With 7.325 billion people in the world and 320 million in the US, it stands to reason that only a tiny sliver of them could ever be our friends—especially over the long term. Circumstances and people change, and friendships end.
Generally speaking, a friend is someone with whom we have a relationship of joint affection based on common interests, shared history, mutual values, and roughly equal reciprocity. I have repeatedly told my son that I believe we want nothing to do with 85% of the people in the world. They are either too dishonest, too narcissistic, too unloving, too morally perverse, too disloyal, or some combination of the five. Of the remaining 15%, only a third of these would likely fall into a category that would make them a potential friend, based on individual choices or characteristics.
In this age of social networking, our idea of what constitutes a friend has been warped by Facebook, which has more than 60 million users. Most Facebook “friends” would more rightly be called “contacts,” as we are in few actual relationships with them. That is not to say that some friendships which are mediated by technology—computers, email, and telephones—cannot or do not become authentic relationships. In fact, the rise of technology has made possible significant friendships with people in distant places—me, for example.
However, according to British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, there is a limit of approximately 150 people with whom we can maintain stable social relationships. They say you can choose your friends but not your family; some people say they trust friends more than family.
As I’ve grown older, the way that I’ve chosen and retained my friends has changed. When I was a child, friendships were often based on the sharing of toys, and the enjoyment received from performing activities together. Proximity was important. Most of my friends lived on my block. When I was an adolescent, sharing, loyalty, and commitment became more important to me and my circle of friends expanded. As I became older yet, I increasingly desired similar attitudes, values, and interests and my friendships became wider still. What my friends thought had more influence on me than my family. Luckily for me, all of my friends were straight-arrows, so I avoided the problem behaviors often associated with kids of this age (shoplifting, drinking, stealing, vandalism, etc.—god, I must sound like Donald Trump!). But if I had fallen in with friends who participated in risky behaviors, I would have been vulnerable.
In my adult life, my closest friends were my wife and the people I worked with. Most people my age reported an average of two close friends; I always had more than this. In the mid-1980s I was mentored by a man in his late 80s who had developed friendship into his art form, and I was mightily impressed when over 1,000 people showed up to honor him on his birthday. He included among his friends some of the most famous people in the history of the 20th century, and for a time I emulated his example by believing that no one was beyond my reach, and that you could never have too many friends.
But with the death of my wife, my circle of friends started becoming smaller. (A similar thing happens with divorce.) At first some of my late wife’s friends fell by the wayside. I realized that her son and I didn’t matter to them, and my contact with these “friends” began to peter out. Around that same time, my mother also died, and my ties with my childhood home and friends were broken. In fits and starts, I began to realize that fewer friendships were satisfying to me, and I became responsible for the pruning that resulted. I realized that I needed to forge a new way for myself by tightening my standards.
The Japanese have a term, kenzoku, which translated literally means “family.” The connotation suggests a bond between people who’ve made a similar commitment to one another and who possibly therefore share a similar destiny. It implies the presence of the deepest connection of friendship, of lives lived as comrades from the past, of people who will likely be there in the future. I adopted a family model to define my future friendships. Through a process of trial-and-error, I learned that it is normal enough to have the kind of chemistry encapsulated by the word kenzoku with a relatively few people we know, and not scores of others.
Friends don’t keep score, but there is a balance to the relationship. Sometimes one friend might be in the “spotlight,” while the other is cheering them on. Friends should trade off in giving each other the “floor” in conversations and in life, and should understand when the moment is their friend’s and not theirs.
One of the hardest lessons I have had to learn is that sometimes you have to cut people loose. You must be open to building friendships with anybody, but with the first indication that other people are unreliable or unworthy, the only choice is to immediately break things off. If they haven’t got it in them to be a good friend, there’s probably nothing you can do to change them. Many of us waste too much of ourselves on lost causes.
So what is it that makes a friend worthy of the name?
1. A commitment to your happiness. A true friend is consistently willing to put your happiness before your friendship. It’s said that “good advice grates on the ear,” but a true friend won’t refrain from telling you something you don’t want to hear, something that may even risk fracturing the friendship, if hearing it lies in your best interest. A true friend will not lack the mercy to correct you when you’re wrong. A true friend will confront you with your drinking problem as quickly as inform you about a malignant-looking skin lesion on your back that you can’t see yourself.
2. Not asking you to place the relationship before your principles. A true friend won’t ask you to compromise your principles in the name of your friendship or anything else. Ever.
3. A good influence. A true friend inspires you to live up to your best potential, not to indulge your basest instincts.
Of course, we may have friends who fit all these criteria and with whom you still don’t quite feel kenzoku. There still seems to be an extra factor, an attraction similar to that which that cements friends together irrevocably (even romantically), often immediately, for no reason either person can identify. But when you find these people, they’re like finding home.
Attracting true friends is simple: become a true friend yourself. Be the friend you want to have. We all tend to attract people into our lives whose character mirrors our own. You don’t have to make yourself into what you think others would find attractive. No matter what your areas of interest, others somewhere share them.
Today I was supposed to have visited some new people for the third time, but it didn’t happen. It would have been a “last chance” test for my friendship and loyalty. They invited me to their home a couple times before, but they asked hardly a single question of me. I can confidently say they know nothing about me: my interests, mission, accomplishments, etc. I don’t need to be the center of attention, but I should at least be invited to take the “floor” to express who I am. Otherwise their “friendship” is no friendship at all.
Maybe next week. Maybe never. We’ll see.
Yesterday, as if I am not the only person with this issue on my mind, an article appeared in my email about the best way of calling it quits with a friend. I’m not predicting if the upcoming test will ultimately go thumbs-up or thumbs-down. But if it is the latter, it is good to be forearmed with good advice.
Groove of the Day
97° and Clear
OK, I’m sharing. Good luck finding your brother.