“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Friendships are not utilitarian

In a conversation with students this past week, we talked about friendship.  When we discussed why someone develops a friendship with a person, in particular with a severe disability.
I asked "Why would someone choose to develop a friendship with someone having a severe intellectual disability?"  Responses related to how much one could learn from such people, how much they have to give, how their life impacts those around them and so forth.

I then asked several of the students, one at a time,
"What is the name of your best friend?" 
A typical response was, "Ginny." 
"What do you and Ginny like to do together?" I then responded.
"We like to watch movies, drink coffee and just hang out." was a typical response.
I then wondered aloud, "Why must a friendship with a person with a severe disability have a utilitarian component when your friendship with your other friends is just based upon being together drinking coffee or watching movies?"

I admit I didn't plan on the discussion, it kind of just happened, but as I thought out loud, I recognized that the criteria for friendship for some reason seemed to be different for typical friends in comparison to potential friends with severe disabilities.  It was like the same criteria would not work for a person with a severe disability that might work for someone without that characteristic.  For me to have a friendship with a person with a severe disability, I must identify something that you have to give to me (utilitarianism) as a reason for the friendship.  Perhaps because I have bought the lie that a person with that characteristic has nothing to offer me, so I have to find something that they may have to offer in order to justify friendship.

I thought of my friend, Doug, a neighbor who will just stop by my house unannounced.  For some reason, I never expect him to show up.  He drives up on his 4 wheeler (I live in the country) comes in, we have a cup of coffee or dinner if he hasn't eaten yet.  We talk about what he is doing or what I am doing or maybe just sit and watch whatever Kathi and I happen to have on the TV.  I love it when Doug stops by unannounced.  Sure he has helped me do things at times and I him, but 90% of our time together is just typical hanging out that friends do.  I am not his friend because of how much I can learn from him, or how much he has to give, or how his life impacts those around him.  We just enjoy hanging out together.

One of my best friends was a man with severe intellectual disabilities.  It was funny that I just started visiting his group home because I wanted to do something nice for the men who lived there.  I would go by with a bottle of soda and something to munch on and hang out for an hour.  Increasingly I found that Thom and I connected.  He liked me and I liked him.  He would tell me about his day program, how he wanted to marry his teacher, about his brother in whom he was so proud and about the Angels, Dodgers or Lakers.  I would tell him about things I knew he would be interested in,. like my horses or that I had had a barbeque, or how he was my friend.  He would often say to me, "I am nice to you, Jeff." and he was!  He passed away about a year ago and it was interesting to me to find that I didn't have the same desire to visit the group home as I did before.  Why?  Because my friend no longer lived there!  I liked the other men and women who live there, but Thom was my friend.  He was my friend in the same way that Doug is my friend.  Not because of what he could do for me, but because we enjoyed hanging out together.

No real friendship is truly utilitarian.  If you are looking for utilitarian relationships, you are probably not looking for friendships.  As you consider befriending those with the characteristic of severe impairment, do not attempt to make the relationship anything different than the relationship you have with other friends.



Z said...

I'm old. And disabled.

I find that people who usually come up to me and ask me questions, really don't want to be freinds. They are just curious about me. I'm more of a curiosity than somebody that might have some intelligence, or might even be a good friend.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I realized that I had that same view point even though I am disabled myself!

Anonymous said...

I find that for my daughter with disabilities I am always scrutinizing the "friends" she brings home or tries to hang out with trying to find their hidden agenda...sigh! I guess I am just as guilty of thinking everyone wants something from her rather than just truly wanting to be with her!
Great post and discussion!