My Rich Friends
It is my general impression that most people tend to have friends who are demographically similar to them. My impression is also that exceptions to this usually span into categories of race and sexual orientation: white people who have a black friend, straight couples who have gay couple friends. I’m thinking right now of a Modern Family episode where Cameron and Mitchell try mightily to acquire friends who are non-white, and the bi-racial couple they end up befriending is relieved to have finally made friends with a gay couple. While my observation is not at all scientific, I feel comfortable stating is as a solid theory, both with and without critical thoughts to accompany.
What I aim to write about here technically fits into the category of “having friends who are different from you” but not in the “see, there are all my black friends” sort-of way. And since our difference is about social status, financial wealth, and prestige, it is a bit less delicate to talk about. A bit. Because my wife and I are significantly lower class than these friends I aim to write about here, it is somewhat easier to talk about without getting mired down in a debilitating amount of shame, self-consciousness, or extreme delicacy. I often wonder if that is also true for our friends when they think about it. To be both honest and fair, they are quite sensitive to our middle class status, but still rather clueless in the day-to-day reality of our lives.
We have known this friend, who I will call Jen, since 2002 and, since she got married, we’ve also known her husband since about 2008 (I didn’t attend their wedding, and the dates are fuzzy). They are both executives at a large and highly profitable corporation. But we met Jen in Peace Corps. From there, our lives took dramatically different directions. Even then, our friend was the one to quickly win friends and influence people, succeed at community organizing in a second language like no one else ever had seen, complete projects with gusto, and organize youth sports teams that seemed to always win their games. Some people… man, they just got it. And Jen has got it.
We have remained friends all these years, which is remarkable to me, because they live in what I refer to is a mini-mansion, emphasis on the mansion with gentle humor on the mini. Their children are bright and beautiful, and spend a lot of time in expensive day care, come home to eat purchased and packaged (albeit good) food, and already have more extracurricular activities than I can keep up with. I would guess that their annual wardrobe budget exceeds our entire budget. Their basement alone exceeds the square footage of our entire house. Their house has three play rooms that I have seen, not including bedrooms.
I will stop there with the details so as to not feel terribly exploitative. Because now that I’ve set the scene, I intend now to talk about the glue that keeps us friends, and how despite our personal differences on the definition of enough and spending, we all really like each other. It just astounds me. And how having access to witness the inside of a mini-mansion has more than gently challenged me to check my own assumptions about class and power in the other direction than where I usually check it. As a social worker, I’m always working to check my own middle class privilege in the many scenarios of poverty. But having friends in high places has been quite a lesson to me in what it really means to check assumptions. It has given me excellent and well-rounded practice in what it means to judge someone on their character rather than their lifestyle. And that is not easy, at all.
My wife and I value small, simple, manageable living. We are co-op members, host a CSA drop off, garden and grow our own food in the summer; we seldom fly, own one car, use a metro car share program, bike and walk when we can; our house is 900 square feet, we’ve done most of the improvements ourselves; much of our wardrobes were consignment items. No surprise to anyone that we were both Peace Corps volunteers. Yawn… my wife and I easily and proudly fit the stereotype.
Objectively speaking, it’s our friends who are the more interesting pair in this scenario. Hanging out with the likes of us, Jen having done Peace Corps, and both Jen and her husband being mindful of raising socially conscientious despite their privilege — technically, they are the ones who are defying stereotypes, challenging themselves, and being stretched. Right? It has likely been so much harder for me. After spending time at their house, I almost surely have a furrowed brow on the drive home. I’m thinking, “oh my God, their entry way is larger than our living room. Oh my God, their furnishings look perpetually new and like they came from the type of store I’ve never set foot in.” And I’m so terribly torn between how liberally they use resources and how wonderful they are as friends, as if those two should be mutually exclusive. It all seems so incongruent and so my initial reaction is to judge and be baffled.
I don’t think my judgment will completely go away ever. In their presence, my values are screaming inside my polite facade, and my pre-frontal cortex is working hard to remember how the fact that they are utterly wonderful people is far more important than how they spend money.
But the latest I heard from Jen was that she and her husband had watched Food, Inc and then immediately decided to join their local food co-op. When I heard that, I instantly thought, with much relief and admitted judgment: See, there is hope.
Maybe we all four have hope. And because this kind of diversity in friendship is not frequently aired and modeled on television shows, I’m just making it up as I go.
Do you know what our base to return to is, our commonality? We are all kind human beings. Period.