intimacy to a friendship.  When we are intimate with someone, we are more exposed and more vulnerable.  There is no escaping vulnerability in a good friendship.  If you want a strong friendship, you must be willing to trust the other person and that means you must be willing to be vulnerable.  The fewer secrets you have with your friends, the stronger your friendships will be. The issue of trust is paramount here because who but a fool would share secrets with someone they could not trust.  The Internet is full of ridiculous instances of people posting, texting or sharing secrets with others who it became glaringly evident they could not trust.  Some of us are more trusting than others, but I think that most good friendships grow in trust as our experiences teach us whether or not the other person can really be trusted.  Thus, the final hallmark of a good friendship is trust.

Time for Questions:

Are you happy with your friendships?  Do you have some good friends?  How do you define friendship?  How many of the ingredients of friendship that I have outlined do you share with your friends?  Which ingredients do you disagree with? Which ingredients do you think I have missed?  What do you need to do tomorrow to have better friendships?

Life is just beginning.

%d bloggers like this: