We live in an age when the very word friend has become minimalized and even turned into a verb by the social media world. (One place incidentally where it is possible even to unfriend somebody!) Perhaps we should add a special symbol to the spelling to indicate its old fashion meaning (FRIEND ♥) for instance? In my favorite dictionary I note such modifying words as trust, loyal and sympathy coming into play when defining the word. I would add what for me is the most cherished quality of all: enduring.
Someone has facetiously but wisely said that a friend is someone you can call up at 2:30 in the morning and they won’t be mad. My wife has such a friend; a neighbor who was one of the first Utahans to welcome us to the state, and to our rather remote alpine community 47 years ago. In fact at the time we wouldn’t have used the word community, other than in jest. The heavily-wooded mountainous enclave was home to several dozen families intent on getting away from the valley-loving “herd” to a place where no one was apt to find them. (Yes, I suppose we weren’t all that different.) From the beginning Linda was different. She really cared about people. One-on-one. Her kind of friendship was decidedly not for public show or for self-gratification; it was real. And unstinting. All these years later, though addresses and family settings have changed, the friendship and the connection it reflects has not. Every so many weeks the phone will ring, and it’s Linda checking up on us or setting a date for a luncheon get-together. Her cheerful happy presence is unchanging and her sincere interest in her friends unwavering.
Similarly, I have a friend who lives three thousand miles away and whom, until a Vermont visit in 2013, I hadn’t seen in person for more than fifty years. The very digital world about which I so often speak scornfully brought about a reconnection about 15 years ago, since which discovery we chat daily, and find our lives have moved in near-parallel courses. We are so much alike, my son says of us “two brothers with different mothers”. Both survivors of the Korean War and proud veterans, I am as sure as I have ever been that in a situation such as we are both familiar with, one would as easily take a grenade for the other today. (See John 15: 13)
When my father went to war in 1917 every man in the 20th Company fifth U.S. Marine Regiment came from the same two Washington State counties. Most had gone to school with and known each other before being recruited. My Uncle Oscar Cooper had seen his twin brother hit and fall, passing him by in the costly attack on a copse of trees known as Belleau Wood. Days would pass before he would learn my Dad’s fate. It was a time when every bullet or mortar round took or threatened someone you had wrestled or played sports with a year or two previous to the sound of battle. Close personal connections were also a casualty of war and sometimes the most painful. Forty years later my Father could recite those names as if written in old slanted cursive in his brain.
I have learned over a lifetime that friendship is an active word, and not one to be taken for granted. I have worked to rekindle flagging relationships and strengthen others. In the last year I have added several esteemed new ones to the list and used the occasion to express my deep appreciation to individuals who in a special way have sweetened my life, a couple of whom I now communicate with monthly or even weekly. It has been prophetically said that while many people enter, pass through, and leave our lives without making waves, there are others who leave their footprints on our heart. These I have learned to keep on the front burner of my “Thank You” priority list. The chance to do so may pass before we know it.
A British anthropologist and psychologist named Robin Dunbar has completed an extraordinary study which indicates that the numerical capacity of most humans makes it possible for an individual to maintain a current social group of about 150 total people; of close friends about 50. That brings Dunbar to what I think of as the magic core of his hierarchy. He says that of true intimates we may well have only about 15, with a close support group of 5.
I don’t know if Dunbar has it right, but I do know that friends and friendship are worth more than gold.