Wednesday 20 July 2022

Brass Taps and Watering Cans: a Few Thoughts on Friendship, Duty, and Sacrifice

This post was inspired by a recent call with Fran, in which she described the house- and cat-sitting she was doing for a friend. The cat was no problem at all, but the house plants were a different matter. There were plants in her friend’s third floor apartment, on the balcony, and on the ground floor. Those on the ground floor were a particular concern. There was a hosepipe but it didn’t work. Keeping the plants alive in the hot weather would mean many trips up and down stairs to fetch water from the apartment in the watering can.

I listened as Fran shared how she was feeling about it all. I asked for clarification here and there, but I tried not to burden her with questions. (Fran will laugh when she reads this; to her it probably seems as though I do little but ask questions!) I agreed it was a lot to expect her to carry water down from the apartment, but didn’t pursue the matter. If there was a viable alternative, Fran would have thought of it. She was sharing her frustration at the situation, not asking me to fix it.

We were about to end our call when Fran said she felt anxious in case she hadn’t turned the garden tap off properly. I was confused. I’d assumed the hose couldn’t be used because the tap was faulty. Fran said no. The tap was fine, but she hadn’t been able to get the hosepipe to work. In that case, I ventured, could she fill the watering can from the garden tap?

A light came on for Fran. Yes! Of course she could do that! In her frustration and exasperation, she’d missed the connection; and I’d almost missed it too. If she hadn’t mentioned her anxiety, it might have gone unresolved throughout her friend’s time away. That moment changed everything for Fran. She felt relieved and far more confident about discharging her responsibilities. I felt relieved for her, and happy to have been of help.

You might wonder why I’ve chosen to write about what was — surely — a pretty mundane exchange. Significant to Fran and me, yes, but why share it? What’s the message? The bigger picture? I’ll let you judge if it was worth the effort, but even before Fran and I ended our call I knew something significant had happened, and that I’d blog about it.

To begin, it’s a great example of how Fran and I do our day-to-day conversations. We talk about what’s going on for us and share how we’re feeling, whether that’s good or not so good. On this occasion, Fran needed to share her frustrations. It’s how she processes things and lets go of them so she can move on. I do it too, although I mostly use my journal and blogging to process what’s happening for me. It also shows how important it is to pay attention, and to offer input and suggestions at the appropriate time.

More generally, the story explores three themes that are the foundation of our connection and almost everything I do in the mental health sphere: friendship, support, and responsibility. Being in a position to help someone is a blessing, but it does mean actually stepping up to the task. It might be something quick and easy, like a supportive phone call or a practical task you can complete and then get back to whatever else you were doing. Sometimes, though, being a supportive friend takes time and effort. Sometimes considerable time and effort. Sometimes, it gets in the way of whatever else you might be doing.

Mostly, you’ll know what’s involved when you offer help or accept the request for support. Not always, though. Maybe you didn’t think it through or ask the right questions. Maybe the full implications weren’t obvious to either of you at the time, or the situation changed in ways that rendered the request more time consuming or difficult than it seemed. Whatever the circumstances, support means stepping up (literally so, if your friend lives on the third floor!) and following through on what you committed to. That’s what friendship is.

That doesn’t mean you have to love every bit of it. It’s ok to find the task challenging, tiring, or inconvenient. You’re entitled to those feelings, and entitled to process them any way you need to, whether that’s sharing with someone you trust, or getting things out in the safe space of your journal. You process things, and move on. Maybe you learn something about yourself, your friend, and the nature of your friendship along the way.

Our conversation also reminded me of a short story I wrote several years ago exploring service, responsibility, and sacrifice. It doesn’t have a cat, but it does have lot of grumbling (usually I prefer to say someone is “sharing their feelings” but this is definitely grumbling!), plants, a watering can, and a temperamental standpipe. Here's a short excerpt:

William took a small plastic watering can from the holdall at his feet and made his way across to the standpipe. It stood a little way off beneath a tree where two of the gravel paths crossed. For some reason it always made him think of gallows: didn’t they used to hang people at crossroads?

Despite the sunshine the brass tap was icy cold in his hand. It was stiff and he gripped it tightly, straining to turn it on. His exertions were rewarded with the usual trickle of water. He held the can, another of his home gardening accessories, beneath the uncertain stream. From past experience William stood back from the spout as far as he could, leaning on it with one hand as he held the watering can in place with the other. The awkwardness of the stance made his neck ache to look about him and so it was that he heard their approach before he saw them.

There’s a moment of sudden enlightenment in the story which I’ve referenced previously in an article titled The Constant Gardener: How to Be Someone Your Friends Can Rely On. That article covers trust, dependability, and steadfastness, as well as some of the unhealthy sides of supportive relationships such as co-dependency and over-reliance.

The most fascinating thing for me about my conversation with Fran was how so many of these themes came together in the space of maybe fifteen minutes. Fran was frustrated that the task she’d taken on appeared far more arduous than she’d anticipated. She didn’t say so, but I imagine she was thinking she’d not have offered if she’d known what it would entail. She’d given her word, though, and was committed to fulfilling the task for her friend. At the same time, I fulfilled my role as Fran’s friend by providing space for her to process her feelings. I almost missed the opportunity to help her find a solution, but we got there in the end.

Beyond the conversation itself, it gave me an opportunity to examine these themes in a new light, not least the importance of holding and maintaining healthy boundaries. Fran’s. Mine. Other people’s. It’s helped me figure out a few things. Maybe I’ll share some thoughts on that in a future article.

I’ll close with another excerpt from my short story. As William discovers, those outdoor taps can be tricky.

Water splashed across his hand. He reached to turn off the tap but as he did so the breeze caught the last guttering stream and spattered it across his legs. He stared down at his trousers, watching as the material darkened in irregular patches. Clumsy sod.

Hopefully, Fran won’t get soaked while she’s watering her friend’s plants!

Over to You

So, was it worth the effort? For me, yes! You’ll have to answer for yourself! Have there been times when you’ve offered to help someone, only to find the task was much bigger, longer, or harder than you expected? How did you feel about that? What did you do? What are your boundaries concerning giving, or receiving, help? We’d love to hear from you, either in the comments below or through our contact page.


Photo by Filip Urban at Unsplash.


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