“A friend in need is a friend indeed.” We all know that one. That a true friend stands by you during adversity, is an accepted, unquestioned assumption in, I dare say, all cultures. Does the same friendship remain unshaken during your times of triumph?
I hold the strong belief that the overwhelming majority of humans is kind. In my experience, if you trip and fall over in the street, strangers will rush to pick you up, ask if you are hurt, and offer help (and a cup of tea, if you are in England). If you're ill, friends and neighbours will rally in a spontaneous support group that restores faith in humanity even in a misanthropic cynic like myself. Time and again, when friends have found out that I had been through a difficult time, their reaction has been, “Why on earth didn’t you tell me? I would have come ‘round immediately.” True, not everyone will help you beyond the limits of his/her convenience. However, many, many people are willing to put themselves out to help you, if you are in any kind of distress. The sight of another person’s trouble triggers a rescuing response in us, which bypasses cerebral calculation. We act on impulse.
What about our spontaneous reaction to someone else’s joy or success?
Personally, I consider myself very lucky, in that I can think of a number of people I feel I can turn to if I need help. Then, something wonderful happens to me – be it a triumph or a stroke of luck – and the number of people with whom I feel comfortable sharing the happy news, suddenly shrinks.
You may find that odd.
My hesitation originates in part from tact, in part from superstition, but mostly from experience. I don't really want to show off my good news to a friend who is going through a difficult time. I fear he or she may feel left out, and resent the apparently unfair contrast between our states of mind and positions at that moment. Superstition is another reason. Of course, officially, I am not superstitious. I don't want to be superstitious any more than I want to be afraid. However, the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern elements in my upbringing are deeply rooted in my psyche. If someone compliments you for having a beautiful child, you quickly pinch the child, or make spitting sounds. You tell the person that your child is a bit naughty. If a guest admires an ornament in your home, you immediately give it to him or her. Hospitality, yes – but, also, you want them to take away the thing they may have left their evil eye on. The green eye of envy. In Han Suyin’s marvelous novel A Many-Splendoured Thing, the Eurasian narrator explains to her British lover that, in China, when you had abundant crop, you would wring your hands, shake your head and cry, “Bad rice, bad rice”, lest the gods got envious of your good fortune and decided to blight it.
Blight. A word I heard during the Q & A part of a day for aspiring writers, held by agents Curtis Brown, in Foyles bookshop, in London, back in 2012. Novelist Salley Vickers was on the panel. People were discussing the importance of feedback whilst writing a novel. Feedback from friends, from family, from fellow writers. Taking criticism on board or not, and when. Salley Vickers told us that – possibly because she is a trained psychoanalyst – while teaching creative writing courses, she notices frequent “blighting”. People sometimes give negative feedback because they are envious, she said. I wanted to cheer her.
We are brought up to accept negative criticism with humility, and the assumption that it is given appropriately and for our own good. If we reject it, we are told that we are either arrogant or do not want “to hear the truth.” I think, instinctively, we know when negative criticism comes from a generous heart, or if it is tainted with the bitterness of envy. We just need to trust our gut feeling.
When I started my blog, in February 2011, relatively few of my friends read it. Some said they had no time to read blogs, others, that it was “pointless writing for no money”, and one, that “nobody reads blogs, anyway”. The same people were there for me, when I needed help, so I can't call them unkind.
How often have you told friends about a plan close to your heart, and had a reaction along the lines of, “be careful, don’t get your hopes up” or “I know someone who tried, and it went horribly wrong”?
A few years ago, one of my posts, The Delight of Hand Writing got over 4,000 views in twenty-four hours. I told a few friends. Some rushed with congratulations and expressions of joy for my success. Many remained silent. When, a couple of weeks later, I was complaining to a friend about a minor mishap in my life, she quickly said, “Well, after all that high over your blog, last week, you were bound to come down, sooner or later.”
Her remark slashed me, like a paper cut. Yet she's a truly wonderful person and I know I can count on her, if I am ever in any distress.
Friends offer genuine sympathy and support when you are weeping over a man/woman. Tell them – walking on air and your eyes all sparkling – that you have just met someone new and there will be one or two who will say, “s/he’s probably married” or “s/he’s probably nice to you because s/he needs your help”. Crash.
When I got divorced, in 2000, a friend eagerly invited me out to dinner to “take me out of myself”. Within a few minutes, she remarked that I looked well and not half as upset as she thought I would be. I thought I sensed a shade of disappointment in her voice, but discarded it. A little later in the evening, she said, “I don’t know why I bothered taking you out to dinner. You’re not upset at all.”
No. She was not joking.
And then there's the old favourite. Tell friends about something brilliant that you are doing, and someone is bound to exclaim, “You lucky thing! I wish I...” A slight scratch. Almost unnoticeable.
Is it a need to feel needed? Resentment at not being needed? Is there comfort in a session of mutual comforting and listing of problems? Does it feel safer to know someone who has problems worse than yours? Or is it something else, which I cannot yet fathom?
I suspect I might get a wave of comments from people protesting that they are always happy for their friends’ successes, and that they have friends who rejoice in their achievements. If so, I am truly happy for you. I can only share my experience on this point. An experience which makes me more inclined to reach out for help to those precious friends of mine who are unreservedly happy for me when I get a lucky break. I do not know why. Just a gut feeling.