10.16.2015

I think I figured out what a friend is

For what seems like a long time, I've been wondering what defines a friend. A lot of people have several "friends" on Fakebook and other social media, and someone might say they're going out with a friend after work, or going on a friend's boat or to a party with "friends." But are those people really friends? Does it matter?

I think it's easier to make friends while we're in school because a lot of people are around us every day, which makes social connections easy. Once we leave school, our environment isn't saturated with people. Some workplaces have a lot of people, but they're silently working at computers or are guarded because they have to maintain a public face in order to survive the politics and maneuvering. One wrong word and they could be out of favor with coworkers, or even out of a job. So as we get older, socializing becomes more superficial because there's more at stake, and lines have been drawn.

People also get busy and live on their own track. If you happen to be on the same track, such as at a job, in a neighborhood, or at your kids' activities, then they'll let you in, and you seem to become friends (or remain friends if you met at another stage of life). But once the track changes, individuals continue moving in their own direction, and crossover is rare or non-existent. Especially in the USA, Americans travel on their own path, and busyness just creates walls between people, or they don't even bother to notice who's around them. Even if people had lots of friends as they were growing up and in university, conditions change because their friends might not be motivated to keep in touch or make an effort to meet up offline as they take on more responsibilities and are worn out from their personal and professional lives. One big life change is having kids--the parents have so much to do every day that friendships become auxiliary, and free time is pretty much non-existent until the kids get to a certain age (as long as they're not high maintenance or the parents aren't the helicopter types).

Sometimes we go through life assuming that people really don't give us much thought, until someone dies. A person who seemed to not have many friends could end up with over 100 at their funeral, where people say positive things and remember the person fondly, as if they really were friends. Maybe it takes death to realize who our friends are, but let's hope not--by that time, it's too late.

Here's what I've realized: friends stay with you no matter where you work or who you are. For example, I worked with someone who I got along with very well. When they got a job somewhere else, the communication via email, text, and even in person continued. That is a friend. Here's who is not a friend: someone I work with who ceases to communicate with me when I leave the job, even when I make an effort. Essentially, the relationship is contextual. Friendships aren't contextual; acquaintances are. Some people will consider their coworkers their friends because they eat lunch together, talk about problems, recognize each other's birthdays, etc. But unless that person is a friend, it all crumbles when someone moves on.

Time also determines friendship. It's very hard to remain friends with someone as life continues and changes occur. I have a couple of friends who I've known for several years, and we really don't have a lot in common at this point, but we keep in touch, go out occasionally, talk on the phone, and generally make an effort to stay connected. It's history that has bonded us, not every similarity.

Which brings me to the next point: friends accept you even if you have different views or lifestyles. A key to enjoying a friend is hanging out with them and talking about whatever you want to, and feeling comfortable enough to express yourself and disagree with the other person without any condemnation. It's also the opportunity to relax and be yourself. I don't care how free American culture claims to be; not many people create an atmosphere for others to be themselves, and people are self-conscious, so they reign in their personalities if they want to feel like they belong.

Friends don't control others. There is the obvious way of controlling, which is sadistic and usually refers to abusive romantic relationships. But what I'm talking about is more subtle and is revealed over time. Some people were raised in chaos or simply have a need for their world to be ordered. That includes people. So they want their friends to behave in a certain way and to say certain things. If the person crosses some kind of perceived line, they're punished or ignored. There's a lack of freedom in conversations or behavior, and there's a kind of standard set which stifles the non-dysfunctional person. Controlling people aren't friends and won't be until they lighten up.

As life throws us curveballs, our definition of friendship changes. They're no longer just the folks we go out with and have fun. They're the ones who encourage us, are available, can talk about anything, and know how to take it easy. They also can give constructive criticism and don't have a problem with receiving it, either. Basically, when we meet someone we click with, it begins a journey and develops from there.

There are a lot of people I like who are interesting and nice, and I wish we could be friends. They are acquaintances or simply people I have met who I might not see again. Because they don't care about becoming friends, or they just don't make the time, the "acquaintance" status doesn't change. And then there are other people who I used to know, who I wish I could still be friends with, but geographical distance or disinterest caused communication to cease.

I know some people who I don't see often, but they call me a "friend." So what they recognize is the connection or history, but we don't carve out a space to hang out. I guess that's okay, because it could be the thought that counts in the end.

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