Some friends and I in Jerusalem, 2011 (I’m on the far left)
Well, this is embarrassing. For years, I’ve been telling a few choice family members and acquaintances that I find it extremely difficult to establish friendships as an adult. Sometimes, I smile facetiously and announce that I have no friends at all and sometimes, on a good day, I concede that perhaps I have one or two. I must be the only person in the world who feels this way because, so often, listeners respond with an air of disdain. It’s as if they’re thinking: Sorry that you have this problem. Luckily, we don’t.
What was easy at 13 seems so daunting at 33. Do friendships have an expiration date? How much investment is required in a friendship? If we talk this much, share this much, connect this much…are we friends??
How did I have so many friends before adulthood? For me, adulthood began when I got my first full-time job in New York at 21 years old. Before that, I was able to prioritize friendships above all else with nearly endless time and care. Once I began working, I just didn’t have the energy to stay awake late with a friend on the phone. I was too tired to go out with friends unless it was the weekend or a special occasion. I would often get home from work very late and the thought of using up my little downtime on socializing was too much to bear. I just wasn’t interested. After all, I had to wake up the next morning and work a long day! I was leading a very full life, albeit alone.
Marriage and children only served to reinforce my challenge. Today, now that I work full-time while juggling a young family, I’m thankful for a bathroom break undisturbed (still a rare occurrence). Showering and sitting down for a meal are luxuries. I don’t walk into a store unless it’s for groceries (don’t worry too much though, Amazon has cured me of my other shopping needs). Friends?? Impossible!
But maybe we need to define our terms before I write myself off as a recluse. What are friends anyway? Are they the people who will bail you out of jail or pick you up from the hospital? I would argue that any kind soul would do that for you, friend or foe. Here are three reasons you may call someone a friend and a little push back on that definition from yours truly.
You’re friends because of….
- Shared interest, stage of life, or community. Examples: We both have babies and we spend lots of time together on the playground. We love sports and play basketball every morning. We are next door neighbors. In all three cases, these friendships likely take up most of our quota for “friend time” and, I would argue, count the least. Why? Because they’re dependent on something external to exist. Judaism teaches that a love dependent on something is only as strong as that thing. Move out of your neighborhood, stop playing basketball, no longer go to the park and your friendship will disappear.
- History. I have friends who I rarely/never speak to but love and they have a special place in my heart. We went to school together or we spent summers together, we talked and talked, sometimes about nothing and other times about everything. While these friends are very important to me, many of them play a big role in my rear-view mirror but don’t really know me as I am today. If I was in trouble, I wouldn’t call them because there’s a lack of familiarity with our adult versions of each other. I have tried to rekindle these friendship over the years and end up awkwardly stumbling in and out of connection.
- A safe space. These are the friends that we can really spill to, feel safe with, and share our innermost thoughts without fear of being judged. This category is the one I am most inclined to give credit. There’s just one problem. In a time when privacy is as undervalued as it is today (how many times have you signed off on the privacy terms and conditions of your favorite app?), we may indeed feel “safe” with any supportive, open people in our lives. Also, feeling safe or confident to share is a function of our own self-confidence and not a reflection of friendship necessarily. I have seen some gut-wrenching posts on Facebook and I continue to be surprised by people’s raw vulnerability on scaled social media sites.
You may disagree with me and consider any of the above definitions as entirely reasonable. If that’s the case, I too have friends (yay!).
Two special friends who visited me in San Diego, 2007 (I’m on the far left again)
Until I have an intuitive understanding, I will have to rely on my intellectual understanding of how the Torah defines friendship. Judaism has a lot to say on the subject but the most compelling teaching, for me, is the story of David and Yonatan. Yonatan was the son of King Saul whereas David was just a young shepherd from a large family who became prominent through a remarkable series of events. Their backgrounds had no overlap, they didn’t have similar interests, yet the Mishna describes their friendship as loyal and devoted, dependent on nothing, and everlasting. Even more remarkable was that Yonatan was the heir to his father’s throne but David took it over- a move that should have made Yonatan jealous and yet he was entirely supportive.
So the Torah defines friendship in very simple terms.
Friendship is simply an outpouring of constant love and loyalty. It may start out as connecting with someone because you both love golf, attend the same school, or share cubicle space. But that does not make a friendship. Spilling your deepest, darkest secrets doesn’t make a friendship either. Being friends with someone in your childhood or teenage years of angst is also not the magic bullet.
The answer comes down to the question: Will you allow your relationship with this person to exist superficially or will you opt to go “all in” and choose to care for him/her deeply? Do you choose to love that person? Do you choose to help that person and invest in that person? Will you allow them to help you?
The lesson for me is that friendship is a choice to prioritize a person outside of myself or my family. In this light, I am starting to wonder if maybe I have more friends than I thought.