The Difference One Friend Can Make

By Scott Westerman
“I Don’t Have A Single American Friend..”  Tamerlan Tsarnaev – The Boston Marathon Bomber

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He stood in the corner of the room. The rest of the students were coalesced at it’s center, speaking an amalgam of heavily accented English that often slipped totally into their native language. Since my passion is connecting Spartans to other Spartans, I was drawn to him.

“I’m Scott, the alumni guy. Glad you came.”

His eyes focused on the floor. “I really don’t know anybody,” he said. “I almost didn’t come. Have much homework to do.”

“Where’s home,” I asked? He told me. I didn’t recognize the place but tried to remember it’s name. “What are you studying?” Supply chain management, he said. Many of our international students come to MSU for this world renown program. “You picked the right place,” I told him. “What do you hope to do when you graduate.” He would go home and join his father’s company. As he said it, it felt like his heart wasn’t in it.

“Come with me,” I said motioning him toward the teeming crowd.

As he took a tentative step, I recognized the leader of the group in the crowd. She is one of those  flaming extroverts I always try to recruit for alumni work after graduation. I waved and shouted her name above the din. “Have you met…” I did my best not to totally destroy his name or the city where he was from. She bounced out of the group and fell in beside us as we urged him toward the crowd. “He’s in Supply Chain,” I told her.

“Working for your family after,” she said to him. For the first time, his eyes left the floor and looked back at her smiling face. She shook her head, “me too.. but then again.. maybe not.”

She laughed. He smiled. She grabbed his arm and pulled him into the crowd. “How may people here are NOT going to work for mom and dad when they graduate.” Hands shot up and everyone laughed. “I think we talk with these people for awhile,” she said to him as they disappeared into the sea of young people.

I thought about my mother’s funeral and the East Indian woman who came up to me after the service. “When I was a new bride, my husband came here to study at the University. I did not know any English and did not know anyone. Your mother invited me to her ‘International Neighbors’ group. I learned my English there. I learned self esteem there. 40 years later, I have a PHd too. My international neighbors are still some of my best friends.”

The cocktail lounge was crowded the other night. It seemed full of revelers from that afternoon’s conference, enjoying the fellowship that comes from sharing something in common. She sat across from me at one of those tables for two that don’t really give you any privacy. But it felt at that moment like there were only two of us there. “I never believed that I could be clinically depressed, but I always felt that something wasn’t right,” she said. “Getting to know some amazing people this past year made me want to feel better about myself.”

She opened her purse and pointed to a small orange bottle. I knew the name of the medication well. Her eyes glistened with tears. I could feel mine doing the same thing. “I began to heal,” she said, “when I realized that I wasn’t alone.”

I wonder how last weekend’s Boston Marathon might have ended if one person had worked a little harder to befriend Tamerlan Tsarnaev?

How many other outliers are out there who are fighting loneliness and depression? We all probably know at least one of these people. They may not fit society’s mold, “marching to a different drummer” one of my best friends would say. But they want the same things that we want: to be loved, to feel worthy, to be a friend, to make a positive difference.

It’s easy to vector in the direction of people who are like we are. We are attracted to people who are welcoming, nonjudgmental, compassionate and empathetic.

How well do we model that behavior? Flip through your mental Rolodex of acquaintances. Who do you know who may need you to be that compassionate friend?

A number of people who knew Adam Lanza told police that they suspected, beforehand,  something was wrong. The events at Sandy Hook confirmed it. But perhaps they didn’t have to happen.

Violence takes root in minds without hope. Terrorists recruit martyrs from the ranks of hopeless souls who are seduced to see death as the only way they can leave a legacy.

We’re admonished to speak up if we sense danger, to alert the authorities, to stop the crime before it starts. “If you see something, say something.” Perhaps that has a deeper meaning. Who do you know who needs a listening ear? How can you engage to help one unhappy person move at least one step in the direction of happiness?

In the coming months, there will be many events and activities to honor the innocent victims of Sandy Hook and Boston. How many of those activities will be directed toward the young man in the corner? The immigrant without connections? The people who may be battling mental illness but are too afraid of it’s stigma to do anything about it?

History records, again and again, that it only takes one unhappy person to negatively impact many lives. Another fact is equally true: It only takes one quiet hero to reach out a hand and lead that unhappy person toward the sunshine.

The best thing we can do to prevent pain and suffering is to help alleviate it.

That’s the difference one friend can make.

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