Save for certain varieties of romantic trysts, we like to think our relationships—especially our friendships—are built to last. We don’t enter into them so that they can end. Our aim is that they’ll remain present, adding to our lives whatever it was that drew us to that relationship in the first place.
I’m talking about good faith relationships, not the variety with a plotting component: “I’ll befriend this person so I’m better positioned for the promotion at work,” for instance. A true friend—as anyone who hasn’t had one knows—is a great rarity. A true friend for life is a concept that may feel as if it were bedfellows with the impossible. Too much simply happens, whether we wish it to or not—underline that second bit—that changes our worlds and the worlds within us. A friendship is a vessel that travels through storms. A mast may fall, sails are shredded into ribbon, yet the craft emerges to calmer waters and continues her journey, and we’ll see about the next storm later.
The truth is, we have our friends—again, when we’re lucky enough to have them—for circumscribed periods of our lives. Those periods may last for decades, but the friend you had at nine-years-old and then through high school—your first and best bestie—is unlikely to be your friend at forty-two after your first marriage didn’t work out and you long ago moved far away, while they nestled down in the next town over from the one in which you both grew up. “Such is life” is a phrase that exists for litanies of truths, but perhaps none more than the realities of friendship.
Growth can be the enemy of friendship, ironically enough. If two people don’t grow to similar degrees and in the same healthy, productive ways, friendship becomes an exercise in nostalgia. You rehash the old days. You feel connected to a part of you that you cherished, a time you cherished, a security you cherished, which no longer exists. The friend is not a friend anymore. Yes, you could ask the favor of them. They won’t knife you in the back. But they’re a symbol now, and true friendship is never primarily symbolic. True friendship has a time card, and it punches that card and goes to work.
We can be a good friend without being a part of a friendship. We should try to be good friends to strangers. The next person we meet. The older woman downstairs who can’t lug her cart up to her apartment. The directives of the concept of friendship are complicated that way. We must be good friends to ourselves. No one else is going to be your friend if you’re not your own friend first and that may be the hardest friendship of all to bring to fruition.
But true, partnered friendship is two people working in tandem for the shared benefit and well-being of both individuals. I think of it like the blues. The blues is beneath so much in music. Jazz, gospel, heavy metal, country, rock and roll. Even when we don’t single it out, the blues is there. The foundation. Friendship is a foundation. It undergirds romance. Parenthood. Filial bonds. Sibling affinities. This connection between me, this writer, and you, this reader. And if there is one thing that humans could install in a time capsule such that aliens might open it one day long after we are gone, I think it would be friendship that would most blow their minds and cause them to say, “Well, here was the best of a race that bungled an awful lot of things, but they somehow got this right on occasion.”
I was a massive fan of the sitcom Cheers from very early on, though I was a little kid, and certainly not a barfly, lest you counted the times my father would let me have a sip of his beer on hot summer days.
We lived in the suburbs of Boston, a city I romanticized in a low-key way that the sitcom itself did. People there were passionate. They rooted for their sports teams—especially the Red Sox—with an immemorial ardor that was as if it went back eons before the game of baseball was itself invented. I was fairly certain New Yorkers different and, to be honest, less admirable.
Boston was big but not too big. Its skyline wasn’t hubristic. Buildings didn’t have to reach the clouds—they could simply be arrayed interestingly and look cool from a perch at Fenway Park on a day when Jim Rice smacked one over the Monster. The place was as historical as American history got. I read the writings of Ben Franklin as a boy of seven or eight, and I loved knowing that he was from Boston. He wouldn’t have been the same if he came from Ramapo.
Yet it also seemed so unlikely that a city could have a show all about a bar that was pretty much in the middle of it, and this show would go out to a national audience. You couldn’t do that with Tulsa. You could set a show there, sure. But it couldn’t really be about it. I understood that Cheers was about Boston. No flinching: Boston, Boston, Boston. Watching that first season, though—which transpires entirely within that now-famous bar—I realized in my fumbling, kid way, that Cheers was also about—and more about—friendship. And, more still, the nature of friendship, and how friendship functions in those periods and storms of life in which the masts remain intact and at least one workable sail hangs aloft, because it’s likely not always going to be that way.
Which is not to devalue friendship’s importance and power, despite its evanescent nature. Or maybe it is because of that evanescent nature—which brings with it a glimmer of foreknowledge that we will be vulnerable to loss that will almost surely come—that friendship is as special as it is. We think it asks a lot of us in a particular way—to be something dependable and strong for someone else. But that’s just one of the challenges friendship poses, another being, Can you give and be willing to lose, while retaining—and increasing—a will to give again?