Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Company You Keep

It's the end of the year and so many things are on my mind.  One of them is my annual facebook cull and with that I am contemplating the nature of friendship - both virtual and real.  I have to keep in mind that friendship means different things to different people, and that personality plays a big part in how you manage those friendships.  For example, I'm a very confrontational person - though I do try to confront in the right way at the right time in the right place (I don't always succeed!).  For me confrontation means that at least the problem will be resolved.  The fact that it may not resolve in my favour is not my main concern.  My driving concern is asking for the same accountability and thoughtfulness that I seek to give.  But I hope, in this piece, to lay out some common principles that we can all agree on, despite having different types of friendships and divers ways of managing them.

Friendships often begin in commonality

Whether they start at church, work, school, friendships often start with a common bond.  That single commonality allows for discussions that lead to discovery of other common interests and possibly, a deeper friendship, or to a realization, through those same discussions, that this person may be no more than an acquaintance.

It takes all kinds

A rich social network (and I'm talking about real life here, not what facebook has co-opted as a term) is built of all sorts of materiel: from deep life-long friends, to work acquaintances, to professionals we work with, to those we encounter by chance for minutes, hours, or days.  That constant interplay (made digitally visible and shareable by facebook) keeps the wheel of friendship turning and renewing.  Each interaction, small or large, informs the way we deal with the rest of our network, in conscious or subconscious ways.

Indeed casual acquaintances (people we took a class or two with in college, people we worked with 2-3 jobs ago) are the sort who are more likely to help you get a job than the best buddy/girlfriend you've known since kindergarten.

Friendships without accountability die

Human nature is fallen and as such we make mistakes, even with our loved ones.  That's not a problem.  People make mistakes.  It's about what you do next.  In his discussion of relationships in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People Stephen Covey popularized the notion of "emotional banking."  Positive interactions result in "deposits" and negative ones result in "withdrawals."  Some people have made so many deposits over the years and made so few withdrawals that it would take something truly catastrophic to harm/question that friendship.  On the other side some have made so few deposits and have made so many withdrawals that their overdrawn accounts with friends cause them to be "friendless" faster than most.

A perceptible slouching in the realm of accountability, in relation to emotional banking, can be observed in regards to attendance at events.  Everywhere, it seems, not-replying to an event one has been invited to has become a standard practice, followed closely by saying you will come and then proceeding to no-call/no-show, with saying you will come and then showing up late a close third.  Within my close friend group I often get thank you notes for hosting a dinner party or for a gift - I've come not to expect that of anyone outside of that group - but I will never cease to be surprised at the casual rudeness of those who forget that in the digital age we increasingly know not only that you have received our emails/texts/messages, but at what time (and sometimes where) you read them.  The "I didn't receive it" excuse sits starkly next to "Seen 10:30am yesterday."

Friendships are, despite technology, still largely geographically based

As I've moved around the world (I was born and lived in Asia for a decade, then moved to the States, and now live in Europe) and I have aged and technology has advanced I've found that time zones play a large role in our ability to communicate.  I moved from California to the Midwest in the (n)Aughts (neither of those appellations is really satisfying) and my closest friend from there still speaks with me almost every day when we aren't buried with work or galavanting somewhere devoid of cell service.  The people you live near, who are experiencing your weather, your time, and who can occasionally grab a coffee, movie, or meal with you, are the ones you'll most likely build the deepest friendships with.  This isn't to say that the rise of FaceTime and Skype conversations isn't a meaningful harbinger of future interactions among friends, but it does mean that those virtual relationships either have to be based in pre-existing actual relationships or have some terminus in which an in-person interaction will take place.  These types of relationships require far more work, patience, emotional real estate, and coordination than the mode that guides our friends who are geographically close (I've found that wherever I've lived, city, suburb, or country, that people who live more than a 30 minute drive from you are simply less likely to be part of your close friend group).  As technology has grown, human boundaries and subconscious patterns have stretched some, but have mostly stayed in place for, friendship.

Out-of-town friends often face one crucial test

Relocation (for me or for my friends) has often put me into the situation in which those who were part of the close friend group became out-of-town friends (OOTF).  I've come to learn, in my short life, that you can't always predict what will happen next.  Will they let you know when they are near you so you can possibly meet up for a meal?  Will they meet you when you're in their neck of the woods?

When family and friends come near you, and have the leisure to possibly see you (within a one hour flight, when they live more than a four hour flight away) and they do not let you know, massive damage is done to a friendship.  Worse than that, however, is when you are in their neck of the woods and you let them know you will be in town and they either don't reply (no accountability) or don't make any real effort to see you.  The damage from such (in)action, without redress, to such a friendship, is usually catastrophic or terminal.

Light-Switch friends are a joy

There are those who we meet by chance who live in a place you want to visit or love to visit who tell you, "Next time you're in town..." and give you their details.  For the many who never replied when the occasion finally did present itself for us to meet, there are so many (and I cannot help but smile as I think of all of them) who precisely did mean what they said when they gave me their details the first time.  This time of year reminds me of one particular situation: a Stephen Heiner who lives in Brisbane that I facebook-friended 3-4 years ago simply because we had the same (uncommon) name.  When I finally did make it down there we had a drink and a walk around downtown Brizzie and I really enjoyed getting to know him.  Or there's my friend Julien, who I met in Adelaide over a year ago now, who I then met in Melbourne a month later, who I spent an afternoon with last weekend in Paris, where we both live now, seeing an Asterix exhibit.  Or my friend Sarah, who I met while she was with friends (as was I) in Las Vegas over a decade ago.  She travels frequently for work and we've striven to meet up for a meal whenever our paths have crossed.

I call these people "light-switch" friends because whenever we see each other we have a great time and while we don't frequently communicate during the year when we meet up we "switch on the lights" and everything is just as it was, and we pick up right where we left off when we "turned off the lights" and went our separate ways.  (Sometimes the OOTF become light-switch friends, which is awesome too.)

Friendships come and go

We would all like many of our friendships to last forever, but alas, nothing in this brief life does.  We are given a short time to shine here and then we pass to eternity, for good or ill.  The tree of friendship must be watered, pruned, and cared for throughout the years and at the end of 2013 it is not the same plant it was at the end of 2012.  Part of this is lamentable, but the reasonable among us should strive to see it as simply part of the nature of the thing, to be grateful for the memories, and to move forward into another year that God has seen fit to gift to us.

In your mid-30s you don't eagerly anticipate gifts at Christmas - and indeed - I realize my memories of this year and all my family and friends are gifts enough.  I have more than I need, or deserve.  I wish all of you a wonderful new year and I hope that treat your friends as you wish to be treated, and they do likewise.



I have always believed it possible to be friends with people with whom I fundamentally disagree.  I understand that this is not possible for all and for me it's only possible when there is a shared intellectual desire to seek truth, mutual respect, and/or a complete disinterest in a particular topic of possible conflict.  These friendships challenge me and strengthen, not weaken, my beliefs.  They are also rare, and hence, treasured.

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