07 November 2011

On Friendship

Surround yourself with human beings, my dear James. They are easier to fight for than principles. - Rene Mathis to James Bond in Ian Fleming's Casino Royale
In "How to Form a Support Network," I presented a few guidelines for how someone might begin the process of building their own support system. I suppose in many ways, this is a companion post regarding the nature of friendship.

I've always been very selective about whom I've conferred the title, "Friend." Even today, I'm uncomfortable with using the word to describe every person I "know" on Facebook. Just because I know someone well enough to be in contact with them does not, in my estimation, qualify them as my friend. Some of them are former classmates, neighbors, co-workers; others I've only come to know at all through third parties. Sure, I like them; but would I go to the mat for them? Would I expect them to do so for me? Not really. That's not a reflection on them as people, mind you; I don't associate with people who aren't terrific. But the dynamics of our relationship don't meet my personal criteria for the title, "Friend."
You're doing something right when your friends can fill the corner booth at Waffle House...
This may seem an odd way to begin a post celebrating friendship, but I feel it's important for the context that you understand where I draw the lines. I have Associations, Friends and then there's an elite group I consider my Inner Circle. Here are my general descriptions of the three categories.
Associations I like you, you make me laugh, etc. and I enjoy your company. I'm comfortable trying to make you laugh and I hope you enjoy my company. But don't ask me for money, don't pry into my personal life beyond what I choose to share with you and if we're at a bar and you pick a fight with someone, you're on your own.
Friends I trust you enough that I'm comfortable sharing most of my personal life with you, though there will be times I play things close to the vest. I don't worry about what I share with you becoming gossip. More importantly, I know you're not a sycophant. I need people around me whose opinions and insights I can trust. I have confidence in you enough that I'm hopeful you'll see something I don't and that you'll share it with me.
Inner Circle These are my Friends in "heavy rotation" (to borrow a term from radio).
These are not closed membership groups; people come and go from one to the next as the dynamics of our relationship evolve. Members of my Inner Circle started off as Associations once upon a time, after all. And just because I don't count someone among my Inner Circle today doesn't mean they've been "demoted." It just means that, at present, these are not my go-to people.

My approach seems either too self-important or flaky for some people. I can appreciate that. For some people, "a stranger is a friend you haven't met." Deciding you like someone automatically places them on your Friends list, unless they do something to warrant their removal. I'm not qualified to pass judgment on you if this is how you approach people. I just wanted you to understand how I do it.

What about family?
Good question. For a lot of people, family are exempt from their Friendship rules, whatever they may be. "Blood is thicker than water" is the prevailing doctrine. Not for me. I learned as a child that just because I share genetics with someone is no reason for me to feel obligated to trust someone. There is, I grant you, a certain leeway for family that I wouldn't extend to a Friend - and certainly not to an Association. But by and large, family fall into Associations, Friends and Inner Circle just like everyone else for me and just like everyone else, how close I am with that relative can change. This is true of everyone, but I'm willing to admit it and a lot of people aren't. They feel guilty for suggesting there's some kind of hierarchy within their bloodline. Doesn't bother me a bit.
...or when someone like Natasha Badhwar extends such an invitation.
Virtual Friends
I've really become invested in the concept of online friendships, the majority of whom are Associations. Most of my support networks for Crohn's disease and depression fall under this category. This is not meant to disparage anyone, but the nature of our association is confined to when we see content shared by the other online, be it on Facebook, Twitter, a blog or somewhere else. Again, that's perfectly okay and no one should feel slighted by this. Due to the nature of what we have in common, though, we often discuss some fairly personal parts of our lives.

Still, the truth is that I count a few such people as actual Friends. Given that we communicate exclusively through the Internet, there are different expectations than we would have as offline friends. Regardless, these are people with whom I am comfortable confiding a higher level of personal information than Associations. I admit, I'm still guarded about what I share but I feel comfortable opening up about specific topics with these people.

As I've begun to reassert myself over my depression this past month, I've taken inventory of my friends. What I have discovered is that I have managed to do a really good job over the years of cultivating relationships with a lot of really good people. I don't know if it's the result of my admittedly stringent screening process for friends, if I've just been lucky or something in between but I can't find a bad apple in the bushel. It shames me to see the kind of people I've withdrawn from this past year as my depression worked to discourage me from reaching out to them. I have, however, really appreciated and enjoyed their support lately and I only hope that I continue to deserve it.
"Of one thing I can boast: I am unaware of ever having lost a friend." - Alec Guiness, Blessings in Disguise