Over the last few years, my family has experienced one joy after another. Both my children met, and subsequently married, wonderful partners (even their wedding days were sunny). My daughter and son-in-law were able to buy a nice house in a nice neighborhood with a manageable mortgage. My son was promoted at work; my new daughter-in-law snagged a primo job right out of grad school. Icing on the cake was the birth this year of our first grandchild, a wonderful, healthy baby boy.
I recite this litany of blessings not to sound smug and boastful, but just the reverse: I feel appreciative, and humbled by so much good fortune. (If the truth be told, I also feel a little nervous: somewhere deep in my psyche lurks the superstition, “If things are too good, it’s bad.” So I have to constantly shrug off a fear that when happy events occur, tragedy is always waiting in the wings, eager to have its turn.) Superstitions aside, though, I know fate can be precarious, and luck often plays a bigger role than we’d like to believe in how things turn out. What if my son or daughter happened to just miss meeting the right mate? Suppose there had been fertility problems? Jobs are scarce these days; my kids might have been narrowly edged out for the very positions that are currently giving them paychecks, health insurance and the other resources to build a hopeful future.
My gratitude is compounded when I realize a lot of people at my life stage aren’t as fortunate. So many problems my peers are grappling with — health issues, layoffs, kids struggling for a foothold on adult solvency — are no more the result of things they did wrong than my happy circumstances can be traced to what I did right. It’s especially touching, I’ve learned, to have friends who can rejoice in your happiness when they themselves are facing life challenges.
That generosity of spirit — where twinges of envy or competitiveness can be put aside when someone seems to have it better than you — is a rare and wonderful thing. There’s a popular axiom that true friends are the ones who are there through the darkest times, willing to listen to your angst, share your pain and prop up your insecurities. But someone who applauds your children’s successes and delights in your grandchild? That, I submit, is a friend indeed.
Most of us can probably recall friendships (maybe firsthand) that seem to rely on a delicate balance of power/privilege between the two parties, as if by unconscious agreement. As long as the conditional arrangement persists — “You can be the smart one as long as I’m the attractive one”; “You have more money, but I have more professional successes”; “We’ll be united in our single status/distrust of men/workplace misery” — the relationship can flourish. However, things start to unravel as envy or disinterest begins to rear its head or if the terms of the relationship change, and someone’s life starts moving in an unexpectedly positive direction.
The writer Joan Gould once observed, “Sooner or later we discover that we only rent our happiness or unhappiness, we don’t own it, and we’d better be prepared to move out on short notice, carrying our own suitcases at that.” A lyrical analogy, it’s also a sobering thought. But the truth of it strikes me as oddly comforting. Maybe today, I’m the lucky one. Maybe tomorrow, things will be different. The term “fair weather friend” was coined to describe the kind of person who’s an ally only when times are good. Yet the friend who sticks around when times are good for you can be the fairest of them all.