A pompous friend and the modest billionaire Azim Premji help reinforce a key guiding principle in Vaani and me – that the essence of responsible citizenship lies in trusteeship.
This past week, a friend reached out wanting to visit us to invite us to his daughter’s wedding. We requested him to avoid the formality and support our initiative to save paper. So we asked him to send the Invite over WhatsApp. But the gentleman and his wife insisted on coming home. When they handed over the Invite, printed on hot pink paper with gold letters in a ‘custom-designed’ font, our friend said: “Each invitation card has cost us Rs.1000 and surely WhatsApp would not have done justice to our effort. So, we decided to come personally…that way you can see how elaborately we have planned this wedding…it will be the grandest in our family for a long, long time…!”
Even as he made that statement – both verbally and through physically handing over that expensive invitation card – Vaani and I wondered, if each card cost a whopping Rs.1000, then how big, how fat and how wasteful will the actual wedding itself be?
Although Vaani and I don’t see it that way anymore, I concede that weddings are regarded as a socially relevant and important occasion by most families. But do they really need to be pompous events where everything is about outdoing someone else, showing off how much you have and investing in a vulgar, reckless, display of ego, wealth and status?
Thankfully, some of the younger folks we know are leading a change among their families and peers. A few weddings we have been invited to in the last couple of years have been zero-waste affairs; they were bootstrapped and done tastefully with no pomp, with only very close family and friends in attendance.
We believe weddings, if they must be done at all, must focus on making the experience memorable for everyone present while keeping the event a responsible celebration that emphasizes companionship and Happiness. And when everyone wills it so, weddings can certainly be carefully, meaningfully, curated on lower budgets; the money saved can be put to better use – for the couple to travel and see the world or set up a new home or to support a social cause that is seriously starved of resources.
I know it will be a long way before this view is embraced by the majority. But clearly a Rs.1000-a-piece wedding invitation card is avoidable. Surely, you can create beautiful Invites that can be e-mailed or sent over WhatsApp.
Interestingly, again this past week, we were invited to an event where Azim Premji of Wipro was given the Madras Management Association – Amalgamations Group Business Leadership Award for 2019.
Why does the incredibly simple, modest, Premji even need to be feted with an award? This was the thought uppermost on our mind when we arrived at the event.
But former ICICI Bank Chairman N.Vaghul nailed the reasoning. He said that in a society where values like integrity and trusteeship are almost extinct, where there is a steady decline in responsible conduct of citizenship, the spotlight on Premji’s principled Life can really help showcase the continued relevance of these values. Through telling the story of his Life, of the world-class institutions he has built (in manufacturing, IT and education) and of how much he is giving away (estimated at close to $ 21 billion) to his charity – the Azim Premji Foundation – we are inviting future generations to pause, reflect and, hopefully, embrace his philosophy of trusteeship (which he says is inspired by Mahatma Gandhi).
Vaani and I took away a key learning from Premji’s acceptance speech. He said that there is only so much that a family can consume. The inference clearly is that whatever is available to a family beyond what they require to meet their basic needs may ideally be given away to support someone else’s need to live a dignified Life.
I didn’t miss the irony from the past week as I sat down early this morning to write this Blogpost. The reality of the world – and the times – we live in struck me hard. Surely there are more people around us who believe that making money and showing it all off is the Purpose of Life. They are like our friend who vainly insists that even the invitation card to his daughter’s wedding must announce his wealth and social status. And, sadly, there are fewer people like Premji, who despite all their wealth, remain grounded and are invested in social good. Which is why I agree with Vaghul. Every time a Premji is celebrated, the message of intelligent living, of compassion, of giving, is celebrated. And given the circus of greed and one-upmanship that we see incessantly playing around us, this celebration of responsible citizenship is critical to inspire people; to invite them to consider living fuller, more meaningful, lives.
The idea of responsible citizenship is not about doing charity when you are asked to do it. I am sure most people out there have enough goodness in them to stand up and be counted when they are asked to contribute. So, that’s not the kind of reactive behavior that I am talking about. Responsible citizenship is about trusteeship.
