by James Wallace Harris, 8/14/21
Lately, I’ve been meditating on the concept of friendship. We all live alone in our heads, spending our entire lives struggling to make contact with others who live alone in their heads. It’s a shame we don’t have telepathy, because we all so badly want to express ourselves. What kind of friendship activities are there that let’s people communicate effectively?
As marvelous as language is, it still fails us most of the time. I’ve been looking back at how well I communicated with different friends at different stages in my life. What worked, and what didn’t, and why.
My first friends should have been my parents, but I was too immature, my father wasn’t around much, and my mother had a philosophy of kids should be seen and not heard. There was definitely a generation gap that didn’t communicate. I did much better with my sister Becky. That’s because we played together.
When we were still rugrats, during the years before school, Becky and I could be thrown in with any kids and we played happily together. But often this was parallel play, or group activities where we didn’t think about what the other kids were thinking. We focused on hitting or catching the ball, or throwing the dice to get the number we needed in Monopoly.
Because my family moved around so much, Becky and I had to make a new set of friends every year or two. Up to junior high, friends were always the kids who lived on our street, or the ones we played with at recess. The activity determined the friendship. Communication was minimal.
Starting with 7th grade, I got good at finding a best friend fast wherever we lived. The key was to seek someone who liked the same games, toys, books, TV shows, movies, and bands I liked and not be shy. This shared interest technique is really the lowest common denominator of friendships.
The dynamics of friendship changed when I started dating. Then it became more about how well I paid attention to her and her interests. Years of dating, over forty years of marriage, and decades of friendships with women has taught me a whole different kind of communication. Not to sound cliché, but this was often about feelings and emotions, a language I was never good at. However, I learned to listen. But relationships were about getting what we wanted by helping someone else get what they wanted, and isn’t that a higher form of communication?
Work brought about another kind of communication. Fitting in and working together towards a common goal is a whole other kind of interaction and relationship. You didn’t have to know or like a person to work well with them, but you did have to know how to cooperate, take orders, or sometimes give them. There is a dynamics to that type of communication that’s not found in personal friendships, or romantic relationships.
Now that I’m retired I think about new types of friendships. When I worked I felt like I had dozens of friends, but nearly all of them disappeared when I quit. Susan and I spend a lot of time at home, especially since the pandemic. I mostly keep up with friends via the telephone. And most of my friends are people I’ve known for more than twenty years. This is back to the level of shared interests.
I have made one new kind of friend in recent years, and that’s internet friends. For example, I work with a guy from South Africa and a guy from Great Britain to run a short story reading group on Facebook. We are building a long distant friendship based on our love of old magazines and anthologies. It keeps us busy, and our group has grown to over five hundred members.
This has got me to wondering. What activities in the last third of life would make for interesting friendships? Of the retired people I know, many of them talk about maintaining old friends because they aren’t making new friends anymore. But don’t we have to make new friends? That’s one reason why I thought moving to The Villages in Florida would be fun. There are thousands of organized activities for retired people.
My friend Linda and I have accidently hit upon a new activity. We call it a two-person book club. We pick a book, then divide it into sections that we can read in a week. Then once a week discuss the section on the phone for an hour or two. This makes me feel much closer to Linda because we’re working on a specific wavelength. We don’t read ahead because we focus only on the ideas in the defined section. This forces us to think about the same things at roughly the same time.
When Mike, Piet, and I were working on a new version of a database about science fiction, I thought having that project put us on a shared wavelength for several weeks. That made for an interesting kind of friendship. I miss having that kind of project now.
This has gotten me to think about other projects or activities that bring me together with the people. For the four years while Trump was president, it created a bond of shared hatred with some friends. That was different. From the 1990s until 2020, I had a several friends I went to the movies with at least once or twice a week. Also before Covid-19 Susan and I were developing a group of friends with game night. Those two bonding activities haven’t been reestablished yet. Susan and I have developed a new connection when we got the cats. Because we don’t have kids, we’re missing out on a lot of social dynamics that some of our friends have.
Lately, I’ve been wondering if there are activities that bring about closer forms of friendship than just shared interests. Ones that promote higher levels of communication. I’m reading The Code Breakers by Walter Isaacson about the scientists competing to make CRISPR into biotech companies. These scientists don’t all like each other, but their work and competition has forced them to communicate at an exceptionally complex levels.
This leads me to see two kinds of friendships. Consumers and creators. Most of the time we communicate with our friends about the things we consume. We’re looking for common interests and loves. But if you’re in a partnership or on a team that’s building something, you don’t have to like the other people, you can even hate them, but you cooperate and communicate at a much higher level of complexity to achieve a common goal. I keep thinking about Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs creating Apple Computers, and John, Paul, George, and Ringo creating The Beatles. I’d say those were two examples that required communication just short of telepathy. I also say that Walter Isaacson achieved an extremely high level of communicating when interviewing people to write The Code Breakers.
I doubt I’ll start a business in my seventies, but I wonder if there’s a project I’d like to start with other people. That could be volunteer work, but I’m thinking along the lines of building something. Maybe something with computers.
8 thoughts on “Beyond Ordinary Friendships”
I’m quite sure that brain cells on the left hemisphere believe in earnest they are on the right side of history…
(… it’s called brainy humour.)
Have a good one.
(Nice photo, btw.)
Hm why was my comment rejected? (And so eloquent, so profound 🙂 The mysteries of WordPress put me in my place.
Oh no. I didn’t reject it. And I would love to hear your profound and eloquent comment.
WordPress remembers you by your email address and name. Maybe you didn’t type it the same way as before?
Testing, testing. Comment on website rejected. One comment on Reader got through, next one didn’t. This posted on website…
Testing another theory for breaching the barriers to commenting. Sorry James—but if I solve it, I’ll let you know!
Wonderful reflection on friendship and its purpose.
Another answer to the question about what is the purpose of friendship is that it facilitates each others growth and development. Good friends understand each other, support each other, nurture each other, and take delight in each others accomplishment and being.
Good friends are at the same level of consciousness and there is a mutual feeling of harmony. That doesn’t always mean there is agreement and no conflict, but there is an understanding and respect and a caring for the other.
There are degrees of friendship from co-worker and neighbor to acquaintance, to friend, to good friend, to best friend. The difference in these degrees of friendship is the degree of mutual self disclosure. A best friend knows your secrets while people you just hang around with don’t.
At this point in my life at age 75, I have two “best friends” but the degree of self disclosure is sitll at only 70%. I don’t trust the relationship with either of them enough to invest more. Investing self disclosure makes us feel vulnerable and explosed so we hide those parts of ourselves.
The test of friendship is how “real” that is genuine can you be?
Thanks for a great essay.
Now, that’s an interesting point, self-disclosure. I was just talking with a friend last week who has an analyst. I told her I was jealous because I’ve always wanted someone with whom I could express myself completely, to say 100% of what I thought. Although I’m not sure even with an analyst I would be 100% honest. I asked her if she told her analyst everything and she said she did, but I had my doubts.
I’ve been thinking about writing more about friendships. Or writing about levels of communication. Most of the time we communicate with each other with very shallow levels of communication. But the percentage of self-disclosure is an important factor too. Need to think about that.
Back in the sixties, I had a revelation on acid. I realized we were all isolated in our heads like people stranded on a deserted island, and at most, we could communicate with each other by throwing messages in bottles on the ocean.
R.D. Laing, a radical British psychiatrist, wrote in his book, The Politics of Experience, that we can’t experience another person’s experience. The closest we can get, wrote Laing, is to experience someone else experiencing their experience.
As Kurt Vonnegut was fond of writing, “And so it goes…….”