Friday, July 21, 2017

The Nature of Friendship

Being a middle school teacher allows me to make observations about life that I don't think I'd see if I were doing something else. I've learned a lot about both life and myself through interacting with my students. One of the things that I've come to understand better through my students is the nature of friendship, and what it really takes to be a good friend. Because the truth is friends are a dime a dozen, but good friends, close friends, are not.

Middle school kids burn through friends the way wildfires burn through forests. To become friends at that age - or stop being friends - doesn't take much. Making a friend can be as simple as being in the same class and losing a friend is as simple no longer sharing any classes. Bonds are formed over a shared interest in a TV show, video game, or sport (rather than through trials and tribulations - that comes later, with high school and beyond). And it's okay to have superficial friendships like this when you're young. I think it's relatively unusual to make lifelong friends at this age because you'll change a lot between 13 and 23 or 33. In fact, you'll keep on changing until you finally learn to be comfortable with yourself. (For some of us that takes decades upon decades.) On a subconscious level, kids understand that there's always another person around the corner ready to be friends with you, and that's true for the most part. Think of how easily you made friends as a little kid, as a kindergartner or first grader. Friends came and went back then without much drama. But when a middle schooler loses a friend, they feel it immensely. They're generous with their tears and yelling and anger and sadness. But all of those things are short-lived because there is a new friend around the corner and it's often someone they'd never expected.

But invariably, a student will go through a difficult time in a friendship and they often turn to a teacher or counselor about it. And although they don't actually say it out loud, what they really want us to do is answer the question What makes a good friend? or Am I really a bad friend? What they don't realize is they're starting to understand what real friendship is, and more importantly, what it isn't. And so I've had a lot of opportunities to think about the nature of friendship myself, and I've only recently come to understand what makes a real friend, and it's simpler than you'd think. A real, good friend is someone who does only two things; One, they accept you for who you are. Two, they don't keep track. It's that simple.

I'm not a person who makes good friends easily, and I don't often make a good first impression - to do that would be to present a false version of myself. I've been accused of being rude, mean, aloof. The truth is that I'm all of those things more often than not. I don't see the point in saying Good Morning to everyone I walk by and I don't greet strangers in an elevator unless they say something first, and even then it's under duress. I don't engage in small talk with cashiers and waiters; I think it's pointless and stupid. I cuss a lot and I'll tell you the blunt truth whether you want to hear it or not. But I'm also fully capable of being nice and funny and caring, soft even. And the four or five good, close friends that I have know this about me. They know I have a fondness for the f-bomb. They know I'll tell the truth even if it's a little rude. They know I'll refuse to go to happy hour nine times out of ten simply because I don't want to, and they know I'm going to tell them to get out of my bubble and back the f up when necessary. But these people know this about me and they accept me for it. Notice I'm not saying that they know these things about me and just don't care, because some of them do. But they know these things about me and accept me despite them. Close friends accept you like a spouse should - for better or worse, in sickness and in health, in bitchy complaining rants and overly energetic drunkenness, when you're up and when you're down, when you're a jerk and when you're not. Friends don't always have to like you or love you, but they do have to always accept you for who you are. And that needs to go both ways. My friends accept me for who I really am and I accept them for who they really are. A good friendship requires this. If your friends can't accept you for who you are, then what's the point of the friendship? If you can't say the most vile, disgusting, awful thing to your close friends (not about them, mind you, but to them) with every confidence that they won't stop talking to you because of it, then why the hell are you friends with them? My close friends know the ugliest parts of my soul and still want to be my friend. Acceptance is key in a good friendship.

The other key factor in a good friendship is having a friend who doesn't keep score. There are a lot of people out there who simply delight in keeping score. I like to call them bean counters. These are people who think that everything must be equal in a friendship, or who believe their score should always be higher than yours. Let's say one of your good friends sends you a giant bouquet of balloons at work for your 30th birthday and caps the evening off with a surprise party. Awesome, good for you, I'm sure that was fun. But what happens when that friend also turns 30 and all you do is give them a funny card? A real friend isn't going to care about that. My close friends know that no matter what they do for my birthday, the most they'll get from me is a funny card and a hug - and let's be honest, the hug is iffy. It doesn't mean their birthday is less important to me or that their friendship is less important to me. It doesn't mean that I'm ungrateful for what they've done for me. It just means I'm not one of those over the top people. It also means I'm not a bean counter. I'm not thinking, "Oh God, they threw me an awesome party so I need to get them an extra awesome birthday gift so they don't think I'm an ungrateful jerk." Friendships like that are exhausting. If your friend is a bean counter and you want to remain good friends, then this forces you to be a bean counter too. It requires you to keep track of everything they do for you so that you can reciprocate evenly. And that's if your friend wants things to be even. But maybe they don't. Maybe they want things to be perpetually uneven, with them always coming out on top. These types of friends exist too and it's equally exhausting. Instead of you always keeping track, you know your friend is, because they let you know on a regular basis how awesome they are, constantly reminding you of the things they do for their friends as a show of superiority. But then you have to ask yourself why your friend does that. Do they do these nice things for you, a friend, to make you feel awesome? Or does your friend do these things for themselves, to make themselves feel good, so they know they're better than other people? Who wants a friend like that? It's not only obnoxious, but it's superficial. That is a superficial friendship, and not a true friendship. A true friend doesn't keep score. They do awesome things for you without thinking or caring about what they'll get from you in return. It means doing things for the sake of doing the nice thing.

So that's the advice I give to my students about friendship when they ask. A real friend accepts you for you, the good and the bad, and they don't keep score because life is not a game. If your friendship has these two things, then the rest becomes easy and natural, and you'll have the kind of experiences together that build a real friendship no matter how old you are.