Think of trusteeship like this. You are a trustee of the Life that’s been given to you. And you are a trustee of the planet that you inhabit. So be responsible with how you live and how you use the planet’s resources. Recognize that you need only so much to live and to support your immediate family. Beyond food, clothing, shelter, education, a reasonable healthcare and retirement plan and hi-speed internet connectivity through a smart device, whatever you have, whatever comes your way, give it away. Give, not because you have to give, not because you are asked to give, but give because you want to give. Recognize that just as this human form, this Life, is a gift, every thing, every resource that you acquire in this lifetime, is also given to you. So, be responsible by employing all that you receive for human good, to make the world a better place.
I too will lean on Gandhi to suggest employing a simple principle to make informed, intelligent, decisions when it comes to practising trusteeship (I have tweaked Gandhi’s original thought to make it relatable to our times): “Recall the face of the poorest – economically, emotionally, spiritually – person you have come across and ask yourself if the step you are about to take will benefit this person? Will this person gain from your making this choice? Will it help restore them to a Life of dignity, love and Happiness? If it will, go do what you are planning to do. If it won’t, well, rethink your choice!”
Apply this principle to my friend’s choice to splurge Rs.1000 on that wedding invitation card. Apply it to Premji’s choice to give away $ 21 billion. And apply it to each of your Life choices – from the past, from the present and to those that may come up in the future. And see how beautifully this principle leads you – every single time – to distinguish between want and need; and to do what is right than what appears to be right!
Loving and relating, in the present continuous, are what make Life beautiful!
A young man asked me and Vaani this question yesterday, in the context of a relationship between two people: “What is the meaning of love?” I told him loving is more relevant than love. If you are loving, then you are relating to the other person. Loving is present continuous, it is flowing. If you fall in love, chances are you will fall out of it. But if you are loving, if you are relating to someone, you will keep rising in love.
Vaani is often asked how she continues to stand with me, walk with me, through this crisis-ridden phase of our Life. (Read more about this phase here: Fall Like A Rose Petal.) And she always replies saying, “The circumstances in our Life have changed over the last 30 years that AVIS and I have known each other. We had no money when we met, we then made money and then we have had no money for over a decade now again. While the circumstances have changed, while how we look physically has changed, how we look at each other has not changed. AVIS as a person is the same. His values are intact – just the same as they were. I continue to relate to him, so, I walk with him.” That’s really what loving is all about. And I am grateful Vaani’s loving me this way.
Life is a journey. And companionship makes it very special, very beautiful. I am not necessarily meaning a spouse here when I say companion. I mean anyone who you can relate to, who is loving, who is a soulmate. Of course, if that companion is your spouse, it is truly a blessing. When there is loving between two people, then the relationship really does not matter. And when two people are not loving, no matter what their relationship is, it is dead – there is no relating between them, you see!
Another couple I can think of to celebrate this idea of loving are Shanta and V.P.Dhananjayan, the dancers. In their mid-to-late 70s now, their companionship, of over 65 years on stage and over 50 years as a couple, is inspiring. They have grown up together, they have faced Life’s upheavals together, they have offered their art to the Universe together, they have taken Indian culture and dance to global audiences together – and they continue to rise in love. Over this IPL season, both of them have featured in Ogilvy & Mather’s Vodafone TV commercial series doing together many things that not many folks their age will really venture doing. The series has been aptly themed #MakeTheMostOfNow and shows them on a second honeymoon in Goa, riding a two-wheeler (wearing helmets – and that’s a wow!), paragliding, doing Facebook Live, and holding videoconferences with their extended family on their smartphones. (Watch the commercials here.)
Vaani and I believe that Life must be experienced to the fullest, through its highs and lows, through its upheavals and through all its magic, mysticism and beauty. You can do that only when you are loving, in the present continuous, and only when you #MakeTheMostOfNow – together!
You have to bear your own cross in Life!
“What must I do when I want to help my son but he doesn’t want my advice,” asked a friend. His son is going through a difficult time in his marriage and is planning to separate. My friend wants to be there for him and hold him through this phase. But his son wants to be left alone.
What do you do when you know you can be useful, when you want to help, but someone doesn’t want you to get involved? Simple: you just leave them alone; you just send them positive energy; and if you believe in prayer, pray for them.
Each one of our Life designs go through unique upheavals. At different stages in Life, people want to handle their situations differently. Everyone who is going through a problem, believes they can handle it. Even if you think you can help them – because you have experience, because you have expertise – and if they don’t want your help, you must leave them alone.
