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More Things Change
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
The first time I ever lost a close friend to a major transformative life event happened in college, when I discovered that one of my best high school friends had become a born-again Christian during the second semester of our freshman year. I had been braced by a mutual friend about the transformation before school ended that year, which was a good thing, for I fully intended to hunt my old friend down when I got home from finals so we could continue our hellion ways. But the mutual friend warned me away from such notions; the change in Buddy (I'll call him Buddy) was absolute, unyielding. If I wanted to still be friends with him, he told me, I'd have to adjust to the new dynamic. Apparently Buddy had recognized that his sinful past had him down a downward spiral and that only Jesus' love and grace had saved him from destruction and damnation.
I still fully intended to ring my friend up when I got home that summer, but I was pretty apprehensive about it, now. I couldn't get it out of my head; I was convinced that what he probably referred to as his "downward spiral" was what I'd probably consider "Saturday night." I kept thinking about our various escapades and juvenile debauches and tried to adjudicate exactly how hell-bound they were; while they certainly weren't anything the good kids were doing, they didn't strike me as supremely decadent or Caligula-inspired either. Yet I felt complicit and guilty about them now, about being one of those forces that had pushed my friend towards his "downward spiral."
So we eventually got together that summer, once, and it was as awkward as you'd expect. I prodded Buddy about what I'd heard about his "big news," and he spoke fervently, expansively, about the conversion, using a lot of language that sounded strange to me: there was "Jesus' blood" this and "power of grace" that and lots of references to the "Word" and the "Truth." It was the jargon of the revival tent, not the quiet conversation between friends. I kept waiting for the appearance of a shared bit or joke from our past, something that made me think of him and only him, but it didn't come. The very reverence with which he spoke was something the two of us used to lampoon, mercilessly. But now, that humor that had once bonded us was nowhere to be seen. I asked some respectful questions and tried to meet him sort of halfway (I was somewhat of a Christian at the time), but it became clear that the schism between us was huge and growing larger by the second. My friend made a point of having a beer that night, to show that he was still the same guy, basically, but it was such a production that it totally destroyed any conviviality that the act might have implied. Whenever you strain to prove that nothing has changed, it's obvious: Everything has changed.
We didn't really speak for another decade; later, as his fervency abated and my alienation mellowed, we managed to become friends again — not like before, of course, but then again, I should remember that all friendships tend to evolve. But I never forgot that central dilemma that Buddy's change had caused me to face that summer: How do you respond when a friend makes an ecstatic change and you remain the same old guy?
Of course you want to allow your friend the opportunity to grow and expand and learn and develop and actualize and all that crap but you'd also like some assurances that your friend isn't going to change too much. Especially when their change seems to comment tacitly on your own specific lifestyle choices. There's always that tiny moment of unease when a drinking buddy tells you that they've given up the bottle — you make a show of acting supportive, but you can't help feeling a bit defensive on the inside: What, so you think I should give up drinking, too?!? It's petty, it's ridiculous, especially since your friend has taken great pains not to judge you or label you; still you can't help wondering, What's the basis of our friendship now?
A few years back I had two great friends announce, at about the same time, that they were giving up drinking, and that was tricky, for I'd say 80% of my time spent with each involved alcohol, in some fashion. But it turned out okay; one of the friends absolutely needed to get sober and I was happy for the change and ecstatic that our friendship was strong enough to handle the new paradigm. The other friend, well, I was relieved when he gave up sobriety after a few months. His abstinence was a bit of a grandstand, an attempt to appease a long-term girlfriend who wasn't too happy with his habits. It never struck me as sincere, his self-imposed Prohibition, and I was happy when he got rid of the girlfriend and kept the bottle. This was a change that I could really get behind.
By far, though, the most disorienting and disturbing conversion of all is not when your friend Gets Jesus or Gets Sober, but rather, when they Get Fit. I've always been struck by the similarities between religious converts and the people who've suddenly got fit after years of slothful living. Both are fervent, ecclesiastical; I'm convinced that, in America, the Church of Weight Loss could rival Catholicism and the Protestant Church for having the most followers. And again, there's nothing wrong with people taking charge of their lives and getting healthy; of course you want all of your friends to be happy and hearty and confident. The problem is, after the initial You Look Great! and Congratulations!, you discover that your friend has become a tad one-dimensional. After 5 or 6 months you just want to scream, Mother of God, can we talk about something/anything besides weight loss? Root canal? Garbage disposals? Rodents? Anything besides your god d----- diet and you god d----- workouts?
Heading towards the holidays, I like to keep a mental list ready for the old friends I'm going to be seeing and the changes that have happened to them over the years. It helps me to remember: no swearing in front of the God-fearing, no drinking with the recently sober, no happy marriage stories for the recently divorced, no questionable locker-room epithets in front of the recently uncloseted. It's tricky to keep up with such a list, and often I like to take pride in the fact that I don't present my friends with any of the same challenges. In a world of constant changes, I remain impervious to personal growth and maturation. There's something to be said for tradition, after all.