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Helping friends in need proves a Catch-22

Adam Cahill | Tuesday, February 3, 2004

It’s dark, the wind is howling, and the snow that is spiraling sideways into your face has a sting to it that only leaves your skin red and chapped. It piles onto the foot and a half that is already on the ground and suppresses the hope of any indication of spring in the near future.It really doesn’t matter too much to you though; this temporary hell that you’re going through on your way to work is the furthest thing from your mind these days. School has even taken a back seat to what seems like an anvil on your chest, choking off your once-strong breaths of oxygen. There’s never more of a desperately helpless feeling than being a friend of a loved one who is going through hell, and not being able to do anything about it.You could drive five hours to the hospital and listen to the doctor say the same thing that he has told 50 other people and try to convince the nurses that the initials I.C.U. have no bearing on your visitation rights. Or, you could pick your moment to be the less overbearing but nonetheless caring friend that they know you are. Clearly, it is your decision and it would seem that either choice would be suitable – or so one would think.The second-most important thing about college, if not the first, is the people that we spend it with. But yet, even with the great times that are sure to become some of the best moments of your life, there are just as surely going to be those times that try the person you are attempting to become. The most difficult part of being a college student is becoming close enough to those around you that the terms “brother” and “sister” aren’t just terms used for blood relations, and then see them struggle in different aspects of life. And to tell you the truth, it’s a hard thing to talk about, these real problems among people who seemingly just yesterday learned how to drive or had their first kiss.College is hard on everyone. It’s hard on the mind, body and soul. And when you see a sister of yours lose incredible amounts of weight in little or no time or a friend whose drinking week starts on Monday and ends Sunday night affecting his or her behavior to the point of being two completely different people – it tries on you. Not because it is embarrassing to be their friend or because you’ve lost any amount of respect for them – but because you care.And in attempting to help them we may come to find that the help we do try to give is not wanted, or even appreciated. But as a friend we still want to stand firm and hope that the loneliness and desperate behaviorisms that scream for us to stay away are really whispers for help.How do we respond to these signs as friends? Is there a right way to handle it without alienating a good friend that will eventually shut us out if we keep trying to help him? Racking your brain day in and day out, you try and try and try again to put yourself in his shoes to figure out his situation so you can understand and eventually do something to help him; and when it comes down to it, you can’t. You can’t figure it out. It is the world’s original Catch-22 – if you try to help, then he ends up getting angry because he doesn’t want your pity, and if you don’t try and help, then you aren’t a caring friend. So you keep looking for ways out for the both of you and then hours, days or weeks later when you still can’t put yourself into his position, you feel like a failure as a friend. There is no means to the end and you wander aimlessly in the desert of friendship, looking for a way out.But there is hope. Despite what logic would tell you to do, do the opposite. Don’t do anything out of the ordinary except be yourself. And if random acts of kindness aren’t in your plethora of things to do for friends, now wouldn’t be such a bad time to start. Because they wouldn’t be your friends unless they didn’t like you for whom you are. Be yourself. Things will only get worse if you try to force yourself on someone, even if you have the best intentions possible.So as you walk back to your dorm into a brutal wind you smile for the first time in weeks – all they have to know is that you care.

Adam Cahill is a senior history and American studies major. His column appears every other Wednesday. He can be contacted at acahill@nd.edu.The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.