On a crisp but windless morning, a friend and I rode alongside, he on his road bike, I on my recumbent trike. It didn’t take long for me to strip away a layer of the onion—my metaphor for going to a deeper level.
My friend, who I’ll call Anthony, told me about his reckless brother, Ernie, who landed in court for theft. The judge gave Ernie two options. He could either go to prison or join the Marines. Ernie wisely chose the latter, and it turned his life around. In fact, he graduated from college and became a respected engineer and a loving husband and father.
“You must be proud of your brother,” I offered.
“I am,” Anthony said. “Very proud.”
I stopped peddling and came to a stop to face Anthony straight on. “I want to know more,” I said. “Are you and Ernie close?”
Anthony’s demeanor changed. His gaze was suddenly distant and sad. When he finally spoke, his voice quavered. “We lost him to cancer.”
I let a moment pass.
Anthony broke the silence. “I’m sorry about that. I didn’t mean to get emotional.”
“No apology necessary. I’m not troubled by the expression of emotion. In fact, I’d be disappointed if you were stoic.”
Anthony swiped a tear from his cheek. “I feel safe with you,” he said, “with absolutely nothing to fear.”
I decided to tell Anthony about my way of conversing. I explained how I imagine having a narrow open-faced cabinet in my mind with a stack of two-dozen shelf slots. Alongside the cabinet is a stock of index cards. When someone speaks, I mentally scribble what he or she has said on a card. The more emotionally laden items are stored at the cabinet’s top shelves.
When the speaker pauses but seems unfinished, I’m silent. If the speaker finishes and appears at peace, I go to my stack of index cards and choose the next most salient item.
I don’t gather information to judge (that’s the fastest way to lose a friend). I amass information to fully understand, to enter as best I can the skin of the other. At least that’s my preference.
Anthony felt safe because I truly wanted to know his experiences. But Anthony is a mature and grounded man. That’s not the case with everyone. Many are so insecure, so lacking in confidence their defenses are immediately raised. When that happens—and it’s easily recognized with anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear—I back off and return to shallower waters.
I’m grateful for my friend—grateful he allows me to peel away multiple layers from his “onion.” Even though he will not allow me to touch his core—no one does—he permits me to go deep enough to make contact, and that’s the gift of true friendship.