Who, After All, is a Caring Friend?

As I walked through the living room this morning, three colorful balloons and a bouquet of daffodils reminded me of an unexpected visit the night before. A friend from our meeting stopped by to wish me a happy birthday. She handed me a card bearing greetings from others in the meeting. Not because I was ill or unable to leave the house; just because it was my (somewhere in the middle 70s) birthday, and a group called "Caring Friends" wanted me to know that my personal special day mattered to them.

By the scale of world events, this was a minutely small incident. It was not to be reported in any newspaper, nor was it likely to be considered within the confines of our small meeting community as a significant achievement. The most wonderful thing I could imagine would be that it would just be regarded as the way we do things in our meeting.

As the days go by, we get caught up and carried along by things that seem of major importance to the nation and the world, whether it be the polarizing effects of the election campaign, the shocking realities of the war on terrorism, the unchecked spread of the aids epidemic, or a myriad of other issues. If we allow our attention to be fixated at either end of the spectrum—either on the large, significant things, or on the small, personal things—we will have lost part of our humanness. So this is a plea, not for the shift away from big things to small, but a plea for balance—that one should not be lost in the pursuit of the other.

But, having made the point about balance, I really want to focus on the one side of the balance that may be lost when the world is too much with us—the small and the personal. What is the hidden need that springs alive in us like germinating seed under the spring rain when we find ourselves surprised by a caring gesture? Shall we speak of it in theological terms? Or shall we give it a psychological name? Or shall we simply say that what we need is to know that somebody cares?

The way our busy days are spent, getting from here to there, doing this and that, things that seem to have to be done, and then eking out, if we’re lucky, a few hours of what we like to think of as "time for ourselves," is it any wonder that time runs out? So, when do we do the things that really matter? How do we fit them in?

This was not meant to be a "how-to" piece. It seems to me that once we get our priorities straight, most of us find the time to do what we regard as really important. And all I mean to say is that small acts of caring have an importance far out of proportion to their size. Even if our meeting has a committee appointed to be the Caring Friends, the real truth of the matter is that all of us learn what it means to be human by reaching out in a caring way to others.

Who needs our act of caring? The only adequate answer is that everybody does. There isn’t a person alive who stands like a rock against every storm. But the fact is that the storms of life have battered some more than others, have left some helpless and friendless, while the rest of us have somehow escaped or withstood. And so it is that we seek out the elderly, the critically ill, the housebound, the grieving, the prisoner, the homeless . . . of these there is no end. Our time, our energy, and our imagination may have an end, but of these needy ones, there is no end. So, without guilt or self-flagellation, we seek to discern how it is that we are led, how it is that we are to fit the caring role into the larger picture of our life.

Let’s admit that, for the most part, we don’t do this very well. Then, let’s be willing to take a few small steps. The Chinese classic, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, has something memorable to say about small steps: "A tree as big as a man’s embrace grows from a tiny shoot. A tower of nine stories begins with a heap of earth. The journey of a thousand li starts from beneath one’s feet."

Gilbert L. Johnston

Gilbert L. Johnston is a member of Centre Meeting in Centreville, Delaware, and emeritus professor of Asian Religions at Eckerd College, St. Petersburg, Florida.