“You can always tell a real friend: when you made a fool of yourself, he doesn’t feel you’ve done a permanent job.” – Laurence J. Peter
Someone once said that love demands less of us than friendship, though the status of both appears to be in flux these days. I suppose I should, at the very outset, make a distinction between acquaintances, of which most people have many, and friends, of which most have few or none. Henry Adams famously observed that “one friend in a lifetime is much; two are many; three are hardly possible.”
Acquaintances are colleagues at work, neighbors we casually talk to, or people with whom we might socialize over the course of dinner, a ball game, or a church picnic. We may sit around with these folks, try to top each other’s stories, share a few laughs, then not see or think about them for six months. There are some people whose entire lives are filled with these kind of social encounters without realizing they do not have single friend.
I see groups who regularly get together to play cards, golf, or Saturday softball. And though these games go on for years, the level of discourse may never get beyond the superficial “how ‘bout them Bears” or discussions of petty bosses, recent vacations, plans for the new car. What is lacking in many of these relationships is the element of trust in broaching subjects which may be painful, embarrassing, or risky – risky in the sense of revealing our true feelings and risk having them (and us) rejected. Also lacking is the element of caring, which would obligate the friend to come to the aid of the other. We have increasingly become a society that values convenience above all else. We have disposable bottles, diapers, and so it would seem, relationships. For any meaningful contact involves recognition of the other person’s needs, and thus, by definition, is inconvenient. Unfortunately, there are many of us who already feel overburdened by the demands of work, children, and parents to the degree that we want to avoid any other demands; we avoid intimacy in order to avoid obligation.
For some, friendship is not about giving but getting. These are the people who cultivate others based on the friend’s ability to help with advancement at work, gain access to a boat or a weekend place at the beach. The problem is that these bogus friends are no more capable of having a true friendship than the married man who goes alone to single bars of having a solid union with his spouse. One young man I knew, charged with ambition, shamelessly courted his boss’s attention. He dressed like him, scurried to open doors for him, studied his habits and background, and molded himself in the boss’s image as much as possible. He achieved a series of rapid promotions, despite the intense dislike of his fellow workers, who began to refer to him as the “heir transparent.” When the boss moved on to another position, the young man, based on the old boss’s recommendation, was appointed as department director.
To some, this is a familiar tale of corporate life. Kissing up to the boss has become a way of life for many, as pervasive as fast food, and about equally palatable. I met this man later in his career at a meeting we were both attending. Now a CEO, he started to talk about how much he missed the old place where we both had worked, and how hard he found it to make any friends, as all the people he came in contact with were simply currying his favor, or trying to establish a business relationship with him. The irony of his story was completely lost on him.
We each weave the tapestries of our life with different color threads. We weave in our family, our work, our interests and enthusiasms. We all have a short, finite period of time in which to finish this project. If we are fortunate, we find others with similar and contrasting colors, accenting and highlighting our own, bringing out rich hues we ourselves were unaware of being present, and we mesh our patterns together, creating a stronger, more interesting fabric, a design more glorious than our initial, lone conception. The threads of friendship, long and lasting, gives luster to our tapestry – to our life.