I received a Christmas gift this week, inexpensive but meaningful. It came from a patient who is becoming a friend, a man who attends my men’s support group on Wednesday mornings. His gift of a T-shirt touched my heart.
In October Lisa and I took a trip to the Smoky Mountains and I have shared many stories of the trip, of the people and the beauty and how much we wanted to return there. His gift of a “Great Smoky Mountains” T-shirt was personal, a gift that made me smile.
What made the gift even more meaningful is the back story behind our friendship. Joe (not his real name) has been a patient of mine for several years. He is an alcoholic, for a while drinking enough for his blood tests to reveal liver damage. For years our visits were characterized by him making empty promises to do better, half-hearted commitments to decrease his intake but never to quit. He almost never followed up as requested and sometimes over a year elapsed between visits.
This changed a little over a year ago. During that visit, when he said, “I know I need to do better,” I interrupted him.
“You know what your problem is?” I said matter-of-factly, “Your problem is that you’re are a filthy, rotten, drunk.”
He looked as if I had slapped him in the face. I explained that I felt comfortable saying this because I was also a filthy, rotten sinner. My struggles were not with alcohol, but being a good man is still a struggle. I went on to explain that the key to a successful life was not the absence of dysfunction, but the willingness to recognize one’s dysfunction and deal with it. I told him he needed to get serious about his alcoholism.
He did. He has been sober for months now. A few months ago he started coming to the Wednesday men’s group. (The purpose of the group is for men to encourage one other to be better men, a perfect environment for him.) He has been a fixture ever since, openly discussing his problems and sharing his life with the other men.
His gift was not only kind, it was the perfect illustration for our conversation that morning. We discussed the proverb, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend”. The truth that there are times in life where we go off course and need some sense knocked into us, times when the truth we need to hear is painful. Faithful friends, true friends, will love us enough to hurt us when this happens.
He shared about how my words about his drinking had hurt him yet had also helped him turn his life around. It was a powerful moment. His story inspired us as the group talked about being the type of men who could both speak such words in love and who could also receive such words when spoken to us.
We went on to review the second half of the proverb, “Profuse are the kisses of an enemy”, about the tendency to surround ourselves with people who only tell us what we want to hear, who only praise us and never correct us, and how this is unhealthy and harmful. (We also talked about how a certain orange tinged politician could benefit from this lesson!)
We live in a world that is afraid to confront, afraid to correct, out of fear we will lose friends or be called judgmental. The words of my friend and the gift he gave are proof that this is not always the case. We have a relationship based on truth and a shared desire to be better men. For me, this is true friendship.