How to Say Farewell

Several times over the past year I’ve had to bid farewell to close friends as I moved into a new season of life. Every time I felt pressured to use the time well. The line of thinking goes something like this: If this is the last hour we have together before I move out of town, it had better be a good one. Now is the time to have those deep, heartfelt expressions of love, to say goodbye in a way that does justice to the sacred intertwining of souls that is friendship.

It’s an appropriate feeling and a noble desire. History is full of great farewell addresses, from St. Paul’s second letter to Timothy, to George Washington’s farewell speech at the end of his presidency, to Lou Gehrig’s Farewell to Baseball Address.

Those addresses have become beautiful fixtures in human history. Yet they are so powerfully stated that to attempt something similar in my own life feels hokey or canned and inevitably falls short. It’s like what C.S. Lewis said of church: the obligation to feel tends to freeze feelings. In my final moments with someone, the pressure to say something profound trivializes it.

How, then, ought we to address our dearest friends in our final hours of fellowship?

I remember confronting this question while walking through Washington D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood with my friend Joe last August. We had just grabbed burritos for lunch at Union Station, and the walk home would be our last — at least our last for some time. I wanted it to be special, rich with the best conversations we’d ever had. I wanted to squeeze every drop of joy and happiness out of our friendship—to redeem the time, as St. Paul might say. After all, the days are short, and given that I was on the brink of a major life transition, mortality weighed heavily on me. I longed for this walk down 6th Street to be memorialized.

Joe and I were miles from that kind of moment. He was talking about some flip-flops he ordered through a Kickstarter project that had to be baked in the oven before wearing so they shape to your feet. He admitted it may be a gimmick, and I laughed because I was thinking the same thing. The company claimed they were hiking sandals, he said — an equally dubious proposition.

“Chacos are better for hiking if that’s what you’re doing,” I said.

“Ugh, I hate them though,” Joe replied, and commenced with his rant. “Chacos are ugly. Why would anyone wear them?”

“They’re better for strenuous activities. They stay on your feet,” I said in a half-hearted defense as I realized I’d brought an utilitarian argument to an aesthetic fight. I pivoted to a qualifier.

“What I really don’t get, though, is the people who actually try to get a chaco tan. Like they make it a goal.”

And so the banter continued. It wasn’t the conversation I would have hoped to have as one of our last, but in looking back I realized that’s okay.

Martin Luther is purported to have said that even if he knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, he would still plant his apple tree. The line has an eschatological point about the value of temporal efforts, but I think the thrust of it applies to how we conduct relationships. We spend our lives with each other doing things like planting trees, making fun of fashion trends, and eating burritos. Why not continue to enjoy them in our final moments together? Provided there are no outstanding conflicts or areas that require resolution or restoration, why do we feel that things suddenly need to be different in our last moments together?

Just as planting an apple tree is a far cry from erecting a timeless monument, a good friendship, like marriage or church or anything really, is more than a series of mountaintop moments of profundity and vulnerability (though it is nothing without these moments). It is much more well-rounded and embedded in the day-to-day. It’s bashing chacos and riffing about sketchy Kickstarter projects and complaining about how D.C. was built on a swamp. It’s living together in the concrete, tangible world of sandals and the burrito we had for lunch and the humid summer air.

In the waning hours of a friendship, that’s not frivolity; it’s time well-spent.

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