Your So-Called Friends

Before she died, my mother repeated something that she had frequently told me when I was growing up: that you can and should do everything possible to help out someone in need, especially your friends. You can make a sacrifice for your friends if you must because someone needs you. But never believe they will do the same for you, or that anyone will be there when you need it.

Okay, so my mother isn't really dead, but I thought a deathbed confessional might be a great lead-in. But I am telling the truth when I repeat her life lesson to me: be good, be giving, but trust no one.

Your friends are the people that can make your relationships look tame by comparison. Friendships are much harder to maintain, easier to shatter, and more difficult to repair. How many times did you take a friend's criticism as though you heard a stinging rebuke from off the mountaintop? The hours you spent going over the conversation in your mind, analyzing, parsing, looking for subtle shades of meaning in a friend's words?

Your friends are the people who can make or break what kind of person you are. There are, of course, people who claim to be your friends and can drag you down on many levels to the point you hit rock bottom. Yet friendships are like your other relationships (minus the sexual intimacy, of course), and that means that more things change, the more they stay the same.

Friendships can be as demanding as relationships, and they can be also be just as unequal. In many relationships, there is a level of inequality that is often compensated for by intimacy. In friendships, the intimacy can be just as powerful and meaningful, only it's generally not expressed in sexual terms. But the feelings of rejection by friends is as powerful as rejecting a lover.

When you act on behalf of your friends -- loaning money, providing things for them they cannot procure on their own -- you're acting on the best impulses a person should have. But sometimes you can also be acting on a desire to prove yourself to the other person: have a problem? I'm there for you. Something troubling you? You can call me any time, day or night. And you mean those things; you're not saying them just to sound like a stand-up person. But sometimes there's a shift in your attachment to your friends. You know very well that there's a hierarchy to your friendships: some mean more to you than others, but you would never admit that openly, much less deny somebody something based on that structure. Yet the fact remains that some of your friends get more attention than others.

That's not a bad thing, mind you: it's human nature. Those particular friendships provide something more meaningful than others, and in the course of your life, you feel the need to cultivate them. Sometimes though, you can overextend yourself and get caught up in helping your friends to the point where you ask yourself: what I am getting in return? It's this apex where mere friendships and relationships converge rather neatly. The first reaction to that simple question is guilt: how can you say that? Isn't there something wrong with you? Doesn't that question just negate why you did something in the first place?

For many people, they stop right there. The guilt of asking overwhelms any validity to the question. But for those who want to probe further, they discover the existence of the inequality to the friendship. Why am I doing these things? Why am I putting myself out there, if all I come away with is a feeling of vague disappointment?

That's the riddle of friendships and caring for them: be prepared to be disappointed. Frustrated. Because in the course of a friendship, especially one that is very close and can be easily bruised, you start to expect some form of reciprocity, and the inherent inequality becomes more apparent. You're uncomfortable with the questions, so you plug along, but are nagged by the feeling of "where's mine?"

I think the best way to put it is to liken it to a high school cliche: you're the nerdy kid whose been smitten by one of the cool kids. So you try your hardest to ingratiate yourself just to be near the cool kid. You do favors, you make yourself generally indispensible. You are trying to prove yourself to the cool kid.

The most you can get, however, is a kind of practiced indifference. You do start to grow on the cool kid, but he would never admit you into his inner circle. You put up with his veiled insults as friendly, meaningful banter. You start to confide in him but he never really gives advice as much as his opinion that you've done something wrong. And sooner or later, you get the feeling that you're missing something. And that's the level of friendship that you've given. You're left with virtually nothing.

It might seem like an extreme example, but it's apropo. You do things for your friends, but you start to feel disappointed when it becomes apparent that they would never act for you in a similar manner. You've confused deep feelings of friendship with being on a two-way street, and assuming that your friends think of you in the same regard. You feel that by putting more on the line, you might be able to change how the friend acts or thinks about you: just like in a relationship. When you don't get those feelings in return, you slowly begin to resent the friendship but feel that it's imperative to keep "faithful" and carry the burden for the both of you. Just like in a relationship.

This is the lesson that I think my mother was trying to impart. You really should be selfless and giving when you can, or when you can't. But you have to divorce yourself from feeling that you might be able to "call the favor" at some point down the line. You can't expect your friends to be there for you. You can always hope, for certain, but to rely on others who have relied on you makes you a beggar to your own demise. It means that you are in for deep disappointments over which your lack of control will frustrate you even more.

No one is asking you to be a martyr, and having a meaningful friendship is not all about suffering or sacrificing. But when you feel deeply for your friends, you need to train yourself to be alone in those times when you need a favor or need help: there will be no one there for you. If you stop caring about that, you'll feel better.