Aristotle said that true friends are a single soul living in two bodies. That might be a bit dramatic, but I do believe that the word “friend” gets tossed around rather lightly these days—like many other concepts in the hyper-mobile, disposable society we live in today. I’ve found myself having conversations with several individuals recently on this topic, so I am choosing to take that as a suggestion from the Universe to “ponder out loud.”
Full disclosure first: I come from a long line of colorful oddballs and outsiders, people who do not make friends easily or quickly, and who are not typically (um, ever) the popular one in a circle of friends. In other words—I’m more Emily Dickinson than Carrie Bradshaw when it comes to friendship.
In attempting to clarify what a friend is, it is helpful to stipulate what is not necessarily friendship. Our world has become smaller and more “global” as technology has taken center stage, so for many the word “Friend” conjures up images of their Facebook page. So let’s start there: sending or confirming a Friend Request does not mean we have just “made a friend.” Several years ago, when I was a Facebook newbie, I actually did naively think that’s what it meant (remember—Emily Dickinson here). I assumed that someone would only “request friendship” with me if they found me interesting, witty, kind—the same qualities we generally look for in real-world friends—and that they wanted to get to know me better. And, to be honest, I have indeed developed a handful of actual relationships; I have five or six Facebook friends, whom I have never met in person, with whom I have exchanged important life circumstances and events and shared life milestones. We have come to know and care about each other’s families and lives. With others on social media I share a particular interest or a group experience. Others have added me to their list in the hope of garnering a potential business contact or client. Bottom line here—Facebook friends, by and large, are not truly life friends.
Some might disagree with this next assertion, but family members are not automatically friends. I am fortunate enough to be able to say that I actually like my parents. Still, I’m old-fashioned enough to have always thought of them as my parents rather than “equals” or friends. I have also been lucky enough to have experienced playmate and adult friendships with two out of three siblings (though, possibly naturally, we fought more growing up than I did with other playmates). For many, though, family relationships are fraught with too much baggage to settle easily into the category of friendship.
I have learned—through observation—that many people share themselves more easily than I and/or have looser requirements for what constitutes friendship. I remember chatting with a woman not long ago about an event to which she had gotten a last-minute invitation. She had no appropriate dress to wear, apparently, so she had just sent out text messages to 10 of her friends asking for emergency help. Oh. Long pause. I’m pondering that parallel reality where someone knows 10 people well enough to want to wear their dress; and I’m thinking that in my case that would have been text-singular to one friend, and she’s about six inches taller than me, so really I wouldn’t even have bothered with that. (Which caused me to wonder if some women choose their friends by size for clothes sharing purposes…?)
Certainly, as my kids have gone through school, I’ve observed other “Moms” form friendship groups of four or five to socialize together, with and without their children. I have never been part of these groups. Of course, when my sons were toddler and preschool age, I did have casual “friends of convenience,” with whom I hung out purely for the sake of a playmate for my child. They were nice women, and we had pleasant conversations, but I never felt moved to take it beyond the biweekly coffee chats. Which brings us to my feelings about what makes a friend.
I make a distinction between “friendly acquaintances”—women I chat with at the gym or groups I participate in casually—and friends. And to be honest, I have had two or three friends in my life. These are girls/women with whom I feel a deep and intimate connection. I believe we make each other better, stronger people; we meet emotional needs spoken and subconscious; we can be silly and laugh till we snort, and we can share deep pain and shed tears together. One friend in my life has been my friend for nearly 36 years, since we became best friends our first year of high school. Distance and even stretches of time out of contact have not lessened the depth formed all those decades ago.
That is a friend, to me. We have been there for each other through college, marriages, divorces, children, the death of parents, joys and sorrows. I know that if I were ever to find myself on the street with nothing to my name, nothing but my Self, she would be there for me and would see me for all that I have been and still could be. This is friendship. When I think about friendship, to use popular reference points, I think Butch and Sundance, Sam and Frodo, Ron and Harry and Hermione, bonds that hold not just for good times and fun but also through trial and ordeal.
Perhaps being an outsider by nature and somewhat solitary, someone not often invited “inside,” I have innately grown to place heavy meaning and value on those few genuine connections I have made. I would love to hear from others about how you define friendship and the role it plays in your life. Feel free to share–