I recently posed a standard question to the English class I teach at the College of San Mateo: What in your life do you take for granted? What are you thankful for?
I gave an example from my life as a template; first telling them what I took for granted.
“I love traveling the world,” I said. “When I go to a different country and experience their way of life, I am filled with humility and gratitude. But I take for granted how easy it is for me to get to these different places. I get inside of a metal tube and am halfway across the world in the same day. I never stop to think about how remarkable that is.”
Then I told them about the thing in my life that I actively appreciate. I told them about how I met my best friend in kindergarten, and how I met the rest of my friends soon thereafter. We grew up having sleepovers, winning (and losing) plenty of championships on various baseball teams, playing together in rock bands, and getting driven to our teenage gigs by our dads. We were even involved in a couple of standard high school rumbles. I told my students how now we remain just as close. And ever since getting diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), my appreciation for friends has grown. At this point in my life, I feel as I always have: The best gift anyone with RA can have is their friendships. Here’s why.
Friends enable me to be the same person I’ve always been
The first 20 years of my life, my friends had a particular image of who I was — a competitive athlete, able-bodied, yet light-hearted, and goofy. When I got diagnosed with RA, the physical changes were painful and frustrating. But it was also difficult to know that others would have to reevaluate their image of me. Through all of this, the best part about my friends, is that they’ve treated me the exact same as they always have. The long stares of them processing my inability to carry heavy things, or their volunteering to carry things for me, or their gradual withdrawal of invitations to play pick-up basketball or soccer — all things I expected would come with my diagnosis. These things never happened. Since my book, “Hard to Grip” —about my experience with RA— has been published, they poke fun at me and this keeps me at a level playing field with them. If my disease was a topic they felt was off limits, then I would feel like a pity case. Thanks to my friends, I’ve undergone a considerable life change, but I don’t have to always feel like it.
Friends are a healthy distraction
The mere presence of friends has been a great distraction from my disease. We’ve gone whitewater rafting in Oregon, dogsledding in Colorado, eaten burger challenges in Texas, and celebrated New Year’s in Thailand. We play golf, attend live music, go to baseball games. We coach alongside and against each other for youth teams, creating friendly rivalries. And, though it goes against my better judgement to reveal it, we also have a book club. Every few months we get together, all us ex-jocks (and our wives) and discuss literature. As is true for anyone who’s spent a lifetime together, there are few situations in which we wouldn’t manage to have a good time. And when you’re laughing — at your expense or your friend’s — or intellectually stimulated, or busy seeing the world, it’s much easier to forget, at least briefly, about your chronic illness.
We’ve watched other friend groups disintegrate overtime as people change, or move away, so we don’t take each other for granted. These days, we’re all getting married, one after the other, so we take time during our groomsmen speeches to acknowledge how lucky we are, and how meaningful our friendship has been, and continues to be. We also make sure to expose the groom’s flaws and remind him how lucky he is to have ever found anyone willing to marry him.
As much as any self-help book, or doctor’s visit, one of the best remedies to my condition I’ve found, and one of the best gifts I would wish for, is my friends.