MINESTRONE FOR THE SOUL
“Pick friends who are better than you.” –Zio Tonino
Friends – the really great ones – are your chosen family. That’s pretty important stuff in Italian culture. Often, you refer to those family friends as zii (or aunts and uncles). You might even celebrate holidays or Sundays together or take a vacation insieme. What is wonderful about big Italian families (at least when you’re not feuding over property, which is commonplace) is that you might find your best friends among your family. While I always had great friends in school and later work, I found my best friends to be right at home – cousins and aunts and uncles, and now that I’m older my parents. No matter what was going on in my life or who entered, I always came back to them. From what I’ve gathered it was even more like this for most of my extended family, who came to the United States as foreigners and relied on each other for support and companionship as they learned the ways of the New World. So, I was really surprised when Zio Tonino, who is married to my father’s sister, advised me to “pick friends who are better than you.” I didn’t even think he thought we needed friends.
I was just out of college and his kids, who are a bit older than I am, were all recently married and starting their own families. In fact, the conversation came up as we were dissecting the pals one of his kids had honored with a place in his bridal party just a few years earlier. Already, his son was not so friendly with one of the ushers. And I said I thought it was better to just reserve the job of usher or bridesmaid to blood relatives for that reason. My uncle actually disagreed and said we just don’t know how to pick friends. The people we chose weren’t good enough for us. Of course. I should have known. In one turn of a phrase my uncle had both complimented and criticized us. This is typical behavior in an Italian family, as I’m sure you know, so it was hardly surprising. But I was intrigued by his suggestion.
You need to look for people, who are better than you, when picking friends. They should be smarter, prettier, more resourceful, and more charming, he essentially said. They should have better personal and professional prospects, and they should even be better people – kinder and gentler. The idea, he said, is to get friends like this who will raise you up. They will motivate you and teach you to be better, too. Zio Tonino is a smart businessman, and he was stressing that this would work in your favor in the workforce. But he was talking about more than networking to get your next job. He was talking about improving yourself by surrounding yourself with positive people. He was talking about removing the toxic people from your life and getting inspired by those who remain to do great things, whatever that might be. He was talking about choosing your family – the ones you could choose and were not dictated by blood and family lineage – wisely.
Looking at my contact list of friends, I felt I had done a pretty good job up to that point. But there were definitely a few people in there, who might have been looking to me for guidance and not the other way around. There was also a fair share of toxicity in the mix, too. I’ve grown older and wiser in the 15 years or so since that conversation. I don’t waste my time on people, who suck all the positive energy out of my life. I’m a mom now, too, so that’s out of the question. Time is valuable, so you can’t let people suck it away from you. Now, I still look for friends who are essentially “better than I am” at a variety of things, but I also have lots to contribute. I think I can lift them up as well. It is give and take in these relationships, and I think that’s in line with what Zio Tonino was talking about. When you are surrounded by greatness, you’re bound to be the great one once in a while. The others can learn from you, too.
When I meet new people, I use Zio Tonino as a barometer. Would he be cool with this person? Would he approve? Of course, they must inspire me to be the best me that I can be. Yes, that’s a cliche. Yes, I said it. But the reason it is worthy of mention is that it’s true and it is a great way to choose the friends of today and tomorrow.
Di Meglio uses the written word to help families create memories and stick together. You can follow her on Facebook at Francesca’s Newlyweds Nest and on Twitter @ItalianMamma10.