The special education field has embraced the unenlightened theme of heroism. As professionals we are often called “heroes” and praised for our patience and big hearts. We pride ourselves in “transforming lives” and “shaping futures.” Our skills and education are praised as “superpowers.” I am uncomfortable with these terms describing myself as a professional but am appalled that this champion attitude has extended beyond school walls and into personal relationships.I recently spoke to a local special education advocate and consultant about the needed change in the field and how authentic, meaningful relationships need to exist amongst people whose brains and bodies work differently than our own. Her response: “That would be a great summer job for a college student.” A couple weeks later after calling my friendship with a guy who has autism (or “autist” as he prefers to be called, rejecting the PC person-first nomenclature) “so great,” a co-worker told me that she visits a woman with disabilities “out of the goodness of her heart.” Both of these attitudes make my skin crawl. Paychecks and self-aggrandizement are not bases for friendship. A true friendship doesn’t maintain an imbalance in which one person is a hero and the other person is being saved or to draw the adulation of a crowd and it certainly doesn’t exist as a means of income.
Imagine learning that someone befriended you with intentions of putting it on their résumé as volunteer experience or merely to pat themselves on the back. What if your friend accepted your social invitations “out of the goodness of their heart?” How would it feel to know that what your “friend” gained from your relationship is the righteous feeling that they were doing you a favor? Would you feel like you were experiencing an authentic interpersonal relationship? I’d imagine not. I’d imagine you’d feel used, cheap and deceived.
How long and far does “the goodness of one’s heart” stretch? How long do the warm fuzzies of heroism last? Does the time between visits, outings and emails gradually increase until they disappear? If our own goodness is the drive, then yes, the relationship will disintegrate. Only when we are open to giving and receiving equally will meaningful relationships be forged.
What do you expect to gain from a friendship? Do you expect to have someone to depend on, someone to trust, tell secrets to, enjoy, laugh and gossip with? Or do you expect to only take away from a friendship the warm, fuzzy feeling of doing someone a favor? Don’t enter a relationship expecting to rescue someone from loneliness and be rewarded with devotion and praise. An equal balance must exist between what you get out of a friendship and what you give. If your friend receives a monthly dinner date, FaceBook friendship and laughter at their jokes but your reward is a pat on your own back, then you are not an authentic friend and you are certainly not a hero.
Take off your cape and just be a friend.