I was recently asked whether or not I have a “safe person” in my life. I do. In fact I have several – my wife, my siblings and parents, and quite a few of my friends. As the conversation went on though I caught on to a couple of things: that “safe person” meant something more specific than “someone you feel safe around”, and that friend doesn’t mean much anymore. As it turns out, “safe person” in this context meant what I mean when I deliberately use the word friend. Those of you who talk to me on a regular basis may have noticed that I prefer to use semi-synonymous titles like “buddy”, “acquaintance” or the rather awkward “a guy/woman I know” when talking about someone I like and have a relationship with but with whom I am not friends.
Let me say at the outset (granted the outset of my second paragraph) that this post will not get into the question of Facebook friending, it’s a fascinating topic but “beyond the scope of this paper”. I will also not be concerning myself with talking about whether men and women can be simply friends (though that may make a worthwhile topic for another post). What I do want to talk about it what friendship is supposed to be and what it isn’t, I probably won’t be able to restrain myself from a few thoughts on how things have gotten this way as well.
The Turkish word for “friend” is “arkadash” which essentially means “someone who has your back” or more literally “supports from behind”. In contrast, our word, according to my online etymology source, comes from a Proto-Germanic word “to love”. And then the famous four loves of the Greeks included “phileo” which was essentially non-sexual love. If I have been at all correct in my previous posts in claiming that we are essentially social creatures, then friendship has to be something more profound than a long-term playmate.
And that begins to get at what I am looking for with friendships. When I think, talk or write about friendship I am looking for something that gets beyond “acquaintance whom I really enjoy being around”; I am looking for something to which words like “honor”, “loyalty”, “commitment” and “love” come naturally and for which words like “like”, “enjoy”, “pal” and “nice” feel too weak.
Friendship is supposed to be a relationship you can rely on. Bill Cosby tells the story of a friend of his whom he could call at 2 am on a rainy night who would drive 70 miles to pick him up if he had a break down because that man is his friend. In college I had a professor who defined a friend as “that guy who would give you $500.00 just because you told him you need it.” C.S. Lewis suggests in The Four Loves that friendship grows out of a discovery that you share a fundamental passion with someone. Friendship happens when you have a connection with someone that first reminds you that you are not alone in the cosmos and then lets you know that someone else is on your side. It is not an accident that soldiers form some of the deepest friendships we know of, theirs is an experience which demands and proves interdependence.
To my mind the archetypal friend would be Sam Gamgee, though there are others though out history and literature. David and Jonathan, Achilles and Patroclus, heck Bert and Ernie are all encouraging, moving friendships. There isn't much bad that can be said about Sam, but if there is any one trait he is most famous for it would have to be his loyalty. Sam had Frodo's back. End of story. To quote Shakespeare, Sam's love "carries it out, even to the edge of doom" Mt. Doom in Sam's case.
In fact hardship works this way. One of the great things about hardship (it has many bad aspects as well) is that it brings people together. I have written about interdependence in the past; hardship creates interdependence which, itself, creates one of the best opportunities for friendship. I would be fascinated to find out if there is a correlation between the experience of hardship and the occurrence of real friendship. I expect that there is a strong one and if there is, that would suggest one more reason for the depression and apathy which is so prevalent in our materialist society. I certainly know that the last several years of financial difficulty have created and strengthened several of my friendships.
I want to end by clarifying something: I am not saying that there is anything wrong with being an acquaintance. As a matter of fact I think that at least part of the problem is that we have begun to take it as an insult to hear that someone we like is not a friend. It shouldn’t be. There is nothing wrong with being a buddy or an acquaintance. It is simply a different thing, not a worse thing.
So what do y’all think? Do you have friends? If not, have you felt the lack? If so, what is the benefit?