Each of us needs wise counselors in our lives, and I was blessed to meet one of my wisest as a teenager. My best friend from high school and I had an awful lot in common. For instance: we both spent an inordinate amount of time in Saturday-morning detention. That time can rack up rather rapidly if you attend a girls’ academy with a zealous Dean of Discipline. Still, I wouldn’t trade our hours of cleaning the hallway baseboards with toothbrushes for anything. Our friendship was forged beside those baseboards — so thanks for the memories, Dean!
I can no longer remember which of us usually got the other into trouble (I imagine we simply took turns), but I tend to recall my best friend getting me out of trouble with remarkable frequency. BFF was precociously savvy and smart and strategic, as she remains today. She may have the mouth of a sailor, but she has the mind of a five-star general. BFF does not take any prisoners when it comes to telling the truth plain. She is every bit as adept at resolving domestic disputes as she is at solving fashion dilemmas. Have I mentioned that I adore her?
Although BFF is nearly a year younger than me – a span she has a habit of highlighting in conversation – she is frequently poised to give me sage advice along big-sister lines, such as: Never wear the self-belt on any dress you buy. Taking that tip has changed my look forever. It’s worth the price of every belt I’ve swapped out since. She also taught me the secrets of alternate-side street parking in New York and how to break a lease with the least fuss and muss. There were entire eras when I would have been lost without her. Of course she was maid of honor at my wedding.
So when BFF speaks, I listen. And when she falls silent, I notice.
As wise as she was about the ways of the world, BFF was admirably understated. The sole line item that made boastful, bizarrely, was her teeth. When you have a friendship that stretches across decades, you get can easily spot the exceptions to the rule. BFF was vain about her perfect teeth because she had never had a cavity in her life. Since I had more than two cavities but less than a handful, my own dental record was only middling to fair.
Once, when we were both in our thirties, BFF did not return a call of mine for more than a week. I was starting to get worried. When we did finally talk, I inquired if anything was wrong. Yes, she said, something was wrong. She had been to the dentist.
“So now you have a cavity?” I ventured.
“No,” she replied. “I have thirteen cavities.”
“Thirteen?” I asked, incredulous. “Thirteen? Oh, my…”
It was horrible, BFF said. She had to get thirteen cavities filled in short order, which involved several successive visits to the dentist and tremendous discomfort. She couldn’t speak – not because she was mortified, although BFF was that, too, but because her teeth ached. I was sympathetic and concerned, but additionally, astounded. How speedily can a person go from zero cavities into the double digits?
Then BFF admitted that she hadn’t been to the dentist in quite a while. Never having had a cavity gave her a personal exemption, she thought. She was exceedingly overdue at the dentist, as it turned out. It had been years since her last check-up. I tried to get a firmer figure from her, but she was reluctant to disclose an exact number.
“I don’t know,” BFF told me. “Seven? Eight years or so? Maybe more…”
“Basically the reason you never had a cavity,” I concluded, “was because you hardly ever went to the dentist.”
The lesson was self-evident to BFF, who conceded, “Pretty much.”
We have no reason to expect utter perfection from anyone, not even from the people we admire the most. We have considerably less reason to expect it from ourselves. Yet with her sobering trip to the dentist and a total of thirteen cavities, BFF remained my instructor just the same. Sometimes our best friends do us the enormous favor of teaching us what not to do.
Occasionally, I will marvel at those thirteen cavities; they still serve as an important caution for me now. Thirteen has been considered an unfortunate number since before Judas kissed Jesus. This is the number that signifies that things have gotten away from us, which they have a tendency to do, if left unchecked.
The faith traditions the world over tell us that in matters of spiritual practice, we should not be left to our own devices, not unless we are heedless to our peril. These traditions all encourage our checking things out by checking in – with clergypersons or confessors, companions or advisors, friends or counselors, spiritual directors or even AA sponsors. Regular examinations — dental and otherwise — do us good.
The Twelve-Step recovery programs, rooted in the Christian tradition as they are, borrow from the Ignatian spiritual exercises, which include the daily examen. A variant of this is known to many a recovering person as the practice of taking “personal inventory,” and “a searching and fearless moral inventory” at that. Part of staying honest is sharing this inventory with “another human being,” someone who will understand and empathize with our struggles. This sharing is not intended to create more problems for us, but to relieve the ones we already have, and to prevent potential ones, as well.
Ultimately, the starkest facts of the case are our friends. The better acquainted we are with them, the better off we find ourselves – mentally, emotionally, materially, and spiritually. As runaway seminarian and renowned psychologist Carl Rogers observed, the data are always friendly. But facing them requires a degree of bravery on our part, a disciplined approach, trusted advisors, and also a set schedule.
As this calendar year comes to its end and a new one begins, people are primed to take stock of the recent past and plan for the immediate future. This twin activity needs to be undertaken with great care and seriousness, especially if it results in resolutions; ideally, it should not be done in isolation. Today my resolutions have to do with spending much more time with my closest friends, including BFF. Too quickly, whole years can fly by with my scarcely noticing they’ve passed.
Increasingly, I’m interested in the long-range view of life. It practically clamors to be examined from a variety of angles, including the widest, which BFF has a rare talent for providing me. Should old acquaintance be forgot… far too much would be lost: wisdom, insight, perspective. Who else but a true-blue friend could keep me honest? Fast friendship is an especially fine spiritual discipline, and this year, I refuse to let that fact get lost on me.