A Friend’s Responsibility

People forget that friends, especially long-term friends, have a special abiding responsibility to each other, far more than do casual acquaintances, colleagues, or even sometime friends. The longer you know a person, the more accountable you are for your deeds, your actions, your demeanor, and above all your speech when with that person. The slow accumulation of time and shared experience carries along with it an ever-increasing potential for causing hurt, as one’s familiarity of the other’s vulnerabilities grows.

Memory also plays a critical role here: remembrances of generosity, kindness, pleasure, respect, just plain old sociability accumulate and add their voices to the chorus that is the mind’s collection of events. That also means that selfishness, unkindness, unhappiness, disrespect, and rudeness also accumulate, and those voices are sharper, nastier, far less concordant. They remain capable of causing pain even after the original offence has been all but forgotten.

Acquired hurt adapts itself by acquiring reflexive defenses. Kick a dog often enough and it will instinctively cringe—or bolt—whenever its tormentor gets near, even if only a pat or a treat is in the offing. The same holds true with abused people, who may react with alarm or even hostility towards those who have wronged them repeatedly, even if the only thing in the offing is a cheery ‘good morning’ or a courteous smile. Both dog and human will elevate to far more drastic responses should the tormentor give signs of repeating a former offence; dogs may well take a chunk of meat out of a leg (and bully for the dog!), and people may go nova, scream and yell, or worse.

I make no distinction here between “friendly” tormenting and offence with truly hostile intent. The fact is that a knife slices flesh whether the knife is thrown in anger or in jest, with intent or casually. Oh, a one-time accidental hurt will be forgiven by any civilized person. But not repeated abuses, no matter whether they’re jokes or deadly serious.

That has been a pattern with a long-term (former) friend of mine, a man who cultivates stinging put-downs and snappy insults as an instinctive speech pattern. For many years I was the butt of his merry jokes, sometimes just between the two of us, other times in social surroundings where the hurt was far sharper. But his barbs all hurt, no matter how flippantly expressed, no matter how carefully tailored to my experiences and knowledge. You have to know somebody very well to custom-tailor insults for maximum impact, and this chap came to know me far too well for comfort. I broke all contact and spoke to him only rarely—and briefly—but recently, he invited me to join him for an evening at the opera. I accepted the invitation with some trepidation, restricted our exchange to e-mail only, and worked out a strategy to keep pre-concert contact to a bare minimum. However, there was no sidestepping at least a few minutes of contact while passing through the lobby towards the auditorium. In that brief time he managed to hit me with two sharp, nasty insults.

He must have been surprised by my response: I let him have it at the top of my voice in a shouted, furious, hair-sizzling tirade, right there in the lobby with a bunch of overdressed people looking (and listening) with mixed responses of alarm and amusement. “But it was just a JOKE!” he bleated. A few seconds later he was alone in the lobby, no doubt terribly embarrassed by the oh-so-very public verbal beating he had just received, and I was on my way home, really quite satisfied with myself. No joke, that.

Over a period of many years he had abandoned his responsibility to respect my feelings, and instead indulged himself in petty put-downs and outright insults without a moment’s thought to their cumulative impact. He got what he deserved, although he is unlikely to learn anything in the process. Selfish, irresponsible bullies rarely do.

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