Friendship, what does it mean?

I’m admittedly on the downward slope of my life and I find that one grows more sentimental with time. I have met a lot of people along the way and friendships become more salient as I watch people I have known pass away. There are fewer occasions to see people that I knew and who once meant so much.

Most people grow up in a community, as did I. However, most communities are location rather than situation based. I had no “home place” (as they call it here in East Tennessee). I was an Army Brat (dependent child of a military officer), a vagabond.

My youth was latent with disruption. When I was 18, I had moved 21 times. I was born in Kansas, lived there for three months, and never returned there. I graduated high school in Germany; within a month we recrossed the Atlantic and I prepared to go to college in a place I had never even visited.

Every move entailed the making and un-making of personal bonds. We would become “fast friends” (really fast), but it was superficial. He was my best buddy one day, gone the next, never to be seen again unless by happenstance.

I think we ofttimes confuse “acquaintances” with “friends.” And such was likely the story in many of these cases. Acquaintances are people we meet through many avenues, like family associations or business environments. We may even get to know them fairly well, but the relationships often don’t mature into friendship.

On the other hand, friends are people we not only know and like but also admire and trust. Often the bond is forged through a struggle or cause. My brother says that when we were kids, it was “us against the world” (one that changed so frequently). We have become “friends” over the years. Other of my dearest friendships were forged over years of military service, true “comrades in arms.” I have also developed friendships during my time in East Tennessee. They have helped me through my many personal struggles (often self-inflicted)

Some of these connections have faded with time. This was particularly true of my early life. Relocation and friendships don’t mix well. Particularly in my formative years, communication and travel were difficult and expensive. When I was stationed in Germany in the mid-1980s, there was no Facetime, email or texting. A letter took a week to get home and a phone call to the US cost $10/minute (not conducive to connection).

I am about to return to West Point for my 45th Reunion. Most classmates are acquaintances, but a select few have stayed within the inner circle.  Although we chat and more often communicate via text (a format I both love and hate), we often don’t see each other for years. Yet, when we meet, it is like yesterday. We regale each other of past adventures (some remembered, some not). Perhaps it is just nostalgia, but really more shared intense experience that gave us linkages spanning the decades.

I feel comfortable with them all. When one of the group had a rough patch, we all flew in to be with him. We couldn’t “fix” anything, but I think he took solace in the fact that his “friends” would interrupt their lives in his time of trial. “Loyalty” (standing by through thick and thin) and the willingness to make a “sacrifice” are part of the friendship equation as well.

A local friend once said, “I know that if I asked you for (something), you would give it without asking a question.” I denied it, but then thought to myself, “Yes, I would.” I likewise know that he would do the same for me. Friendship is “unequivocal.” While there are (as they say) “limits to friendship,” are they truly friends if you need to do a cost-benefit analysis?

I have not always liked what my friends tell me. In a time of distress, sometimes all you want is a kind ear, to be comforted. Friends do that, but they also know when to kick you in the shorts. They are willing to tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. Friends are “honest” with us, even when we are dishonest with ourselves.

Wow! This is a pretty demanding set of criteria for a single person. I am not able to be all of this. I can be there (particularly when it fits my schedule). I can be blunt, but often equivocate. When I really think about it, I can be a pretty crappy “friend.”

In the end, our friends are tolerant and understanding. They appreciate that we all have flaws. They accept us with all of our scars and blemishes. They don’t expect us to be perfect (even if we wish we could be so for them). We are lucky if even a few such people touch our lives. In that respect, I am a very blessed man and I thank all of those would who consider me their “friend.”


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