Monday, September 29, 2014

True Friendship Among Men by Buck Bragg, MWW Group III

"If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility."

These words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow have long resonated with me.   It’s not that I had people I considered “enemies.”  Rather Longfellow’s insight made me think about the people I considered “friends.”  How much of their secret lives did I know?  And how much of my secret life had I shared with them?  Frankly, not much.

Until moving to Asheville in 2010 I had carefully and quite successfully walled off my secret life.  It’s what most guys do.  I talked to friends about what I was doing, but not about what I was feeling.  I talked about my deteriorating tennis game and my misbehaving stereo speakers.  I talked about the achievements of my three sons and my upcoming vacation in the Rockies.  I talked about challenges at the office and the woeful Chicago Cubs. 

Most often, these were conversations held in very public places over a cup of coffee or a mug of beer.  If someone at the next table overheard the conversation, no big deal.  As a lawyer responsible for counseling business executives, I practiced what I preached:  “never say anything that would embarrass you if it showed up in tomorrow’s newspaper.” 

When I talked with friends and colleagues, the conversations seldom penetrated the veneer of well-honed social diplomacy.  Corporations reward employees who behave like professionals.  And as self-styled curmudgeon William Mulholland observed:  “Professional men are trained to conceal their thoughts.”  So I was proud of the fact that during my 30-year career, there were no significant embarrassments, no scandals, and no interpersonal meltdowns.  To parody Gilbert and Sullivan, I was “the very model of a modern counsel general.”

For this I was rewarded with what many would consider the trappings of corporate success.  Looking back, it’s almost comic how important things like “span of supervision,” “budget responsibility,” office size, and title seemed at the time.  When I walked out the door on my last day at the office, I had a boxful of plaques and mementos.  But I could count my close friends on one hand!

Oh, there were lots of guys with whom I socialized and participated in activities.  I had golf friends, and tennis friends, and bar association friends, and such.  But these were akin to “Facebook friends.”  I certainly enjoyed their company, but the conversations were most often quarantined to the areas of our shared activity.

When my wife and I ultimately decided to move from Illinois, I felt it was the right time to seek deeper friendships.  A few weeks after arriving in Asheville, I serendipitously found myself in a conversation with the late Larry Golden.  He told me about the men’s group he was facilitating and how much he enjoyed it.  He talked about how important the group was to him and how close the men had become in a short time. 

As we talked, I remembered Longfellow’s lament on secret lives.  I couldn’t help but think that each life has a complexity and richness that deserves exploration.  How often had I superficially assessed people after only a few minutes?  How often had people similarly assessed me?  We all do it.   We envy the wealthy stock broker who retired at 52 and seemingly has everything going for him.  But living inside that million dollar house may be a lonely guy suffering from insecurities, an unfaithful spouse, and a degenerative bone disease. 

The reality is that you’ll never “know” anyone in a meaningful sense of that word unless you are willing to invest in their story, to listen to their heartaches, and to share in their joys.  It also means you’re going to have to trust that what you say to your friends won’t appear in John Boyle’s column in tomorrow’s Citizen-Times.

But far greater than the risk of loss of trust is the risk of loss itself…deep, profound loss.  Recently, our men’s group lost one of our charter members, Murray Greenspan.  Murray was a strapping, vital, 77 year-old guy who was loved by every member of our group.  After a bike ride with his wife, he decided to go for a swim in the pool adjacent to his house.  When his wife came out to check on him, she found his body lifeless in the pool. 

This is the second member of our group who has died.  We lost Jules Resnick nearly two years ago.  It’s impossible to describe the depth of loss we suffer.  When our group gathered mere days after Murray’s passing, we shared our memories and our love of Murray.  We hugged and gave comfort to each other.  It’s what close friends do in times like these.

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