Do I have any friends?
No, I don’t mean this in some pathetic “Nobody loves me, I’m going to eat some worms” sort of way. I know that some people like me, that some people don’t, and that the overwhelming sentient biomass of the planet would rather pluck a penny from a turd than care.
But, if you were to ask me, “Do you have many friends?” I’d reply, “Nope. I don’t have any. Well, maybe one, but I only see him every five years.” Since I know there are people who will read this and think that I’m saying I don’t care about them, let me explain. It seems to me that a person with friends arranges to spend time with them. Maybe they go to the movies or have dinner together and then play Jenga. But I don’t do that, and nobody does it to me. Therefore, I have no friends.
And yet I know my saying “I have no friends” has to be false since I’m not the lonely, isolated human being that that implies. I actually am pretty social (in my own retarded way), do the manly bear hug thing with plenty of people, and get scarily happy when I run into people I know. My definition of friendship as a type of appointment-based relationship has to be wrong. So, how should I now broaden my definition?
In the proper Socratic tradition, I find myself looking at relationships that I’m sure go into the bucket marked “friends” to see what they have in common. And I notice two broad sets of characteristics.
First, friends are not just happy to see each other, although that’s probably the right operative definition. More important, the better the friendship, the more the friends relax the rules that are supposed to guide behavior: If I’m you’re friend, you don’t have to ask permission before you take off your shoes and if your feet stink, I don’t exercise my right to insist that you re-shoe yourself. Principles are what we resort to when relationships are weak. Acceptance and forgiveness based on delight…that’s what I see in common among the relationships in my “friends” bucket.
Second, as I look at what my friends think friendship is, I see a significant divergence…a range that maps exactly to the divergence in their personalities and virtues. And because friendship has something to do with acceptance, we don’t have to agree on what friendship means. Aren’t friendships more often asymmetrical in this way than not? I don’t mean asymmetrical in intensity, but in their very idea of what constitutes friendship. I may well be your friend for different reasons than you’re my friend, and that’s just fine. And we’re friends with different people for different reasons.
These are reasons why artificial social networks such as Friendster will only work insofar as the participants transcend the structures of the network itself. That structure - which the social networks think is their value - is in fact an obstacle that only friendship can overcome.
In conclusion, I guess I have to admit that, since I am delighted by more people than I can count, including some who actively dislike me, maybe I do have friends, even though nobody calls me up and says, “Hey, I have an extra ticket to the Celtics. Wanna come and we’ll grab a beer afterwards?” I mean, I hate sports and besides I’d rather be with my wife and kids than with you, and there’s something good on TV that night anyway. But would it kill you to ask?