All my life, I’ve heard people speak warmly of friends they have where, “We can not talk for YEARS and then pick up just where we left off!” It’s always a little self-congratulatory to my ears, but I’ve never really been sure why this is seen as such an interpersonal accomplishment. I suppose to some extent, it’s a testament to the friendship, and the affinity they have for each other, that that’s even possible. But I’ve always thought that they should consider themselves exceedingly lucky that that’s the case, rather than count on it. Personally, I think it’s a pretty poor friendship strategy, relying on the fact that someone you care about will take you for granted in equal measure to you taking them for granted, such that any gap between you in the course of your busy lives can be just dismissed without a thought.
I have never been that kind of friend; there are limits to the benefits of my doubt. Then again, I’m pretty careful about whom I call “friend,” to begin with. I have a lot of friendly acquaintances whom I enjoy, when we run across each other, but if I consider you my friend, there is a shared history there, one of reciprocity and mutual effort, interest, reliability, and intimacy. And there is a shared present. As I define friendship, friends are interested in each other’s lives and doings and hopes and dreams and how those are all working out, and they check in with each other, commiserate with each other, buck each other up if needed. They want what’s best for each other. Friends take care of each other, in ways big and small. I love my friends, and love’s a bit of a big deal, in my book.
And I think that love, be it friendship or family or romance, requires care and feeding. Or, to mix my metaphors, it’s a fire that warms us only when tended. You can bank the coals sometimes, but if you neglect it long enough, that fire will go out. Because of the many heartbreaks available to the human condition, I think one of the worst, one that eats at us, and is probably the most commonplace, is being taken for granted by people who supposedly care about us. We are social animals; we need the security of our pack. Most of us can bear up reasonably well in the face of strangers’ apathy; but when the people we love, and the people we think love us, don’t seem to show it, it feels like rejection, even if only temporarily. And it hurts. Hurting people you care about by taking them for granted is kind of antithetical to the whole love/friendship concept, as I understand it, so it stands to reason that quality relationships result from quality engagement.
I remember sitting around a dinner table in Mexico, and just the members of my generation were there: my brother and his wife, my cousin and her husband, and I, the eldest of the bunch and the only childless one, and we were discussing friendships. It got a little tense, because the parents lamented how their having kids seemed to make their friends disappear, and I talked about how it seemed exactly the same in reverse to me. And the argument was that true friends would be patient, as many years as it took (maybe 18-22, depending on how long your kids lived at home) until their friends were available again to be the friends they once were vs. my thinking it unreasonable that you could swear off any interest in your friends’ lives for some indeterminate, yet significant, amount of time, and expect them to still be there when you were able to look up again, despite the obvious and valid demands of parenting, or whatever else took you away from them for a spell. I think we were all glad when the food arrived at the table to interrupt the discussion, because it was clear to me that everyone’s feelings were a little bruised by the conversation; it was definitely a tender spot for all of us, if for different reasons. We tacitly agreed to change the subject as forks started clinking against plates. Suddenly, we were all very interested in what other people had ordered.
I don’t, and I don’t think most people, expect an exact accounting of perfect tit-for-tat in friendships. Sometimes we are the ones who give more; sometimes we are the ones who take more, but in a good relationship, it tends to even out over time, and there is a trust built from that that assumes it will continue to do so, making it possible in the first place, like some perpetual emotion machine. And if you enter into friendships in good faith, and with a good heart, you may find yourself making a greater effort for a long time before you notice that you’re the only one doing so. In my experience, that sort of thing generally results in resentment and hurt in time. So I vowed awhile back that I wasn’t going to do unilateral relationships anymore; I was only going to spend time and effort on people where we mutually acknowledged each other’s grooviness, and shared our appreciation of that through an easy reciprocity because we genuinely wanted to be in each other’s lives. Seems like such a small, simple thing. Simple, but not necessarily easy.
This is why I haven’t done Christmas cards in years. My feeling is, if you want to know about my life, and I about yours, we’re involved in each other’s lives and keeping up on events regularly, throughout the year. If we only share that once a year on an arbitrarily selected holiday, and make no effort the rest of the year, then we really don’t care that much, do we? So what’s the point of continuing the charade? I’ll save the postage, thanks. We have a variety of communicative options unprecedented in history available to us. I used to wait months for a letter from my Russian penpal when I was in high school. Now, I can text with people all over the world instantaneously for free. You will never convince me that it’s possible to be too busy to connect with people you want to connect with. It’s a matter of “won’t,” rather than “can’t.”
So…if you’d been at the dinner table in Mexico, where would you have come down? On the side that true friendship is always patient, regardless, or that friendships need care and feeding lest they die? Do you need regular contact to consider a friendship a going concern, like me, or are you more Zen about it?