There’s a story that tells of two friends walking through the desert.
During one particularly difficult part of their journey they had an argument, and one friend slapped the other in the face. The one who got slapped was hurt, but without saying anything, wrote in the sand:
“TODAY MY BEST FRIEND SLAPPED ME IN THE FACE.”
They kept on walking until they found an oasis, where they decided to take a rest and go for a swim. The one who had been slapped got stuck in the mire and started drowning, but the friend saved him. After he recovered from the near drowning, he wrote on a stone:
“TODAY MY BEST FRIEND SAVED MY LIFE.”
The friend who had slapped and saved his best friend asked him, “After I hurt you, you wrote in the sand and now, you write on a stone, why?”
The other friend replied: “When someone hurts us we should write it down in sand where it will be erased away. But, when someone does something good for us, we must engrave it in stone where can never be erased.” This is also told in the saying, “Write your sorrows in sand and your blessings in stone.”
I listen to this story and I have questions. What provoked the friend? Why did they keep walking together after the slap?
“Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Yes you are. And he is yours. Without one another, you’ll only be shadows and mere reflections of your possibility. Iron sharpens iron, but only when they are brought together with enough force. The trouble is we often confuse ‘keeping’ with ‘control & responsibility’ – which we rarely desire.
You’re responsible for how you hurt your friends, as well as how you help them. I should say, I am responsible for how I hurt my friends and how I help them. The point is to be ever striving towards helping more than hurting. There is also something important about being responsible but not taking responsibility.
I imagine in that desert journey, one friend was probably about to do something stupid. Really stupid, so much so that his friend, his brother stepped in and slapped him, as if to say ‘Snap out of it!”.
For the friend who intervenes, to slap someone out of a bad decision or to be brave enough to say ‘this isn’t going to be a good path for you’, they choose a hard road to walk. It has fear, insecurity, worry, doubt, hope and pain associated with it. I’ve lived in those moments and had to count the very real risk of losing connection with people. But that’s being responsible, speaking truth when a gentler encouragement would be easier. Being responsible is to say what you need to say (or do) without bearing or taking the responsibility for the decisions that your friend makes.
We Resist Bruising The Ego But We Should Build It Like A Muscle.
Objectivity, objectivity. It’s probably just my luck that I was a quasi-problem child. But my mother raised me to always ask the question first “what did you do to contribute to the problem?’. Self-awareness is hard work. It’s the place where we have to resist blame and be responsible for our own choices. It’s where things get gray and messy because relational strife becomes what we’ve done to each other, not just what someone did to me.
But our egos don’t have to be fragile like china. They need to be protected and handled well for sure, but they can grow stronger. You can learn to have a strong, flexible ego. It’s fear of damaging the ego that prevents us from truly being our brother’s keepers. Our fear of causing damage, irrevocable damage to relationships. We carry around placards like “it’s not my place to say”, “it’s none of my business” and “people gonna do what they gonna do.” We willingly engage in a placatory position, a fatalistic acceptance of the inevitable tragedies that might likely surround us.
So be resiliant. Work your ego like a muscle, make it stronger. Teach it how to bolster you through tough self-awareness tasks and difficult conversations.
Eventually, your sorrows can become your blessings. There’s another proverb that says “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.”
The wisdom of this tale is found in the patterns. Each time, the *friend intervened. Maybe it’s warning us to take things at face value. A correction in the path, a word of truth or moment of clarity could be a life-saving moment. Exercise your ego and intuition to listen to the ones around you, the ones who are keeping you. Keeping you and saving you.
Conversely, exercise your ego to be responsible in what’s happening with the people you love. It’s too easy to offer platitudes of sympathy and condolences when your insights and truth could save them or slap them into reality. Be brave enough to trust that they will keep walking with you, especially if you are in the hard desert spaces together anyway.
*I’m really talking here about the kind of friends that you are doing deep life with. Not Sunday people, or irregular coffee catch-ups. The ones who know all your shit, or at least know you well enough to know when you’re full of it.