Now, I know, if this is a friend who wants to be left alone, you are a lot more comfortable. But as in the case of my friend, if it is a child, if it is a parent or a sibling, how can you “not get involved”? This is where an intelligent choice must be exercised. When someone wants to be left alone, their privacy must be respected. Well, if they have shown signs of emotional fragility and you suspect they may harm themselves, then you can dive in and lead them. But if it is that they want to face their demons themselves and do it their way, obviously you have no choice but to let them be.
What is important, and in a way non-negotiable about Life, is that each one has to bear their own cross. You can support, you can offer perspective, you can hand-hold, but you can’t live their Life for them. Not even for your own child. Such is Life. Such is the truth. Only when someone lives through their experiences do they emerge happier and stronger. Only through living the dark nights and in loneliness do you learn to appreciate the value of dawn, of happiness, of companionships and family. In a way, until each one encounters the messiah in them, they cannot – and will not – awaken!
Loving is present continuous, evolving, as it is flowing!
A young reader reached out to share her friend’s predicament. The friend’s boyfriend of a few years had suddenly declared, overnight, that he had “fallen out of love” with her. The two were considering marriage. The young lady is, naturally, heart broken. She is figuring out a way to deal with her situation. And I am sure there are countless people out there who are struggling with such break-ups.
Interestingly, in the specific context of the young lady’s boyfriend, I actually commend him for his clarity. He at least knows that he has fallen out of love with her. This makes it amply clear to the lady – and to all of us – that the problem is not with the lady, it is not with her boyfriend, it is not even with love, it is with the lack of loving. When there is no loving, there is no relating. And when there is no relating, where is the question of a friendship, a relationship, a marriage?
I come from an Osho school of thought. Osho always warned against this tendency to fall in love. He said that only because people fall in love do they even fall out of it! Instead, he championed rising in love. Think about it deeply – what he says is simple, yet profound! Which is why, in my Book, Fall Like A Rose Petal, I titled a chapter Rise In Love to share how the companionship between Vaani and me has thrived over the years. Here’s an excerpt (my Book is a collection of letters written to my two children Aashirwad and Aanchal; Mom here refers to their mom, Vaani!):
“…I want you both to understand the essence of companionship in Life, drawing upon how inspired I am by your Mom. Sooner than you both believe, you too will be in love. You too will meet and want to be with someone whom you want to spend the rest of your Life with. But remember, being in a relationship alone does not mean being in love. Being drawn to someone for their physical attributes is not being in love either. Being happy in someone’s presence is also not being in love completely. You are in love completely when you can be someone’s best friend and can have that best friend’s friendship forever. A best friend is a soul-mate. Someone who can help you see who you are, accept you for what you are and in the future may become one who does not shy away from speaking the truth; holding a mirror and critiquing – not criticizing – your actions and someone who is willing to walk with you to where neither of you has been before. A soul-mate is always understanding, demanding, forgiving, compassionate, teaching and uplifting.
“It is not difficult or too complex to be a soul-mate. You can be one too. Being a soul-mate requires one to know, understand and appreciate the meaning of Life. Life in your teens and early adulthood will be full of exploration. Especially of your sexuality. This is where you will find joy in kissing, feeling and, perhaps, in today’s generation, having sex. Please know that there’s nothing wrong with any of that. When you get past the physical dimension of love, you begin to see the value of wanting to spend a lifetime with that person. It’s a great feeling, full of anticipation. Of your own home, of your own children, of your own Life together; living, happily ever after.
“Now, almost everyone who falls in love first and then marries gets into that relationship with the same sentiments and expectations. Then, have you wondered, why do people break up? Why do marriages fail? It is because, relationships, as I have learned from Osho, the Master, signify the death of the same something, that precious feeling that inspired you, in the first place, called love. You love someone when you relate to that person. People fall out of love because in a marriage, while there is a law, a label, society, family, caste and religion – there is no more relating!
“I think what has worked for Mom and me is that we continue to relate to each other. Age, place, or circumstance, don’t seem to affect or pollute our precious, pristine shared space, where our love for each other continues to thrive. It is not something unique to us. We have just made our friendship, our way of relating to each other special…”
A young film-maker Shalu who read my Book decided to make a film and called it Rise in Love to showcase how love thrives in the face of adversity. Between my Book, and the film, a common thread you will see that keeps me and Vaani going is our loving. It is present continuous. It is a verb. It is not static, it evolves as it flows.
