Friendship is such a weird thing. It occurs to me now that friendship is the one relationship that is constant throughout your life. I don't mean you have the same friends your whole lives, but rather that you always seek out and enjoy friendships from the time you are a child until you are very old. Sure, you have relationships with family members, but the dynamics are wholly different when you're five versus twenty-five. And no one, even the suavest among us, takes a lover at every turn from cradle to grave.
I've been thinking about friends a lot as they begin to spread out across the world and I see less and less of them. I am starting to make new ones here in my home, but it seems harder to do now than when I was a kid. A burgeoning friendship seems so loaded, somehow, so fraught. Who invites whom out first? How much do you reveal about yourself in a preliminary friend stage? And then, if things aren't developing to your liking, how do you get out of a friendship that you yourself may have initiated?
My clarinet took up room in my closet about a month after I started band. I was a vegetarian for one afternoon until I went to the grocery store and bought some carcasses, like a sane person. But being a friend is something I have done my whole life. It's time I start keeping a record of what I know.
Dream: Write the rulebook on Friendship.
Goal: Achievable. Like an online dating profile that lists the particulars of your IBS or a Christmas letter detailing the abuses suffered by Grandma at the Home, too much information is not helpful. So these guidelines might be short, and they might be vague, but they are essential.
Plan: List some do's and don't's about winning friends, keeping them, and being a good one yourself.
1) DO be mindful of context. If you have a friend who rides the same bus as your every day, don't suddenly invite them to your nephew's bris. Sometimes a work friend has to stay a work friend, sometimes a great couple you know become boring and stupid without their significant others around. Not everyone can be your bestie, so be aware of the environmental particulars that accompany this friend, and change your settings with caution.
2) DON'T star in The (Your Name Here) Show. Friends who are great listeners are fantastic, but good gracious, have some give and take. Not even your closest friend places a higher premium on your life than their own, so don't behave as if your life is more interesting, dramatic, or of greater importance, than theirs. If you must have a Me-related coffee, treat them to a You-related lunch.
3) DO develop a shorthand. My friend Shannon (who, for the purposes of this blog, we'll call Louise) has a way of instantly engaging in back-and-forth the instant she picks up the phone or starts up a chat. There are no vague pleasantries with Louise, just a ringing phone and then a, "I saw a spider in the elevator today" and we're off and running. This kind of thing reinforces our closeness and makes me glad that geographical distance has no bearing on the quality of our connection.
4) DON'T blend the worlds. It is incredibly tempting to believe that since you love Garfield and you love Odie, then Garfield and Odie together will surely be best friends. Not so. Blending social circles is great when it works, but it's a bit like the guy who never gets hangovers, or the couple who has a successful open relationship. It must work sometimes, but most of the time, nope.
5) DO indulge some delusion. Honesty is not always the best policy when it comes to friendship. I don't mean you should lie to your friends, but every friendship has those Danger Zones where you both intuitively know you shouldn't bring up x, y, or z. Or, when these issues are addressed, you can lie, your friend will agree with the lie and know that you are lying, and the next topic arrives safely. For me, I can't handle any follow-up beyond vague well-wishes about my career. Despite the fact that my income is low and my prospects are grim, I get to say, "Things are really coming together!" and "I've got some irons in the fire!" And you go, "Ohhh, that sounds great, James! Look at you!" In turn, I won't mention how your girlfriend belittles you at parties, or the fact that you're probably an alcoholic.
6) DON'T live with a friend. I don't even have my own evidence to support this, as I have always lived solo or with a gentleman caller, but nearly everyone I know who has lived with a friend has either kept the apartment or the friend, but not both. That said, I think the reverse can be true. A roommate can start out a roommate and become a friend, but that's because you know all of their weird, "This is how I live" stuff really early on.
7) DO put up with the one thing. Just as there are a finite number of mates for us in this world, the same is true for good friends. To that end, just put up with that one thing about your friend, whatever it is, that drives you nuts. Maybe so-and-so is a bit of a snob, or a pothead, or really cheap. So what? If this trait doesn't overwhelm them as a person, put up with it. I know that I am no goddamn picnic on the moon either, and I appreciate those of you that have stuck around.
8) DON'T be a fixer. Boy, this one is hard to abide. I like to think that I listen without judgement. I really hope that's true sometimes. But so often, I want to fix a problem that a friend is having that is absolutely not mine to fix. I always give advice that is not solicited, or offer solutions to a problem no one has articulated yet. I think it's only human nature to want to help a friend, especially when they are in pain, but sometimes all someone needs is for you to listen, and not fix.
9) DO forgive and forget. Fights and falling-outs are just dumb. If a friendship is worth saving, swallow your pride and say you're sorry, even if you're not. I really regret the way I handled some former friendships. Rather than face up to any wrongdoing, I became mean, snarky, and distant. I remember once making some stupid, tasteless jokes around a friend who was more religious than I knew. They said something like, "Just so you know, I thought some of that was offensive. I'd rather you didn't make those kinds of jokes around me." I'm embarrassed to report that I didn't say, "I'm really sorry. I didn't realize the effect my words were having. I'll be more mindful in the future. Let's go get nachos!" Instead, I became instantly defensive. "THAT'S JUST WHO I AM! YOU BETTER DEAL WITH IT!" and completely cut that friend out of my life. I'll always feel really, really stupid and sorry for that. Bearing that in mind...
10) DON'T let friendships slide. It's so easy, especially with Facebook, to leave certain friendships relatively dormant with the idea that you'll be able to pick up where you left off when next you see each other. That is true of some friends, sure, but not all. I hate that there are people I haven't seen in a really long time, and that something in me prevents from just expressing to them how much I miss them, and how sorry I am that we're not hanging out like we used to. Circumstances and geography count for a lot, but what is that piece of us, especially as we get older, that prevents us from truly expressing love to our friends, and real grief at the loss of time together?
I don't know why we spend so much of our time and energy obsessing over finding a mate, all the while taking our friendships for granted. I'm not saying the reverse should be true. It would just be weird if I left the Doctor at home every night to befriend a new person. Yet I hope that I treat my relationships with friends as seriously as they deserve to be treated. I've never understood the expression "Be your own best friend." How boring. How about, the next time you read that in a self-help book, greeting card, coffee mug, replace 'your own' with 'James'. Be James' best friend. Just call me up, name the time and place. I'll be there.