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A Friend in Need

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Tony Burkinshaw

Summer 2015

A Friend in Need

You’ll no doubt be familiar with that old altruism ‘a friend in need is a friend indeed’.

Without intending to, I’ve been destruct testing this axiom over the last few months, so if you’ve the appetite for a debate over semantics and a bit of a sad yarn, read on.

Initially it seems obvious that this is just an old proverb about helping people when they need it; a centuries old version of promoting Random Acts of Kindness, or so I thought.

The difficulty comes when you sit down to think about what it really means. The problem lies in the fact that it has at least two ambiguities sitting inside it, so there are at least four possible interpretations.

A quick search of Google, (other excellent search-engines are available or so I’m lead to believe), shows that I’m not the first one to begin to wonder, (and it’s good to wander etc.), what the underlying meanings is, (or was). And for those of you who like your punctuation simple, I’ll try to slow down on the use of multiple parentheses from now as perhaps three sets in one sentence is a little over the top.

So first up, is this proverb referring to a friend ‘who is’ in need or is it referring to a friend ‘when you are’ in need? This makes a substantial difference to who is the giver and receiver of the friendship / Random Act of Kindness / help / assistance or whatever it is that the friend (or you) is hoping to benefit from. It can also affect the degree of self-promotion involved in the friendship. Think about it. If this is about a friend ‘who is’ in need becoming a friend indeed then it begs the question about whether the friendship is being dressed up in its Sunday best in order to seek help from the other friend. If you see what I mean.

So what of the other ambiguity? There are two versions of this phrase in circulation and the proponents of each version don’t give much credence to the ‘other’ one. I suppose it depends on which one you were brought up with.

Do we have ‘a friend indeed’ or ’a friend in deed’? It does rather alter the degree of altruism being thrown around. A friend indeed is obviously someone who we feel is enhancing the friendshipness, (if there is such a word; my spell checker wants to change it to ‘friends hippiness’ … and sorry about the brackets again). As in, this person is indeed a friend and so on.

However, if the friend is a friend in deed, then are we saying that this friend is a friend who actually does something about the need. Their friend in need, whichever version of this we choose to believe, is benefitting from the deed, which is then done. An act of kindness, if you will.

Anyhow, it seems that even the simplest of well-meaning proverbs can mean different things to different people and I’m content to let this one rest with my own take which is that when you have a friend who needs help, give it. That’s what friends are for. (Unless you subscribe to the other viewpoint, (supported by the interpretation of a ‘friend in deed’ being someone who becomes over-enthusiastically your friend in order to persuade you to help), namely that ‘a friend in need is a bloody nuisance’: (sorry for the nested bracketing (and the profanity))).

Which leads me by the usual circuitous route to the rest of this article and the reason I’ve been absent this last six months.

Without intention and absolutely without alternative, I found myself living in the world of What Happens When the Friend In Need Turns out to Be Me?

First of all I should probably point out that the real needs lay (and still lie) elsewhere but in dealing with these, I found myself stretched up to and more than occasionally beyond my usually limitless limits. As someone who is gainfully employed helping others deal with and overcome their own difficulties, it hasn’t always been easy to seek that help for myself and perhaps therein lies some future therapy, you never know.

For several years now, we’ve lived with the knowledge that both my children have chronic health conditions so we’ve had time to get used to the idea that there will be no end to it. It is simply a case of finding the best route to deal with whatever comes. And then over the last year, that ‘whatever’ came with a vengeance. As much as was possible we’ve carried on as normal but more and more time needed to be devoted to dealing with emergency after emergency. Inevitably peripheral niceties suffered, not least of which was my recent absence from this Random Acts of Kindness column.

So there I found myself, alternating with my wife on our often daily return trips from Peterborough to a London hospital bed wondering just how ill our daughter would be when we arrived. So understandably as our focus turned inward. People around us noticed and leant support. Good friends listened to our interminable discussions about health and doctors and heavy doses of last-chance-saloon medications; deteriorating health interspersed with regrettably infrequent and short lived periods of hope.

Colleagues have been fantastic in their understanding when I’ve had to let them down; clients have been pleased to postpone appointments at short notice when hospital trips came without warning. People, it seems, are ever ready to help smooth out the bumps that life decides to throw our way.

Perhaps the most miraculous has been the courage of our daughter when despite being extremely ill, she began to plan and create a video blog so that others could benefit from her experience when they, as they surely would, found themselves in similarly dire straits.

So the upshot is that there’s been a multitude of support and kindnesses going on and we’ve been mostly on the receiving end for which I’m extremely grateful.

Yet I still found myself drawn to the therapeutic power of giving. Even in the midst of all this I would notice myself smiling at passers-by in the street. On more than one occasion, I’d end up chatting to people on the train home, often lending an understanding ear and gentle advice whilst they aired their own cares and woes. It helped to be able to help.

Somehow the feeling of being useful and watching a recent stranger leave happier than when they came is a gift. As I’ve pointed out in these articles before, there is a view that there is no such thing a pure altruism: it is almost impossible to help someone and feel no benefit yourself.

We couldn’t have done it on our own and there’s still more to come. But whilst the need is there we’ll gratefully accept the help on offer but we’ll be offering it back in return, both to those we know and those we’ve not met yet.

Way back in the 1980’s on our first visit to the Greek islands, we were happily informed that the Greeks use the same word for both a stranger and a friend, xénos. So in essence, according to one of the most ancient cultures on earth, a stranger really is a friend you haven’t met yet.

But to return to our topic all those words ago, I guess I now find myself thinking that it really doesn’t matter whether it’s the friend or whether it’s you who has the need. It doesn’t matter whether they’re a friend indeed or a friend in deed. And of course if you subscribe the Greek philosophy, it doesn’t even matter whether they are a friend or a stranger. It is only a matter of circumstance before one becomes the other anyway.

Kindness is everywhere, wending its reciprocating way through our world. So all I ask is this. If you find yourself in need of a kindness, accept it when it comes; and if you see a kindness that needs to be done, do the deed.

After all, a stranger in need is a friend in deed.

“If you want happiness for an hour – take a nap. If you want happiness for a day – go fishing. If you want happiness for a year – inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a life time – help someone else.” – Chinese proverb