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On friendship

Andrew Miller | Tuesday, January 20, 2009

As I work through my last semester, I reflect on the many things I have learned in my tenure here. The only topic on which I have reached any sort of conclusive thought is, I now realize, friendship. And so I grace you with my seemingly disjointed yet eventually fitting tract on the nature and application of friendship (in 900 words).

Who can be considered friends? Is there a distinction between a friend and an acquaintance? How can this distinction be practically realized?

I will begin my discussion with the creation of a scenario to which I will return throughout: Fred, Gary and Chris are three people who went to the same high school. They are all seniors in college now. Fred and Chris attend Blank U; Gary attends Blank State. They have been in close contact since the summer before their sophomore year of high school and still keep in touch regularly.

Fred, Gary and Chris are not inherently friends. Working under the givens of the scenario they are merely people who have spent ample time together over the past seven (plus) years. But you might think that the sheer amount of time spent together would make them friends. The fault in this argument can be found in the following: I have known my uncle my whole life (more than seven years) and remain in close contact with him due to the fact that he lives within 10 miles of my parents. Yet I would not call or define my uncle as a friend because he is my family, my blood. So though time seems a compelling factor, there must be a condition underlying this span of time which will determine for us whether Fred, Gary and Chris are in fact friends.

Let us then assume that Fred, Gary and Chris share several interests which we will define as: taste in music, sense of humor and similar approaches to larger issues (somewhat nebulous, but let us proceed regardless). This connection through basic personality also does not make Fred, Gary and Chris friends. For example, in a discussion in a class of mine I found a classmate who shared my taste in music, understood my jokes and thought like me. But neither of us was compelled to spend any more time together than our brief contact in class. Therefore personality does not inherently induce people to forge long-lasting connections with similarly minded people.

Again, our heroes have been granted another factor explaining their relationship but no essential element determining it or defining it as friendship. A seemingly endless list of related factors could be given further illustrating the interactions of Fred, Gary and Chris: Their parents’ homes are in close proximity, they played sports together, they registered for similar classes, they spent time with the same group of people, etc. Over and over, these items can be tested to show that nothing on this level would make Fred, Gary and Chris friends. Nothing that can be rationally discerned or logically argued can bestow upon these three people the honor of friendship.

So what does?

As I have come to understand it, a friend is someone upon whom you grant your trust, your respect and your potential for vulnerability. Without trust, similar likes and dislikes or a copious amount of time spent in the same circle will never allow two people to build an interdependence and symbiotic understanding. Without respect any of the above factors are rendered meaningless. Without becoming vulnerable in the presence of the other person, or persons, an individual will never be able to build a level of trust or respect necessary for the friendship to commence. Without all three factors working in unison, a friendship is malformed and incomplete. Such a degraded friendship (and not necessarily degraded, but, more simply, unfinished) is how I have defined acquaintanceship. The distinction between the two concepts is firm and internally felt by an individual – or at the very least should be in order for the person to understand the different types of relationships in his or her life. The primary factors of friendship can be present in an acquaintanceship: trust and respect can exist together, vulnerability and respect can exist together, and so forth. Only when the three are unified and complete may a friendship germinate.

All friendships, then, necessarily start in a stage where the people are acquaintances. Furthermore, friendships (understood by me to be constantly evolving structures) can move freely between the levels of friendship and acquaintanceship as the people involved shift and develop their own consciousnesses and psyches. A friend can become an acquaintance as quickly or as slowly as an acquaintance can become a friend. The practical realization of friendship or acquaintanceship rests less practically than internally on the independent beliefs of the various individuals involved. This then leads to the case in which a Fred could view a Gary as a friend but that same Gary could view that same Fred as an acquaintance.

In conclusion, there is no steadfast or ultimately determined pathway to define friendship. The relationship itself remains irrational and emotionally derived. From the outside, we can never tell if Fred, Gary and Chris are friends. To us they are merely people who remain in close contact and to judge them as anything else is presumptuous and wrong.

True friendship is difficult to explain. Even with my “conclusive thought” I still do not know how I can explain to you why Fred, Gary and Chris are friends. But they are. And sometimes that’s enough.

Andrew Miller is a senior English major. He can be contacted at amille15@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.