It’s not a silly question.  Despite the fact that “everybody knows” what a friend is and how friendship develops and what it means to be a friend, it’s not a silly question.  What is a friend?

There are dozens more questions hinged to the first one.  At what point does a person make the transition from being an acquaintance to being a friend?  Surely there are degrees of friendship, but what are they? Is it really possible to have several “close” friends?  What is a “best friend?” Are spouses and siblings friends?  Does one love a friend in the same sense that one loves a brother or sister?  The questions can, and do, continue to spill forth.  Friendship is a complicated experience.  And there are no simple questions to questions about so intricate a relationship.

From a purely pragmatic point of view, friendship is what the people involved in friendships believe it to be.  It can be as simple as conviviality and camaraderie to some people.  But to others, friendship is far more than just being “buddies.”  While it may not be as psychologically intimate as the bond between spouses or life partners, it may have some of the same characteristics of lifelong commitments.  In fact, some would say, friendships are less likely to dissolve than marriages.

But, still, conversations about the relative strength of friendships versus marriages, etc. beg the question: friendship defined in what way?  I may know that I’ll always like ‘old Joe,’ who’s a nice guy and who is easy to hang out with. Regardless of whether we live close together or far apart, I think we’ll always be “buds.”  Maybe, but maybe not; but we’ll not go there yet.  Would I drop everything and travel cross-country to help Joe out of bind?  My answer to that question clearly distinguishes between someone I would call a friend and someone I would call an acquaintance.  Just as I would sacrifice my life for my wife if called for, I would do the same for my friend.  I would cross the continent.  I would give  up all I have.  My assumption, of course, is that my friend (and my wife) would do the same.  But maybe even that doesn’t matter.  In my mind, in the deep recesses of what I define as right and wrong, a friend is someone for whom I would give all.  There’s no question I’d do that for my wife.  And there’s no question in my mind I’d do the same for my friend.

The question, though, remains.  Who is my friend? How do I know that bond is sufficient to warrant the sacrifice I’ve just described?  I think the answer is not so much one that can be answered in the affirmative, but one which must painfully be answered by deciding who, among my “friends,” would I NOT be willing to sacrifice myself for his benefit?

That decision is the one that, in my mind, defines “friend.”  That’s what separates acquaintances, even good, close acquaintances, from friends.  I might go to extreme lengths to help an acquaintance. I hope I would…I think it’s right to do one’s best to help people with whom one shares some pre-friendship bonds that are strong and have potential.  But I would not sacrifice all I have, all that matters to me, for an acquaintance.  I might risk pain, injury, harm of all kinds, but I would not knowingly risk death.   For a friend, though, I believe I would risk it all.

But there’s a terrible, hard-to-consider, roadblock in that mode of thinking.  Would I risk death to save a friend, leaving my spouse alone without me?  Priorities arise when answering that question.  Assuming my spouse is the most important friend I have, the answer would be no.  But, outside risks to one’s spouse, one should be confident that he can depend on his friend…for anything.  People who draw the line as to what they would or would not do for a friend are referring not to friends, but to acquaintances.

I can count on the fingers of one hand, with leftovers, the number of friends…as I’ve defined friend above…I’ve had in my life.  One the one hand, that fact can make me feel alone and lonely.  On the other, I know close bonds are rare…very, very rare.  I find distressing the fact that close friendships …and, here, I’m referring to male friendships, because I’ve never been a female and have no plans to become one…often are embarrassing to the participants, thanks to societal conventions that look askance as close male friendships.   Even the friends feel discomfort in acknowledging, much less expressing, their closeness.  That’s too bad.

Several months ago, I lost a friend with whom I’d lost touch.  We never discussed his sexual orientation, but I knew he was gay and he knew I am straight.  Not that it mattered.  We were friends.  Very close friends.  I could allow myself to express my emotions in his presence, knowing he would not judge me as being weak or unmanly.  Moreover, I wasn’t embarrassed to reveal my emotions to him; he was not judgmental.  When I learned he had died, even though we’d lost touch, it really knocked the breath out of me; it was as if I’d lost someone very close to me.  And, of course, I had.

Some months after he died, I was thinking about him and about a couple of his other friends.  They were genuinely good, caring people.  One of them was his brother-in-law, a guy who’d married my friend’s sister not long after I met my friend.  The brother-in-law was a gentle soul, a guy who seemed to me at the time to be the sort of person who would do anything to help someone in need.  My friend’s sister was like that, too; she was…and I assume still is…a wonderfully kind, caring, welcoming person.

But I lost touch with my friend and his family and friends.  That’s a little like losing members of your own family; I guess it’s because good friends and their families become one’s family. That loss remains painful.  Part of it, I suppose, I could remedy if I were to try to rekindle the friendships that developed.  But I wonder, and probably always will, whether that “friendship” was just an artifact of a “real” friendship; maybe it was just a set of acquaintances, not friends, with whom I had a connection.

And so there you go, I guess.  One doesn’t always know whether acquaintances are friends or whether the people they call friends are just acquaintances.  Not until they ask their friends to drop everything and cross the country to help. And that’s not something one wants to do, both because it’s not a burden one wants to place on a friend and it would be too painful to know that a person one counts as a friend wouldn’t drop everything.

And, so, the number of fingers on one hand tend to correspond to the number of real friends a person is likely to have.


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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One Response to Friends

  1. Millie says:

    Lovely, thoughtful piece of writing. My doctoral dissertation was on adolescent friendship. If you’re interested in whiling away a couple of hours some day, I can tell you what sociologists, anthropologists, and teenagers have to say in answer to some of your questions.

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