So, that brings me to the boyfriend’s choice. Of course, what he has told the lady will hurt her. It is a sure cause for a heart-break, a depression. But it is actually an opportunity to celebrate too. Celebrate that this is not the person that, over time, she would have been able to relate to anyway; so let him go! Celebrate also that the gentleman had the courtesy and courage to take an informed, evolved, decision, instead of two-timing her. This attitude, to look beyond the obvious, beyond the physicality of the situation, is crucial to intelligent living. Now that the lady is in the throes of a break-up, if she chooses to rise above the apparent heart-break, she will discover that a companion who will compliment her, complete her, no matter what the circumstances may be, is waiting for her! She just has to rise in love to find him!
Clearly, beyond what families want, beyond what society dictates, beyond marriage, lie loving and companionship. When you have found that truly loving companion, who will continue to be loving no matter what, you will have risen in love too!
Marriage is a hollow, irrelevant institution – it is perhaps the singular cause of gender inequality.
Last night, over dinner, Vaani and I had an interesting conversation with a friend’s daughter. We talked about marriage – and its increasing irrelevance.
This young lady is in a long-distance relationship. Her boyfriend comes from an affluent, conservative family. The boy’s parents are keen to have the engagement done now and the wedding sometime next summer. The young lady is not sure what she must do. She is wary of walking into a family which does not believe in the bahu, the daughter-in-law, following her own bliss and career. The girl’s brother is advising the couple not to rush into a marriage. His view: “Understanding each other is very critical before you end up in a marriage.”
I agree with him. In fact, although Vaani and I are married, I have come to see marriage as a totally avoidable practice. Here’s why I feel so – and this is what I shared with the young lady too last night.
In the garb of according societal approval and fulfilling religious norms, marriage actually, unnecessarily, limits Life between two people. Clearly, the reason why two people relate to each other for long periods of time is not because they are married. It is because there’s a friendship between them, they understand each other and are willing to be non-judgmental about each other despite the circumstances. This relating is continuous, and is never limited by gender, class, religion, nationality or language. Of course, to build and sustain this companionship, two people need not be necessarily married. On the other side of this view, people can stop relating to each other after being together for a considerable amount of time. It is very natural. But as we see all around us, it is only marriage that makes any divorce painful and messy. So, if you place societal requirements aside, marriage is irrelevant. What people do today while they are still in a marriage they can and will do even otherwise. They will either relate to each other and be great friends or they will grow out of liking each other and move on or they will stay together and have other relationships that will make them feel complete and fulfilled. But when they do all this without being married, they will do so while being a lot, lot more, happier. Simply, they will experience total freedom and zero guilt in doing what they really want to do! If you examine society around you, there’s isn’t unputdownable evidence that supports the utility of marriage as a social contract – it has neither aided the building of great companionships nor has it prevented people from exploring Life outside of its framework. This is why, I believe, marriage is irrelevant.
The other problem that marriage has created is that it has, again unnecessarily, made a very basic human need, sex, appear illicit and salacious whenever it is indulged in outside of a marriage. This is outright ridiculous. As Osho, the Master, says, the bees, the birds, the fish, and every other species don’t find the act of having sex illicit. They do it freely. They don’t have any rules that promote monogamy and condemn polygamy. So, why are we humans outrageously supportive of this regressive framework called marriage that restricts free access to a basic human need, to a beautiful spiritual expression – sex?
Also, it is the imposition of the draconian code of conduct of marriage that has singularly led to gender inequality. This is particularly true in Indian society even though it is evident in several other cultures world-wide. Consider this: the moment she marries, a woman must serve the interests of the family, often at the cost of her career, her passion, her bliss. She must rear children. She must not step outside of the marriage, the relationship, even if she finds someone that she can relate to. But the man she married can do what he pleases, with whomever he chooses. And because she agreed to be subservient, and often just a doormat, if at all she dares to seek a divorce, she has to be at the mercy of her estranged husband and seek alimony for survival through an inert legal process, that’s always messy and emotionally draining! Doesn’t all this sound so stupid, so repulsive?
