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Lions Roar : November 2013
This deluded thinking about illness is due in large part to cul- tural conditioning. We live in a society that bombards us with messages that fly in the face of the Buddha’s second remem- brance. We’re repeatedly told that bodies can indeed avoid ill- ness: Eat right and you won’t get sick. Exercise and you won’t get sick. Minimize stress and you won’t get sick. Think positively and you won’t get sick. And if you do happen to get sick, a pill can make you not sick soon enough. One of the consequences of living in a culture that distorts the truth about inhabiting a body is that many of us feel uneasy and even fearful when a friend is ill; we don’t know what to say or what to do. In her new book, How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick, Letty Cottin Pogrebin undertakes to teach us this skill. During treatment for breast cancer, Pogrebin discovered a “disconnect between how people treat sick people and how sick people wish to be treated.” She began gathering informa- tion from other patients and from veterans of chronic illness, ask- ing them how they wanted their friends to talk to them, comfort them, and help them. Drawing on their stories and her own experience, Pogrebin has writ- ten a candid, practical, and user- friendly guide that’s equal doses reportage and memoir. The book is an encyclopedia of helpful advice, mostly in the form of tips and lists of dos and don’ts. For example, here are a few of her tips for talking to friends who are sick: • Avoid hackneyed platitudes and feel-good clichés. • Listen to how they are; don’t tell them how they should be. • Respond to what they say; don’t just move right along or talk about yourself. And here are a few of her tips for visiting with a sick friend who’s housebound: • Bring an item of interest to help get the conversation started—a newspaper clipping, a CD, a new app. • Bring a few games or a DVD to watch together and talk about afterward. • Arrive with a chore or two in mind you can do—cooking a meal, watering the plants, taking the dog for a walk, making some needed phone calls. Although the book focuses on being a friend to a friend who’s sick, it can also help you be a friend to a friend who’s facing any of the first four of the Buddha’s five remembrances: aging, ill- ness, death, or loss of a loved one. How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick has breadth and depth. For this reason, I would rec- ommend it to everyone. I do have one reservation about this otherwise valuable book. From a Buddhist perspective, I would caution you not to set a behavioral standard for yourself. This can trigger negative self- judgment if you decide you didn’t say or do just the “right” thing. The book contains so many “do” and “don’t” commandments that at times it feels as if the bar for being a good friend may be set too high to clear. For example, Pogrebin relates how a simple “How are you?” can be terribly upsetting to a sick person if it’s not spoken in just the right tone of voice. In another section, she lists nine variables for a friend to take into account when deciding how long to stay when visiting someone in the hospital. And in the chapter titled “The Perfect Present,” she sets out a host of criteria that a friend should consider before gift giving. The book’s many “do’s” and “don’ts” reflect Pogrebin’s view that good intentions are not enough. She writes: “Thin and permeable is the membrane between good intentions and bad behavior.” From my perspective as a Buddhist practitioner, behavior that is born of truly good intentions cannot fairly be characterized as “bad.” So, what are good intentions? The Buddha identified three of them: kindness, compassion, and generosity. They are beneficial because speech and action that stem from them are likely to ease suffering and enhance well-being in others as well as ourselves. Speaking as a person who is sick, my friends’ intentions are more important to me than their behavior. When I consider what they’ve said or done, I ask myself, “Did they intend to be kind and compassionate? Did they intend to be generous?” If the answer is yes, then even if their words weren’t on the mark, or if they didn’t pick up a cue that they were staying too long, or if they brought me a gift I have no interest in, that’s okay with me. I’m grateful for their efforts. If your friend is sick, being a good friend is not about using just the right words or bringing the perfect gift. It’s about speak- ing or acting in a way that you believe in your heart will ease your friend’s suffering and help him or her feel more at peace with life as it is. For example, in twelve years of illness, I’ve lost count of the number of times people have said to me, “But you don’t look sick!” I used to bristle at the comment and had to restrain myself from saying something rude in return. Now I recognize that their intention is to be kind and compassionate—they’re just trying to make me feel good. So I let it go. Instead of setting a behavioral standard for being a friend to someone who is sick, try taking your cue from Pema Chödrön’s Recognize that you can’t control how a friend might react no matter how well intentioned you are. With compassion for both you and your friend, try again. SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2013 74