“What is your definition of a friend?” a friend asked. She was looking for material for her blog “Dangerous Linda.” Asking challenging questions like that is, I guess, why they call her “dangerous.” She was leading me down a path of true folly.
In the past, I've tried to define friendship, but have been smart enough to keep most of the ideas to myself. People have identified me as a good friend. Sometimes I am. Other times, I know, I have failed. I'm still not an expert.
“I don't know. I have never tried to define it,” was my half-true response. “There are so many different kinds of friendship. Some of them are not really friends, but maybe it changes to fit what I need at the time.”
“Give it a shot,” she said. “I'm trying to define friendship and I need your help.” MY help?
I tried. I started with a list. THAT was true folly.
- Relative trust.
- Common spaces for good feelings.
- An unselfish desire for the person to whom you give things to pay them forward instead of paying them back, but in a way that benefits both/all.
“You're answering the question, 'Who are you in a friendship,' right?” she said. At this point, I am feeling a bit shaky and vulnerable. I am not only putting myself in a position of exposing my ignorance about what a true friend is; I am also risking exposure: she might now see that these ideals of friendship are ones that I have trouble living up to.
“I'm asking you how you know someone is your friend or if you want them to be your friend,” she continued.
I had to insert a modesty in order to protect me from hypocrisy. “Maybe (that was what I was answering, what I TRY to be in a friendship), but I have said a lot here that is really tough to live up to.”
“I don't know if I know,” I admitted.
I told her that for the first part of my life, what made me want to be someone's friend was that they wanted to be mine. After grade school, it was hard to find someone who really wanted to be my friend, someone for whom I was more than an incidental aspect of their surroundings and who understood me enough to get what my life was about. In time, I gradually came to the realization that my friends needed to be as much about what I wanted as it was someone else's desire to be with me.
I then bravely asked, “How is it different from wanting to be in a relationship? How is it the same?” That IS a dangerous question. I left myself open to a lot of self examination, more than she might have picked up on. Maybe this was more than I was willing to be accountable for. “Defining friendship can be dangerous, like defining a relationship before it gets figured out-- maybe,” I said. I was getting myself in a little deeper. I should shut up while I'm ahead.
“Hey, I'm asking the questions here!” she shot back.
“And you're asking ME?” I smarted back. “If you want an answer, good luck!”
Time to defer to someone else's wisdom.
One bit of wisdom came from the only fortune cookie message I have bothered to remember. I still remember it after about 25 years. It said something like, “A good friend is a gift one gives oneself.” It still makes me think. That God gives us a person is a blessing, but we have to use it; we have to make the friend.
Another insight I remember hearing is the idea that the people we want to be our friends are people to whom we are attracted. It is not necessarily that we want these people to be lovers. But HOW IS IT DIFFERENT from how we choose our relationships? Again, feeling vulnerable, I am afraid to answer that question and it is a question I only ask myself, alone—on my brave days.
I am afraid to ask in the light of the fact that most of my friends are women. Not as many men seem to want to hang with me, or let me hang with them. I am afraid to ask in the light of the fact that most of my relationships have been with women who have been friends. This is good, but tricky when the realities and particulars of that connection change, either toward or away from romance.
(Do I really want to contemplate that quandary in front of anyone, including my friends reading this now?)
What does it mean that I have no man attraction that works like romantic or sexual desire as far as I have been able to discover so far. I do have men friends and, maybe, I am seeing the part of attraction that has a lot of the pieces except the sexual desire. Is this the part that makes “friend?”
So, how do I know I want someone to be my friend? I don't know. Like. Love. Care.
Maybe the last bit of wisdom comes from a story told in class to me and other fellow students by Rabbi Michael Goldberg during a most-challenging semester of Jewish theological and philosophical study. It is the story of two neighbors. One greets the other and asks, “Neighbor, do you love me?”
His neighbor responds, “Well, of course I love you. We have been neighbors for years and we get along quite well.”
The first neighbor says, “But do you really love me?”
The second says, “How can you doubt this? Our children over the years have grown up together, best of friends. Our wives are quite compatible and we share the same law, values and God. Of course I love you.”
The first says, again, “Neighbor, do you love me?”
The second continues, “We have done business together all these years. We have never had a dispute. I admire you and your work and you mine. Is there still a question?”
The first takes the hand of his neighbor and says, “Then, if you love me, what are my problems?”
My friends, I hope I care enough to know. I hope I know enough to care. Friendship is such delight and such folly.