I would any day champion that people just develop great friendships while living together. If they grow out of liking each other, they can, and must, move on. And if they want to procreate and have children, let it be a mutual choice, not a necessity. Yes, for reasons like securing passports or buying material assets, if there must be a piece of legal documentation, let there be. But don’t get wedded to the legalese. The real contract is in the spirit of togetherness – of a friendship, of relating to each other, of enjoying each other, of giving and receiving, of always being there for each other, no matter what the circumstances are. As I share in my Book Fall Like A Rose Petal and in the film Rise In Love (that a young film-maker made to understand how the companionship between Vaani and me thrived in the face of adversity), Vaani and I are friends first and then a married couple. In fact, if I was meeting Vaani now, I would not have chosen to have a marriage. We would have lived-in together and would still be loving each other as much as we do now. Our marriage has not helped us stay together. Our friendship has.
So, my (unsolicited) advice to my children, Aashirwad and Aanchal, and to anyone wanting some perspective is this – marry only if you want to; please don’t marry because society or family wants you to. It is a meaningless, irrelevant, practice. Between being stuck in a relationship and being able to relate to each other no matter what, relating to each other is more valuable. Between your marriage and your happiness, obviously, happiness wins hands down any day, doesn’t it?!
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Allow your children the freedom of choice: don’t insist that they see Life from your point of view alone.
When visiting a friend’s place for Golu last evening, I was asked if we were looking out for a marriage alliance for our son. Well, our son is 26 and therefore, given our culture and prevalent norms, I was not surprised with the question at all. In fact, our daughter is 21 and it is only a matter of time before people are curious enough to suggest matches for her too. In reply to the question last evening, I said that both Vaani and I had left the choice of finding their companions to our two children. But our friend went on to say that we “must definitely influence our children to get married”. He elaborated that we must show them the “right direction” and help them make “informed decisions”.
I disagreed politely and so the conversation went on to graze on other topics.
But this morning, as I sat down to write this blogpost, the question I was asked, and my answer, were uppermost in my mind. I often wonder why is it that we don’t leave our children alone. Bad enough we have been brought up without much choice. And now we are perpetrating the same, sometimes abysmal, conditioning on the next generation?
First, let us understand what Khalil Gibran (1883~1931), the venerable Lebanese-American thinker and author, said so emphatically – that our children are born through us, not for us! We are only instruments that delivered them here. So, let’s stop being possessive about them. Children are not things to be possessed. We must recognize them as individual human beings – like you and me. You don’t control human beings. If you do, you are a slave driver, a dictator. Not a parent.
Second, look at how choice-less birth is – yours, mine, even your child’s! Children cannot choose their sex or their parents or their homes or their places of birth or even their names. Everything is given. In fact, everything’s forced. So, obviously, we must at least give our children the opportunity to choose – in matters where it is still possible to exercise a choice – what, or who, they love! Looking after and raising children, with good values, does not give us the license to force them to do anything and everything we want done. But invariably we force a lot – what to eat, what to wear, when to sleep, what religion to practice, to marry, whom to marry, when to marry, to have children, when to have them and so on and on. One area where parental force does not work is in deciding the sex of their grandchildren – and, at least in India, that is the cause of a condemnable and despicable social practice!
Third, we often confuse our parent-status with ownership. “My child” does not ever mean to us parents – “child in my care”. It has always meant “I own this child”! So, where’s the child free? Isn’t the child enslaved right at birth? We mask this injustice in the garb of “protection and security”. Demanding obedience to a code of conduct laid down by us has become a universal basis for bringing up children. A child has to adhere to a parent’s “yes” or “no”. The child has no voice and even if he or she has, they are often bull-dozed into submission. I am not saying that we let children do whatever they want. But how about replacing obedience with intelligence? How about telling the child, through several conversations, what has worked for you and what has not? How about empowering the child, over time, to take her or his own informed decisions? How about teaching children to learn from their mistakes – irrespective of whether the mistakes happened because of indecision or poor decision or even plain recklessness?
Fourth and finally, let’s not try to make our children like us. Let them be different. Just because you are a doctor, does not mean your child should be one too. Help the child understand her or his calling by allowing experimentation. By trying and failing. Maybe even a hundred times. Our current education system, in India at least, is very restrictive and taxing on children. It measures talent only in set parameters _ science, history, geography, a few languages and math. But what if the child wants to be an artist? Or an entrepreneur? Or an inventor? Or a writer? Or a politician? Or a photographer? A musician? Or an actor? Unless you have given ample choice to a child, and seen for yourself the level of proficiency and passion the child has in a field, do not influence the child to study a said field. Grades and marks are not the only markers. Joy (how much joy a child derives doing something) and effortlessness (how easily is a child able to accomplish something) are key indicators too. Look for them always.
