Friday, September 19, 2014

Let's be friends?

There's a post about hippos in the works, dear fans.  Never fear, it will come sooner or later.

But, today I'd like to talk about friendship.  I'd like to talk about what it means to me, what it means today, and what it used to mean.  

Friendship, to me, is sort of an ethereal concept.  I've always found it hard to define what makes up a friendship, and who my friends were.  This may have been influenced by a somewhat lonely childhood, when, (due to a variety of factors) my closest friends were books.  I loved to read, and I still do.  I found friends in the characters in these books, and I don't mean that metaphorically.  I actually imagined that I could talk to them and that they could talk to me, and I was with them when I read the books that they were in.  I suppose that they were a sort of imaginary friend for me, though conceived more in the imaginations of the authors than in my own.  It was because of this that I struggled with the definition of what a friend was.  Because I never did all the things that I imagined myself doing in my fantasy books with other kids my age, I supposed that I they weren't really "friends.

I've grown now, and I think I know much better what a friend is.  This is largely due to one of my first friends who reached out to me, a boy named Eric Allen.  He came and sat with me when I ate my lunch, and we talked.  I had, as a principle, dined alone in the past, and I was not keen on conversing at the beginning.  But, he recognized the solitude in me and decided that he could help.  He did.  By the time I left high school, I had a small but steady group of friends.  

A friend is someone that you can talk to, someone who is willing to listen to you.  A friend is someone who will come and help you out when your car battery is dead, who will sympathize when you break up with your first girlfriend/boyfriend, who will even cry with you.  A true friend is a rare thing.  

Which brings me to my second point.  What is friendship today?  I was on Facebook the other day, and saw many of my friends who have friend lists that are in the thousands.  

"Wow," I thought, "They must really be awesome, popular people.  I wonder how many friends I have..."


At first, I felt a little dismayed, almost embarrassed.  I mean, I only had a fraction of the friends that they had.  I considered my list of friends, and admitted that far too many of them would be more aptly described as acquaintances, and that I stay in contact with far too few.  Before I sank too far into my general gloom of friendship-failure, I took a moment to think about it.  

What is a friend?  How many of these people am I truly friends with?  I read this article which talked about the study of an Oxford Professor, Robin Dunbar, who suggests that the maximum number of "friends" that we can have is 150.  The whole article is very good, and I'd suggest that you read it, but my point is this; most of the people that you are "friends" with on Facebook aren't really your friends.

Now, before you get out your torches and pitchforks, hear me out.  I'm not trying to insult you or say that all your friendships are built on lies or anything like that.  I'm simply implying that the term friendship can only really be applied to a relatively small number of people.  There are other words for the other people in our lives, such as acquaintances, colleagues, classmates, companions, comrades.  You could check a thesaurus and find even more.

The use of the term "friend" on Facebook is worrisome because it is changing the very definition of what a friend is.  Originally, the word comes from a verb in Old English that means to love or to favor.  Lover has taken on a different connotation in our day, so that's not really appropriate to use with many people (at least, not from my old fashioned point of view), but friend was the word that invoked that sense of love, of loyalty, of deep companionship.  So a friend was something more than the sister of my former roommate's cousin.  I've been reading a lot of classic literature for my classes, and people died for their friends, and did so gladly.  Achilles and Patroclus, Heracles and Hylas, Beowulf and Wiglaf.  That is what being a friend was in their time, and I think that it should be something more like that today.

Now, I don't want you to go and terminate your friendship with anyone who would not take a spear for you and die in your arms, because chances are you don't have that many people who would do that for you.  And if you do, congratulations!  You're one of the lucky few.  I just want to re-emphasize what being a friend really means so that we aren't completely caught in this idea that friendship is a tenuous digital connection whose meaning is encapsulated in the click of a button accepting an invitation to be someone's friend.

So, let's be friends.  Or let's be acquaintances, or peers, or relatives, or whatever it may be.  But let's also understand what that really means.  

(But hey, what do I know about all this?  I'm just a panda.)


  1. There was a quote from a "Kurt Andersen" in the article that was linked to your blog. It's very interesting. A true friend is much more than what facebook makes it seem.

    1. Hehe, yeah, I noticed that. No connection, of course.