“Friend” is an odd word.
During my teaching English as a Second Language days, my students often expressed frustration with American usage of that word.
“You use that word all the time! EVERYONE is a friend. But that means no one really is.”
“It doesn’t appear that Americans have friends. At least not in the way we use the word in my country.”
Of course I have friends. I have several cherished long time friends. I have friends I can not speak to for years and then reconnect with and immediately it feels as if we were never apart. I know a lot of Americans who say that very same thing.
But that example only serves to make my students’ point. The kind of friends they’re talking about are the kind that would never go years without speaking to each other. To them, a “friend” is a person that makes up an integral part of their daily life in their thoughts, emotions and activities. To them a friend is like an appendage; when you leave it behind it causes deep pain. The type of friends they are talking about are the type of friends that would play heavily into a decision to move or not. Mostly not.
I have to admit that I don’t really have those kinds of friends.
Most of my friends have been situational. By that I mean we were thrust into the same location by chance.Our close proximity caused us to reach out to serve a basic human need of belonging and likeness and so we became “friends.” But once the situation was over, we all went our separate ways and the friendship essentially ended except for nostalgic reunions on Facebook and occasional messages of “Congratulations” for a new job or “Happy Birthday.” You know, Christmas card friends.
I do have friends who have stuck their necks out for me in shockingly unselfish ways and for whom I’d give the shirt off my back. I’m so fortunate in that regard. These are the ones who you can look to in a time of need… and who you hope feel the same about you. As special as these friends are, they are not intimately involved in my day-to-day life and that’s what sets them apart from the friends my students described.
I have high school and college “friends” I cherish dearly but I can’t call any of them up right now to go have a drink with me. They don’t live nearby. I have work “friends” I’ve collected at various jobs on my diverse resume, but we only stay in touch on Facebook. I have many international “friends” from my time in Brazil, Japan and while teaching but none of us are planning to meet anytime soon. I have gay friends, ex-Mormon friends and every combination in between but they are more close community members with some things in common.
My mission companions are like that. For 2-4 short months we were paired up and involved in some pretty intense day to day activities with a lot of emotional investment and vulnerability. Like friends, we encouraged one another, laughed a lot and cried some. Then, when a transfer came we hugged and walked away to do it again with someone else. I liked most of my companions and got along swimmingly with each one of them except for the first one. Funny that he’s the only one who has reached out to me on Facebook! The others I’ve interacted little to none with despite my attempts. Two of them were at BYU with me afterwards but showed no interest in getting together. The others are in Brazil somewhere with common names that return hundreds of results on Facebook friend searches.
Whether it be school friends, work colleagues, or travel encounters these situational friendships are a lifeline and something I cherish in my life, but once the situation ends the close friendship wanes. I don’t mean to disparage those relationships in my life at all. Some of them continue thanks to Facebook and telephones, but at a distance. My American tendency for residential mobility means that I’m only in one place long enough to start friendships. I’m rarely in one neighborhood, town, state or even country long enough to follow through with the kind of long-term friendships that my students described and for which I sometimes feel at a loss.
All my intimate relationships have been something I call friendships but even those have deteriorated into something stilted and casual once the partnership ended. The friendship portion was entirely dependent on our intimate pillar to hold it up (which is probably why they didn’t endure).
I just had a career defining event happen to me last week and I while I have lots of “friends” I could share that information with who would cheer and celebrate with me, I don’t have anyone who would come over and bust out in tears of joy with me because they know how hard I’ve worked for it, how much I needed this. THAT’S the kind of friend my students are talking about and the kind of friends I’m missing.
Today is Father’s Day and I’m alone all day. By prior arrangement, my kids are on an international trip with their mother and I likely won’t even get a call today. We celebrated early, but my point is that I don’t have a close enough friend that knows this about me … someone who would know how much it sucks and acknowledge it or try to abate the suckiness of it.
I don’t think I’m alone in this desert of friendship either. I look around and I don’t see the kind of relationships my students described. We Americans are an independent and transient bunch. Our friendships tend to fall victim to other priorities and values. My European students placed their intimate friendships higher on the value chain than we would and had the close lifelong friends to show for it. Some of them would even top family, career, independence and money with their dearest, most intimate friendships.
My only experience with that involved using something like that sort of friendship as a tool (which of course means that it probably really wasn’t that kind of relationship).
At one point in my “trying to be straight” past, I read a lot of reparative therapy and ex-gay material (I also went to some counseling along those lines). The theory was that same-sex attracted (gay) men just needed to find healthy non-sexual bonding friendships with other men and that that would help “cure” them. I tried it and the timing seemed to be perfect because a very hetero friendship was sparked between me and another single guy at church. We did everything together almost every day and even became roommates at one point. I wasn’t attracted to him at all, so the theory was working! It worked so well that I also got close to his sister and ended up marrying her. Today this friend, my former brother-in-law, won’t even speak to me or look me in the eye if family events bring us together in the same room.
Even in my most longing moments, like right now, I’m not sure I’d be able to find that, or even want that friend again. I know especially that I wouldn’t even know how to nurture that in my life. But I’m open to learning.
I’m proud and bewildered to say that I believe my son has that with his friends. He has a closeness with a small circle of friends that I believe will last a lifetime. There’s a flip side to that as well. He’ll probably make life choices that will put those friendships higher on his chain of values than I wish he would. I’m confident that that will keep him Mormon unless one of them leaves. I worry that he’ll make education and career choices based on proximity to these friendships rather than based on his own strengths and ambitions. But then, those kind of sacrifices are exactly what my students were telling me that they’ve made for their friends, the choices that make their friendships stand above what they’ve witnesses on their travels here in America.
Friendship is an odd thing I haven’t quite figured out yet.
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