The lost art of friendship

FriendsI’ve been pondering friendship a lot since last August, when Margaret started seventh grade. It reminds me of when I was in the 7th grade and first met several of my good friends. I’m not talking about women I lost touch with for twenty years and recently reconnected with on Facebook, LinkedIn, or other social media channels. No, these are women I’ve remained friends with over the years the old-fashioned way – through phone calls, email, and (gasp) physically getting together with in person for coffee, lunch, vacations, you name it.

When someone says, “We’ve been friends since the 7th grade!” I sometimes wonder what they mean. There’s a huge difference between reconnecting with someone who you went to school with twenty years ago and actively remaining friends with someone the entire time. But with Facebook, people act like it’s the same thing. And it’s not! A more apt description would be “This is someone I was friends with twenty years ago who I’m getting to know again.” Because let’s face it: we’re not the same people we were twenty years ago. And if we are, that means we haven’t grown much.

Like most Millennials, Margaret and her generation (Generation Z) won’t face the challenge of keeping in touch (or luxury of losing touch in some cases but I won’t go there) that my generation faced until social media rescued us from our dark-age ways of relating to each other. This is good and bad in my opinion. Good in the sense that they will be able to easily keep in touch. Bad in the sense that that they will be able to easily keep in touch. Easy isn’t always better. And sadly, social media makes it easy for us not to put in much effort.

The song Automatic by Miranda Lambert captures this sentiment well. It’s the notion that the more automated things are for us, the less meaningful they are because we don’t have to put in effort. It is in the spirit of Miranda’s message that I strive to help Margaret see that cultivating meaningful friendships requires much more than a “like” or an emoji comment here and there. Meaningful friendships require actual love and attention – and often sacrifice.

This leads to a non-scientifically tested theory a college friend of mine shared with me many years ago before social media existed that resonated with me. She theorized that there are two types of people in the world: givers and takers. It’s not that either are better or worse, she explained, or that takers never give and givers never take. It’s just who we are in our natural state. And we can generally identify who falls into which category despite inevitable shades of grey she posited.

In the context of her giver/taker theory, when social media is factored in, it’s easy to seem like a giver when you actually might be a taker. Why? Because whereas in the past, giving meant having to pick up the phone and call your friend, spending time on the phone, maybe even leaving a message or calling back a second time if they had no answering machine, now it just means clicking “like” and voila – you’re a giver. But what are you really giving? Is it meaningful?

In sharing the giver/taker theory with Margaret recently, she asked me which one I think she is. I told her that I couldn’t answer that question since I am not her friend but rather her mother. With me she’s a taker, but that’s to be expected of a child in relation to a parent (which I have to remind myself perpetually). But I used the theory to pass along a lesson I learned the hard way: be careful of how much of yourself you pour into a friendship with someone who is a taker.

I grew up as a giver. I relentlessly kept in touch with my friends through college, graduate school, work, hobbies, boyfriends, travel – you name it, I was determined to be a good friend. Many of my friends are the same way, thankfully. However, a few of my close friends back then were takers. Again, not bad people, just not ones to give much, and I suspect it didn’t help that I was always there to give. I guess you could call me an enabler. I wasn’t aware of this at all until I got married and had children. It was then, when suddenly I faced serious time constraints and my family was number one, that I stopped putting in the majority of the effort. As a result, my friendships with some of these women deteriorated. The sobering truth was that I had been the one holding some of these friendships together.

I want Margaret to identify this pattern in her friendships so that she can avoid making the same mistakes that I have. I think she’s doing well so far. She has three best friends from elementary school who seem to each be a healthy combination of giver and taker. She’s not on social media yet, so she keeps in touch with them through Gmail and video since they all attend different school now. Most importantly, they get together regularly, which allows their friendship to reach a level of depth that social media, by its sheer efficiency, threatens to achieve and sustain.

It’s hard to say whether she will always be lifelong friends with her three best friends – or any other friends she meets along the way. But she’s laying a strong foundation so that as they grow into young women, their friendship will be worth putting in effort no matter what galaxy they’re living in, or until the technology to apparate exists.

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