Volume 74, Number 43 | March 02 - 08, 2005

Reflecting on a lifetime of friendships

By Leonard Quart

When I was a child I played ball until it got dark with a group of older boys who lived on my block. They were not friends; just people who lived conveniently close by, whom I had little in common with. In fact, I truly disliked a number of them for their bullying and insensitive behavior, and though I was unable to articulate the feeling, I hungered for some real friends.

Friendship began in earnest in Junior High where I became a member of a social and athletic club called the Pythons. We wore dark purple jackets with yellow lettering, played in softball and basketball leagues, and attended very innocent parties where we awkwardly flirted with and teased the girls.

I remember times when I tried to talk to one of my friends about what I felt and wanted out of life. However, we were at the beginning of our lives, and most of our talk was impersonal rather than intimate. We were just too unformed, and lacked a language to open up to one another. Still, even then I saw the ability to talk personally rather than engaging in shared activity as the key to friendship.

When I went to college, the block and neighborhood no longer limited my friendships, and I chose friends who lived in other boroughs, and, one even from another part of the country. And my friendships were now formed around shared interests, values, and goals, and grew deeper and more intense.

Since we were all 50s’ pseudo-existentialists, carrying around our Sartre, Camus, and Kafka paperbacks— we ranted nights over endless cups coffee in a smoke-filled, crowded Figaro’s—among longhaired girls and woolly sweatered boys about how we saw life as meaningless. We also talked about civil rights and race, Bergman and Truffaut films, and how materialistic American society was. For me it was a tormented time, and I deflected those anguished feelings by expressing contempt for the middle class values that I saw as alien and oppressive, or fleeing into abstract metaphysical speculation on the nature of “nothingness.

Still, there were also moments when I talked to dark, tense Andy and bland, stoned Dick (who I felt could never quite hear me) on a more personal level about psychological insecurities, especially the unease I felt with the women I dated, and what our family dynamics did to stunt us.

When I got married, the nature of my friendships began to change. My wife became my best friend. The marriage, however, did not prevent my continuing to reflect on what friendship means. I never established a rigid set of criteria for what makes one person an intimate friend, another merely a good one, and still another just an acquaintance or colleague. There never was a simple logical explanation for why I connected more deeply with one person rather than another. Still, I know who my close friends are, and most of them have been in my life for over 40 years.

My notions of friendship are in accord with Emerson’s idea that “a friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him I may think aloud.”

Of course, the nature of friendships can change — casual connections become deeper, intimate ones diminish because of marriages, distance, and shifts in personality and life style. And even when the friendships sustain the same emotional level over time, each encounter with the same person has a different character. Sometimes, only small talk is exchanged. Other times one person gets lost in a self-absorbed reverie or a subject that is of little interest to the other. But if the moments of honest, heartfelt, and probing talk outweigh the moments of emptiness and ennui, the friendship endures.

When I turned sixty, my need for friendship grew more profound. I not only tried to strengthen my existing friendships but resurrect old ones that had long vanished. In an odd way friendship has become a substitute for all the dreams of political and educational community we tried and failed to realize in the sixties. Of course, my friendships serve private, not public needs, but when they are satisfying, they are built on the same sense of continuity and commitment that my 60s’ activism was. Obviously, neither social utopias nor seamless, perfect friendships exist, but those instances of genuine connection between two friends are one of the prime bases of a meaningful life.

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