Friendship, Facebook, and Five-Year-Olds

My ex-wife and I took my son bowling the other day.  It was a school function, his first field trip (and my first non-educational field trip; things have changed in the last thirty years!).  I’m proud to say he was winning…until the eighth frame, when the two girls on his lane came back and beat him.  He didn’t care.  He’s five, and the experience was enough for him, which is as it should be.

Prior to the start of the game, his mother caught him in an intense conversation with a little girl in his class, and decided to tease him a little.  She called him over and said, “Ethan, is that your girlfriend?”  With a look of longsuffering exasperation, he said, “No!…they’re TWINS!”  And they were.  I jokingly said that the boy has more game than I ever did (and he does).  But of course to him, they’re just friends, and in fact, they are just two among his many, many friends.  He doesn’t need Facebook to keep his friends sorted out!

Facebook is a wonderful tool for keeping up with people—assuming, that is, that you’ve kept up with them prior to finding them on Facebook.  If you haven’t maintained a connection since you first developed the friendship, then “keeping up” becomes something of a misnomer.  You’re just reacquainting yourself.  I don’t think this is much of an issue for most of us these days; Facebook is so nearly ubiquitous that we’ve all filled out our friends lists.  If you aren’t on Facebook, you’re in the minority; and if you are, chances are, you aren’t just now discovering all your friends—your list has been fairly stable for a while.

I recently made a push, though, to expand my friends list.  I wasn’t trying to take on people that were new to me, though I have made a few genuinely new friends; I was simply trying to make more connections with people I used to know.  I’ve picked up something on the order of a hundred Facebook friends in the last month, which is pretty impressive when you consider that it’s approximately a thirty percent increase.  (On a side note, my sister—whose life outside of Facebook has spanned far less time, space and experience than mine—has over seven hundred, more than twice the number of friends on my list.  This was a mind-blowing discovery to me; I’m not sure that she’s actually met that many people in her life, let alone befriended them.)  The vast majority of these new friends are people that I knew in high school or college, with a smattering of family and former coworkers.

Friendship is a difficult topic for me, in no small part because I overthink it.  (My friend Cyndera, who helps behind the scenes with this blog, informs me often that I overthink everything; I’d argue the point, except that thinking through my arguments would only prove her right.  It’s a no-win.)  I really do, and I’ll freely admit it; but in my defense, it’s in my personality type to do that, according to every test on the planet.  Without getting into the validity of the personality-type model, I’ll say that I test as heavily melancholic.  Melancholics are the ones who think too much; live more in an internal world than external; tend to be creative (I have my doubts about that, but then, here I am writing a blog, which requires a small degree of creativity); tend toward depression; and tend to be introverts.  You’ll notice the use of the word “tend” there; this isn’t exact science, and we all overlap a bit, but the general tendencies hold true.

At any rate, I’ve always found it difficult to make friends.  This  may come as a shock to a lot of people.  I love to talk to people (though I wasn’t always that way; I was a painfully shy child and teenager), and I don’t have any problem “cold” introducing myself to people.  I can be friendly and outgoing, and despite my jokes to the contrary, people like me.  But real friends, friends that I can maintain a relationship with and be close to, are few and far between for me.  It’s an enormous irony, because I value my friends incredibly highly—the best ones are like family to me.  And yet, I can count on one hand the number of very close friends I have now; over my lifetime, it might take both hands.

I don’t feel deprived.  A common thread in self-help books and relationship books and personality studies and so forth, seems to be that men tend to have fewer close friends as a rule; and in fact, men tend to do well that way.  One or two close friends in a lifetime is not an unreasonable number.  But I do feel regret, sometimes.  I regret the missed opportunities.

Tonight, a Facebook friend posted a photo of a newspaper clipping regarding another friend.  We were all high school classmates together; the article is about an accident the second friend had, on our school’s sanctioned “Senior Skip Day”.  I remember the occasion; I wasn’t there, but I heard the story when they came back to school.  It brought back memories…but even in those memories, I recall being something of an outsider.  I had a few good friends, and many acquaintances, and these friends were in the latter category.  They were good people, and still seem to be, but I never took the opportunity to know them well.  I hovered around the edges, not just in this group, but in every group.

I learned my lesson by my college years.  I had friends in college with whom I was very close.  Yet, even at that, maintaining is not easy when we’ve moved on to a new stage of life—even with social media on our side.  We drift apart.  There’s only so much time and attention available for us to invest, and we have to be about the business of living; and of necessity, we have to spend most of our effort on those with whom we interact daily.  Friends become acquaintances, against our will.  My best friend in college was my roommate; we stuck together for three of our five years, and we were like brothers, even to the point that my mother considers him her third son (or first; he’s older than me).  He was my best man at my wedding, eleven years ago.  Now, he lives around the world in New Zealand, and we have spoken twice in the past five years.  The memory of our friendship is as strong as ever, but we’ve drifted apart.

I regret it.  I really do.  I know that you can’t hold on to everyone; but I feel that I could have held on to someone, more than I did.  If only I had stepped out of my shell earlier than I did, put myself forward more than I did.  If only I had gotten to know those high school friends…high school is a time of pressures that are both unnatural and strong, but I could have done that.  I didn’t.  And, if only I had tried harder to stay in touch with those I loved, and still love.  I reconnect now, but the initial magic is gone; they’ve become somebody that I used to know.  You really can’t go back, and Facebook will never change that.

Maybe my son has the right idea.  He’s already mastered the lesson I want to teach him; now it’s up to me to teach him to live it out all his life.  He never meets a stranger; he knows and loves and accepts everyone at first sight.  (He needs to learn caution, I’ll admit, but we’re working on that.)  Some take away from that first connection—the occasional child who picks a fight with him, or things of that nature—but he believes in second chances, and he reaches out to everyone.  He has so much potential.  What I would  teach him, on top of that, is to always try, always reach out, even when it’s hard; and always hold on to those closest to you.  Make the effort.  Keep in touch.  Be the one who connects, not the one who pulls away.  Live in such a way that you don’t need Facebook to pull your friends back to you; show them you love them all the time.

It’s a tall order for a grown man, let alone a little boy.  But I think he’s up to the challenge.  I like to think I am too, but I’m humble enough to admit that even I can learn a lesson in friendship from a five-year-old.  I certainly intend to try.

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