My best friend is down on his luck. How can I help?

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from SUNDAY, OCT 17, 2010

We grew up differently. I got great guidance from parents and friends. He kind of drifted. Now he’s in a tough spot


Dear Cary,

I have something of a quandary with a friend of mine. He’s my oldest friend, we’ve known each other since we were about 4 years old. At that time we went to nursery school and kindergarten together; we were both children of decidedly middle-class families, growing up in the same suburb. Even though we didn’t go to school together we always spent our summers together, and made a real effort to keep in touch over the years. At some point though, during that time my parents moved along in their careers and my family sort of left the middle class to that ill-defined region between the wealthy and the doing-OK. However, his father left his mother and took off, leaving her to fend for her son by herself and somewhat bitter about the way things turned out, and his life was more difficult for it. But none of that ever affected our relationship, the two of us got along great all through high school, even though I had gone on to the local private school while he stayed at the local public school.

After high school I went off to college and he kind of bummed around working as a ski lift operator so he could snowboard at his favorite resorts. My parents were the demanding types who wanted to make sure that I had a focus in my life that would lead to a career — his father was basically absent and his mother had become shrill to the point where it was a guarantee if she told my friend to do anything he would do the opposite. At this point our lives started to really diverge.

Fast forward a few years — we’re both now in our early 30s. My life isn’t perfect, and there are things about it that I would change if I could. But overall I can’t complain — I’ve worked hard and (finally) find myself in a position where I’m easily self-sufficient. I have no debts, I live modestly, and every month I manage to save a nice sum of money that I plan to put towards a down payment on a house. I have a solid junior-executive position at a good company where I’m on an upward trajectory. I also have no illusions about how I got here. I know that I’ve worked hard but I’ve also had parents and friends who have looked out for me and tried to help me out when they could, and I’ve gotten lucky with some opportunities that I’ve taken advantage of when they made themselves clear. My friend, on the other hand, is in a very different place. After a few years of bouncing around resort towns so he could snowboard and surf during on-seasons, he’s come back to the area where we grew up with virtually nothing to show for it. He had a job doing house remodeling but was laid off because of the recession. Recently when I talked to him he told me he had a part-time job that was barely helping him to pay his rent and bills with almost nothing left over to live on, and was looking for work but hadn’t found anything.

We both come from the kinds of upbringings where guys typically downplay how bad things are because you don’t try to garner sympathy for yourself — you just don’t. So when I hear him say this I know that it’s for real, that’s he’s barely hanging on with what he’s got. I know that he hasn’t been as lucky as I have, he didn’t have parents looking out for him, and he just hasn’t had the kind of luck that I’ve had in getting himself on two feet. I don’t know if he’s worked hard or not, I really can’t say, but from what I know of him I imagine he has. I do know that he’s a good person, he’s easy to get along with, he’s the kind of guy everybody likes.

I want to help out my friend if I can. I offered to have a look at his résumé and pass it around to the people I still know where we grew up, and I’m trying to do that. But I’m also realistic about the kind of economy that we’re in right now, and I know it’s a long shot that he’ll find a job that way. I would like to tell him that if things get really difficult he can come to me for money if he needs it, but I just don’t know how. The last thing I want to do is condescend to my friend and make him feel like he’s a charity case for me, because he’s not. I know that if our situations were reversed he wouldn’t think twice about helping me out. I just want to figure out a way to help him and keep his dignity intact. Can you offer any advice for how I can do that?

Thanks,

Looking to Help a Friend in Tough Times

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Dear Looking to Help a Friend,

The best thing you can do is stay close to your friend. Be honest with him. Help him if he needs help. Go snowboarding with him. See the houses he has remodeled.

Beware of your desire to fix his situation. Know that his situation is not an accident but has meaning; it is like a signature; it is who he is and it is in a sense holy. The way to avoid condescending to him is to be honest in your regard for him. If it hurts you to see him having a hard time, be honest about that. But recognize that it’s his hard time to have. It’s his hard time, not yours. He is learning something he has to learn. He is encountering life on its own terms. He has to do this. He has to knock about until he’s had enough. The time for setting an orderly route was earlier, and it was a job for parents and family, and that job was not done. So he is finding out what life is like at a later stage than some. He is taking things in a different order. Maybe he is spending longer in this phase than one would hope. But that’s his path. Be his friend and respect his choices.

If you do this, time will pass and when he has a change of heart and sees that he needs an orderly direction he may confide in you. He may ask your advice. He may decide he needs to go to college. He may see a business opportunity in the world of resorts. If he comes to you with a business proposition, scrutinize it. Don’t lie to him. Don’t encourage him in something that won’t work. But if he has a workable idea and you have contacts who might help him, be generous. Only do this if you really believe it’s workable. It’s easy to kid ourselves about our friends.

Meanwhile, let’s look on the bright side. He may be having a hard time financially, but he is pursuing what he loves. He is not an office guy. He is an outdoors guy. He knows what makes him happy and he is seeking happiness in his way. His life is harder than yours. It’s harder to make a living that way. But he’s being true to himself.
So if he is your friend, the best thing you can do is be a good friend. If you are a good friend to him, then he will know he can ask for help. And you can give it, too. If you ever see that there is something you can do for him, you don’t have to ask. If it feels right to give him some money, or lend him some money to help him get over a difficulty, then go ahead and do it.

He can always refuse.

What you do not want to do is try to fix his life. What this says to him is that there is something wrong with his life. Remember: His life is fine. It may be difficult and more uncertain economically, but it is the life he has chosen. He chose it out of love. He loves to snowboard. He loves the outdoors. He loves building things. So the equation he has followed is simple: We do what we love and we deal with what happens. After a while, we learn to fine-tune. We know we love to snowboard but we see what happens when we snowboard all the time. We make no money. We have no place to live and no food. So we snowboard but we also do something to make money. Sometimes it is hard to make money. Money is scarce sometimes. That’s the way it is for those of us who just do what we love. We learn to adapt. We learn how far we can take it. We make compromises when we have to.

But the beautiful thing about it is, he knows what he loves. He knows what he values. And he is being true to himself. I wouldn’t change that. It’s hard doing what you love. It can wear you down and put lines in your face. You end up with a leathery neck and tattered jeans and scarred workbooks and callused hands. You end up weather-beaten. That is, you end up with the face that you deserve. Your face becomes the record of a life lived according to what you love.

There’s something to be said for that. So stick close to this friend of yours. There’s much there to cherish. Don’t pity him. He’s doing what he has to do. If he wants your help he’ll ask for it. And likewise, there may come a time when you could use his help. Don’t be afraid to ask for it. There’s dignity in asking for help and giving help, and not offering until asked.

Value this friend. You’re a lucky man. So is he.

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