I must admit, I just don’t understand it when I hear that someone has a hundred or a thousand friends. I know, I’m a crotchety old man, According to the most recent issue of Scientific American, I was born in one geologic epoch and am living in another. Being born in the environmentally stable Holocene and living in the unstable Anthropocene would make anyone crotchety. I don’t have a smart phone and I don’t participate in social media. Well, that’s not totally accurate, I do peek at my daughter’s Facebook page to see if I can find out what my granddaughter is doing.
How many friends do I have? I suspect the answer is based on what you mean by a friend. I have many acquaintances some very close to me, but very few friends, certainly no more than three. For me a friend is someone with whom you do not wear any of your masks, someone with whom you are fully open, and therefore fully vulnerable.
Each of us has many masks. The masks we wear often define us for others, yet they serve to conceal a part, and sometimes almost all, of who we really are. In almost any situation where we have a role we are expected to play, we wear the mask appropriate to that role. A teacher wears one mask in class, another when interacting with other faculty, another when department chair. We usually have a mask available for whatever situation confronts us.
The extent to which we relax our masks is what determines the nature of our acquaintanceship with others. A friend, however, is someone with whom you wear no mask, and with whom you can share your most closely held thoughts and feelings. A friend listens without judging and does not try to change you, unless you are asking for help and are trying to change. And a friend knows you well enough to realize when you are asking for help, even when you don’t ask.
Friendships can take a long time to develop and once developed seem to continue even when you have not seen each other for years. I met my best friend over 60 years ago in the seventh grade. He and I lost contact after high school when his father took a new position and moved away. We reconnected when we were both doing graduate work at Berkeley. Then we lost contact again when I went to China. Later when he moved back to San Francisco we found each other once more. Each time our relationship was as firm as ever. There was a lot to learn about what had been happening, but the relationship remained as it had been since we initially learned to drop our masks and trust each other.
Friendships are not easy for me to establish, it involves taking risks. It takes a long time for me to establish a friendship. Acquaintances are relatively easy for me, for they allow me to keep some personal distance. Over time an acquaintanceship can deepen and the mask that I wear becomes more transparent. In casual relationships I can be somewhat extroverted, because my mask is pretty opaque and I feel safe. As the mask becomes more transparent and I share more of my real self, I can become more introverted, as it is during this time that I begin to feel vulnerable. As I begin to feel truly safe, the mask begins to disappear and the acquaintanceship turns to friendship.
Why take the emotional risk of developing friends? Because if we have no friends, how can we ever be fully ourselves? It is not the number of friends we have but the nature of those friendships that allows us to grow and, at times, even to survive. Developing a friendship can feel scary at times, but without a friend we are truly alone. So I hope that among the hundreds of social media friends that people seem to have these days there is, for each person, at least one among those virtual friends who is, in fact, a true friend. And I hope that each of you is, or has been, willing to take the risks it takes to find and become a true friend.