There are acquaintances, (a term I think we ought to use more, without fear or embarrassment) there are friends (a term I think we use too carelessly, until we sometimes forget what it's supposed to mean) and there are the very special Chosen Few, the people we feel most comfortable around, the people we would choose to be with us if we were marooned on a desert island. That is, unless you're one of those pragmatic people considering cannibalism.
Let me explain.
Acquaintances is an old-fashioned word that has dropped out of use, but which I think is a more honest and helpful term than the all-inclusive, vague 'friend,' which has reached the same level of meaninglessness as 'thing' and 'dude.' Growing up, I remember being very particular about how I used these words (and probably sounding incredibly stuck up without meaning to) because I had unfortunately read Anne of Green Gables and been influenced on the full significance of the word 'friend,' 'bosom friend' to use the exact phrase. I insisted that the kids I played with at the playground weren't my 'friends,' they were just acquaintances. Because we didn't particularly like each other. We just needed enough people so we could play and have fun. Whether it was you, or him, or someone new, it didn't really matter. Could you run fast? Were you a poor loser? That was all the information that really mattered. If we never saw each other again we wouldn't miss each other, and we could mutually acknowledge this frankly without hard feelings on either side.
I feel it's kind of a pity that we use the word friend so generically now. Anyone we know the names of immediately gets classified as a friend, because we're embarrassed to admit we're not close...
...which makes no sense. Life would be a lot simpler if everyone was fine with being honest. And--more importantly--I think we would be a lot less confused and insecure about the whole concept of friendship, and better equipped to build real, satisfying friendships. I could bring up the outdated but still applicable example of Facebook 'friends,' but I think we've all heard that rehashed as proof of the evils of social media and the hopeless state of the next generation (us) so, no.
This was an idea covered in Jerry and Mary White's book, To Be a Friend. It wasn't exactly a book I would have picked up to read but it turned out to be thought-provoking, raising many issues on the whole concept of friendship and its abstract, inconsistent, sometimes confused application in my life. For example, in chapter 3, they examined different types of friendships, from acquaintances to casual/close/best friends. And as the book unfolded its discussion of what friendship entailed, and how it should be cultivated, the underlying factor beneath it all became clearer and clearer, the difference between acquaintances and friends: purposefulness.
Not that this is a radical idea. But I think what stood out was that this idea of purposefulness encompasses more than simply "making time for each other," which is what we tend to reduce it to. Yeah, friendships aren't static--we have to make time for them! And we leave it at that. We squeeze out a space in our schedule for one meal together and then think we've done our share. I liked how, while dealing with the need for purposefulness, To Be a Friend didn't get sucked into the overly simplistic make time=friendship equation, and gave equal coverage to other aspects.
To purposefully build friendships required more than just time together: energy and effort, vulnerability, and even "unanticipated and unplanned costs," which was an additional category I didn't expect. Under "energy and effort," they included the "freedom to say no": "Every relationship requires energy and effort, of which we have limited amounts. We cannot do everything and respond to everyone...we need to be intentional in [friendship's] development and priority. This is particularly true for the ten to twenty close relationships [an estimate] that are current and active in our lives right now."
To me, this was a wake-up call for the need to prioritize the input I'd been previously unthinkingly giving to whichever friendship called most loudly for at the moment. It is so easy to live life prioritizing the urgent rather than the important. My grandparents, for example. They seem to be always available, patiently waiting for my schedule to accommodate them, compared to friends whom it's harder to spend time with, who have exams and limited holidays, who seem much more elusive and urgent, as result, to 'catch.' And the grands get pushed to the back burner.
It was a good and sobering realization to ask myself, what are the ten to twenty close relationships in my life right now, which I value the most--and am I actually making a correlating effort at actively building those relationships?
A great insight for introverts like me was the next paragraph: "Keep in mind that some relationships build you up and others drain you. The relationships that give us great pleasure take little energy and effort to develop. The ones that drain us have a higher cost, but our commitment to the friendship may draw us to pay for the price."
It was a great relief to be able to admit without feeling guilt, that that are such things as "high-maintenance" friendships, and that you can only take so many, or so much of one, before the relationship becomes unhealthy and perhaps even sours as result. Know your limits, for your own sake as well as your friends'. The Whites gave an example of some friends whose understanding of this ensures balance: "We have friends who are quick to respond to the needs of others. When they are depleted of energy, they announce, 'We're cancelling the weekend!' Without guilt, they wipe the calendar clean for a few days to restore their energy. They wisely recognize they cannot help others if they are exhausted. They make it a priority to guard their health so they have more to give to others."
This highlights how another aspect of purposeful friendship, I realized, is considering each friendship within the context of the circle of people in your life--whether that means different stages of priority, or simply stewarding the time and energy you have to invest in each, without feeling guilty or embarrassed about doing so. After all, one of the requirements for a strong friendship is honesty; and that starts with being honest with yourself.
I've been thinking more and more about friendship as I get older, as I balance old friendships with new ones, maintain different sorts of friendships. It's not enough to just be aimlessly, passively friendly, responding to whichever friendship is most proactive or demanding. Time is short and there are, there will be, more and more people in your life. Some will fade out if you don't hold onto them. Some will come in whether or not you're ready for them, like "divine interruptions" to use Elisabeth Elliot's phrase. Some are perhaps only there for this season of life.
With a one-size-fits-all, first-come-first-served mentality to friendship, you swing between feeling burnt out and yet vaguely dissatisfied. Guilty for not doing enough or keeping up with certain people, or for saying no. Awkward when you realize the generic "friends" label disguises a whole lot of uncomfortable disjuncts, from how well you actually know the person and how much you actually like each other's company, to wondering if you ought to like So-and-So's Instagram posts even though you hardly know anything about them (still learning the ropes for social media etiquette as you can see. I ought to have been born in the previous generation.)
Unstable, to summarize. The paradox of feeling exhausted from having "too many friends", yet discontented because you feel you "don't have real friends," which seems to be a common sentiment from what I hear. I think purposefulness has a lot to do with this. And to be honest, purposefulness is HARD. First of all you need time (yes, that word's coming up again in this post) to be purposeful. You don't just read an article and have your life automatically transformed (like listening to a sermon; sounds familiar?) You need to sit down and evaluate what areas you need to be more purposeful in, and how--practically, concretely--you're going to make that happen. You're going to need focus and perseverance, and maybe even courage. And even if this takes shape during your morning commute to work, and looks like nothing more than a scribbled memo on your phone notes, in order to tackle it in the first place there must have been mental and emotional energy as well.
Where we are now, where entertainment and consumerism encourage passivity, and social media cultivates spontaneity, it's hard to be purposeful. Perhaps it's the first sacrifice we make for our friends, for better friendships, and for ourselves, as stewards with limitations of time, energy, and emotional capacity.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are