Charles stared at me for some time with a far off look in his eyes. It was as though he was scanning for something deep in the recesses of his memory. Finally, he half whispered, “To tell you the truth, Jean, I never much thought about it.”
My immediate reaction was one of disbelief. But, then I began to see how he could have no answer. Charles had quietly struggled with disappointments in his life. It slowly became obvious to me that he had suppressed a driving force that was guiding all his decisions.
As his closest friend, his confidant, and a physician, I felt compelled to dig as deeply as I could into why he could not, or would not deal with this subject. I needed to discover the reason—the underlying problem—behind his inability to answer my question.
How Can Friends Be So Different?
Charles and I were the very best of friends. We shared everything that happened in our lives. He was the brother that I never had. In turn, I replaced his brother who left home before Charles turned three. I reminded him, “Our friendship goes deeper than any biological family’s sibling relationships. What do you think about the question I asked, and why I should ask it?”
He again answered me with, “This is something that simply has never crossed my mind.”
Was Charles in denial of something? I found it hard to believe his answer because I thought him to be the most intelligent person I knew. We were bosom buddies. We spent hours talking about our joys and our problems—problems with our families, the world, and ourselves. Our talks often delved into deep philosophical theories, such as, where does evil come from, and just what is evil anyway? Charles’s insight amazed me. I learned so much regarding my own personal problems while chatting over a cup of coffee. I would put my cup down and let the coffee go cold just so I could better understand his insight. He either wouldn’t, or couldn’t come up with an answer to my question, but his insight into everything else always amazed me.
“Charles, why can’t you tell me?”
“Let me put my coffee down for a change. I’ve told you I don’t know why. Stop bugging me about it, please.”
His coffee didn’t go cold awaiting my response. “Forget that I ever asked.” He must have been sublimating some emotional pain.
Charles skunked me whenever we played games that required the use of our intellect, such as Scrabble, or Jeopardy. He would finish his crossword puzzles before I was halfway through.
He got better school grades than I ever did. He usually earned straight A’s. I was lucky if I got mostly B’s, or C’s, with only an occasional A. He never had to work for his grades. His great mind was a gift from his maker. I had to burn the midnight oil, struggling over the easiest problems. No matter how hard I tried, I was frustrated that I could never match his grades, let alone pass them.
One time he tried to help me get over my frustration with this advice: “You sometimes need to step back from the problems you can’t solve, especially when you’re beating your head against the wall over them. Come back to it later. Perhaps, if you can, sleep on it overnight. When your mind is clearly rested, approach it again with less tension.”
I put my head between my hands. “You can say that because you have nothing to feel frustrated about. It all comes so easy for you. Put yourself in my shoes. All the rest in the world doesn’t help me clear my mind of frustration. I appreciate you trying to help me. Maybe someday I will have an opportunity to help you.”
Charles was valedictorian of our high school class and a Phi Beta Kappa in college, graduating magna cum laude from Princeton and Columbia. He never had to work hard to earn his master’s degrees from either of those universities.
However, he was always frustrated that he was no athlete. Positive and negative charges always attract each other. Likewise, personalities that are very different from each other often develop a strong bond. Charles was attractive as a close friend because he was such a gifted intellectual, while I was not. I was a gifted athlete, while he was not.
I have vivid memories of him singing in our church children’s choir, our adult choir, and his singing solos. Everyone thought that his solos were just about at the level of what many professional musicians could do. This embarrassed him. He always seemed to find it hard to receive compliments.
I was always happy for him and often encouraged him to be gracious when folks thanked him for his music. I told him, “If I ever tried to do a solo, I would be subjecting our church to torture. I’d be the laughing stock of the whole church.”
Charles tried to discourage me from feeling that way. He took me aside and with a whisper said, “Please don’t feel bad, you have been given entirely different gifts and talents than I have.” He tried to get me to stop feeling bad about my lack of musical talent. He constantly tried to put me first.
Yet he found it impossible to comfortably accept our church members’ applause because of James and Elizabeth DuPont’s constant twisting of his talents to their advantage. They relished the applause their son received.
Outwardly at least, that bothered me more than it did my best friend. He tried hard to ignore his parents, but I knew he just could not. Sublimating all of that only served to let it build in his subconscious mind. Eventually he had to deal with it.
Although we were opposites, those differences worked well for us both. We were humbled by each other’s successes. We ceased to attempt to compete in each other’s strengths, early on. Our friendship grew stronger because of our differences.