And, of course, coming back to the question of last evening, of a marriage-related conversation with an adult child, for all the perspectives cited above, Vaani and I have left it to our children to make their own decisions. In fact, we have told them that marriage is only an unnecessary social label – totally avoidable when you can relate to your companion and believe in the companionship! That’s the way Vaani and I live our lives. Why would we influence our children to live any differently?
Is your marriage a beautiful friendship or is it just a “co-existential drama”?
A friend constantly keeps whining about his wife to us. He says she is dominating, she’s very conservative, she doesn’t want to get involved in his business and she does not want to learn to adapt with the times. He says he has stopped expecting anything other than physical intimacy from her. He wanted to know if there is a better way of handling their relationship.
I reminded him that the issue here was not about the gender. Men are known to be equally inflexible and dominating when dealing with their spouses. So, this isn’t about his wife. The moot point here is whether my friend can relate to his wife. And if she can relate to him. A marriage can be continuously exciting and romantic only if the couple in it are relating to each other than merely going through the daily motions of ‘maintaining’ the relationship.
I think many people don’t understand that it is not their marriage that keeps two people together. It is their friendship which acts as the bonding glue. When you strip away all the frills and the individual or societal expectations, what you are left with is the friendship of two people who come together and decide to live, learn and walk together through Life. True friendship is really about being yourself and allowing the other person to simply be too. Actually you don’t need the label of a marriage to certify or consummate a friendship. We don’t do it in the normal course, with other friendships we may have struck with people from either sex. So, why does it become so complicated, ever so often, in a marriage? The answer lies in the contractual nature of the relationship itself – as defined and practised by society today. While no scripture or tradition prescribes this contractual arrangement, society, over centuries and generations, has ended up, in the garb of pronouncing marriage to be a ‘sacred institution’, turning marriage into a business contract. You give me this. And I give you this in return. If you are this way, then I promise to be this way. Marriage, in a majority of cases, has ended up being nothing but a conditional acceptance of the ‘not-so-mutual’ affairs between two people. Great friendships, however, are never conditional – they thrive on mutual understanding, respect, brutal honesty and compassion. As long as two people can be this way, relating to each other, despite the circumstances, their friendship will survive, grow and thrive. Truly, in such cases, you don’t need a certificate, a label or any protection or safety net – legal or social. Of course, it is quite possible that sometimes, friendships grow through a marriage. So, it is not to be concluded that the institution is itself losing credibility.
I guess the question really is – how can two people continue to relate to each other without really worrying about the relationship?
This, from my own personal experience, and what I have learned observing couples over the years, is possible when the ‘relating’ is continuous. Life is a long journey. Couples live-in together for at least 35+ years in a normal lifespan. Now this togetherness can be a beautiful friendship or just a co-existential drama enacted for both self and society. That is they “legally live-in together” in a marriage but don’t connect, don’t relate at all. When relating is continuous – there are no terms, no conditions, no impositions. There’s an expectant air about everything. Pretty much like the early weeks of two people getting to know each other. Waiting for the appointed meeting hour. Letting go. Giving space to each other. Disagreeing at times. But agreeing to disagree. There’s nothing predictable or taken-for-granted. Then, when everything’s fresh, despite the years of being together, then, the relating is continuous. Conversely, when the relating is continuous, the romance is still new and fresh.
Of course, Life’s design will challenge the greatest friendships. But only those that are built on the foundations of mutual respect and compassion__what I call relating__survive these challenges. Whatever label we give this friendship, I for one believe that walking hand-in-hand with someone you can relate to is the greatest gift you can have in Life. If you have that gift, celebrate and be grateful. If you don’t then stop kidding yourself. Have the courage to accept that while you may be in a relationship called marriage, there’s no relating in it anymore. So stop grieving, stop wishing your Life were different and stop complaining about your spouse. You are as much responsible for the non-relating in your relationship as your spouse is. And remember, you still have an option to go find that friend who’s out there waiting for you, and who will walk with you into the sunset!