In the South, whenever someone dies, there is usually a group of ladies from the church who bring food to the family of the departed in hopes of comforting the bereaved. They bring casseroles in covered dishes and express their extreme sorrow for the loss. Others give donations to a church or charity in the name of the deceased, send letters or cards notated at the bottom with Bible verses that are tailored to comfort and quench the sting of death. Always, they say “I’m thinking about you,” and often, “I’m praying for you.”
After a while, the notes stop coming. There is a raw silence at the mailbox, leaving the survivor to deal with finality and grief, alone. The phone calls slow down to a methodical trickle, like the last few raindrops after a vicious storm. Most people tarry on with their lives. Life, as they know it, will and must continue.
Hardship helps to determine who our true friends are. My father always told me that a true friend is one who will stand beside you in a street fight. I don’t know if that’s true, but I think that, more generally, a true friend is one who will be there for you when things get difficult and hairy. The purpose of this article is to attempt to define the term “friend,” and to help us understand that that friendship, in today’s world, is being lost.
First, we must posit what being a “friend” requires. I believe the first thing is intimacy. Please bear with me for a moment while I explain.
We live in an increasingly shallow and superficial world. We live in a fearful world. We live in a world that laughs at our mistakes, delights in our mishaps. That always criticizes, always chastens, always points fingers. We can barely move or speak without someone having something bad to say or to show us our failures. America has become a far cry from the immortal words of John Winthrop, a nation that “labors and suffers together.” America has become not a community of friends, but polarized pockets of adversaries.
One thing that irks me more than anything is the comments that online users post at the end of newspaper articles. These cowards hide behind their user names and post unapologetically—be it vicious, vile, or prurient—all while maintaining complete anonymity. In the American arena, it is the critic who counts, sadly, and these commentaries are more largely indicative of society as a whole, the real world. For outside the Internet, criticism remains prevalent, the order of the day, common.
The kind of world that this necessarily creates is one that refuses to speak the mind and the meditations of the heart, out of fear. The fear of criticism and humiliation has led to this superficial world. Intimacy and vulnerability are unequivocally tossed aside, bearing the wrath of indignation. If we cannot allow ourselves to become intimate and vulnerable, we cannot allow people into our worlds to see who we truly are. A friend is someone who knows your shortcomings, your intimacies— and hangs around. To foster friendship, we cannot be afraid. We must become vulnerable. We must be intimate. We have to.
The second thing that atrophies intimacy is the informality of communication that is so resoundingly present in today’s society. We must understand that friendship is not solidified via the text message, the Facebook post, the email, the instant message. Friendship is coagulated by spending time with a person—in person. Formal, set meetings are required. No, it is not enough to send a token text message. That does not constitute friendship. One must be present to see and to listen and to respond to communication, both verbal and nonverbal. One must put down whatever he is busy with and make time for the other person. One has to hear another person’s voice and see their body language to be able to fully appreciate, understand, get. That is why marriage is best when done in person.
Some of the greatest romance stories are the countless soldiers who fought in the European and Pacific theaters during World War II. They penned letters, long and daily, to their loved ones back home. They showed us that friendship and relationship could be adequately maintained at a distance, through letter writing. This has become a lost art form in today’s society. Letter writing takes time and effort, often which we are unable to give. Myself included.
Friendship necessitates trust and consistency, who, conjoined, are interrelated. A friendship cannot occur in one week. It must be built through consistency of behavior, over time. A new acquaintance whom we like is no more a friend than the man in the moon. Because we live in a world of instant gratification, we are quick to denote someone as a “friend.” Indeed, we soil and abuse the term, water it down. That way, we don’t have to work too hard for friendship—it is easy—like we want most things to be in this world.
But friendship is hard. It requires commitment, longevity, staying power, consistency, thought, work. Friendship does not sprout up overnight; it is cultivated through proper nutrients and care. Friendship lasts.
Friendship requires selflessness. To be a friend, we must think about the other person ahead of ourselves. We cannot be self-centered and be a friend. We cannot be lovers of our own words without being listeners of others and expect friendship. Friendship finds us aware, interested, attentive. To be a friend, one has to be alert to the needs of others. To be asleep to others problems, difficulties, and strife is not a friend. Often, this requires the asking: “How is everything going with you?” and waiting with an attentive ear. Friendship is not distracted, but gives the other person your full attention.
I do believe that is one of the reasons why marriages are failing. We are so distracted by the myriad of sociological avenues that we begin to ignore our best friend.
A friend doesn’t have to be asked or begged. A friend does. A friend surprises with affection, gifts, their presence. A friend is proactive.
A friend says, “I’m coming to see you.”
We live in a world that shouts “Me! Me!” We glorify self, pedestal it. With respect to material things in life, we are like octopi, stretching out our limbs to grasp anything we desire. We become collectors instead of philanthropists. Friendship, defined, is simply relational philanthropy.
Although friendship is often validated during the hours of distress, it is also shown in the small, the menial, the mundane. Being consistent in the small things is a mark of friendship. That means having respect for the other person, being cognizant and considerate of another’s time and presence. The Bible says, “A friend loveth at all times.” This means both in hours of distress and of ease.
A friend is not someone who ponders what he can get out of a relationship, but what he can give to it. He purposes to give, not to receive. Social status, money, or material possessions does not matter to a friend.
A friendship is deeper than laughter and commonality of interests. A friend is more than an individual in your circle of associates. Simply because you run in the same pack with a person does not make him a friend.
Sadly, there have been many times in my life that I have not been a good friend. For that, I am ashamed. I have missed weddings, birthdays, celebrations, even deaths. It’s true that at the end of the day, we find that our friends are no more than the digits we have on one hand, and we’re lucky if we have one true friend at all.
Admittedly, I’ve become a little off-put at the statement, “He’d be there if I needed him.” I submit that a friend is one who is there when you don’t need them. And a friend is one that shows up when they don’t need you.
I really hope that in the future that I can be a better friend. I’m working on it. But like anything that is worthwhile, it takes effort. From here on out, I’m going to choose my friends wisely. I am going to understand the difference between a friend and an associate or ally.
I just hope that people can see me as someone who is friend-worthy. Indeed, I’ve got a long way to go.
I’ve never baked a casserole in my life.