Friends. We use this word so colloquially to describe the people we surround ourselves with, without any second thought to the real meaning we choose to ascribe to it. But what does it really mean? For me, this meaning of friends has continuously evolved over time as I’ve been lucky enough to experience various dimensions of friendships in the last 19 years.
Childhood friendships. The days of weekly organized playdates were such a simpler time in life. I could instantly become friends with anyone I came in contact with so long as they met the criteria of not stealing my toys. It didn’t matter who the person was, where they were from, or what they had to offer because at 5 years old I lacked any capacity to notice these things. I don’t remember much from this time except that I never really stayed close with any of my childhood friends because I never formed a connection with my playdate companions beyond playing games with them. Friends just meant having someone to have fun playing together.
Elementary school friendships. In the blink of an eye we were all older now. Popularity suddenly mattered and I had a natural desire to be friends with the popular kids. People cared about my background and how I dressed. When I dared to wear the same clothes I wore the previous day, my friends would point it out and make fun of me. So I made sure I always wore new clothes each day because I desperately wanted to fit in and wanted them to keep inviting me to eat lunch at their table. I started to dislike everything about myself that wasn’t the same as my friends. I begged my mom to stop packing me Chinese food for lunch because all my friends ate Lunchables and they would complain about my Chinese lunch smelling bad. At this point, I also began stealing quarters from my house every day to buy snacks from the school cafeteria because the cool girl on my bus only ever sat next to me when I brought snacks. Even though I knew this deep down, I still willingly let her exploit me because I was that desperate to have a friend and to not sit alone on the school bus. My friends treated me poorly, but I still wanted to be friends with them so badly that I did everything I could to not upset them and remain in their good graces, even if that meant through bribes of snacks or changing myself to be more likable. It has been years since I’ve last talked to any of them as we amicably went our separate ways after I started being homeschooled. Friends meant fitting in with a group and gaining social status.
Middle school friendships. I plead so hard with my parents to not take me out of public school, but it was to no avail. When I became homeschooled, there were no more social groups to worry about since it was just me being at home studying by myself. It was lonely at first, but I quickly met my first online friend from our shared online math class. She lived in LA and we would Skype call and message each other all the time. We loved the same books, the same movies, the same things. I never had to change the person I was or pretend to be someone else to become her friend. I was a firm believer in Best Friends Forever then and I thought of her as one. This was my first friendship where we both genuinely appreciated each others company. I even flew to California to meet her in person not once, but twice. However, altercations and clashes of values occurred within our friendship when I insisted on offering her advice that I thought would help her make better decisions. The advice wasn’t taken well and this ultimately left us completely estranged. I lost total contact with the person I once thought I would be friends with forever. Friends meant having lots of shared interest, enjoying talking together, being yourself around them, but not necessarily being your BFF.
High school friendships. Come high school I had grown into a new level of confidence in myself and was resolute in my desire to actively talk to classmates and seek out friendships. In doing so I came across the most peculiar, yet welcoming and friendly group of people. I had nearly no Asian friends, instead I regularly talked with my Mexican, Indonesian, and White friends. I was Christian but my inner circle of friends was a Muslim, a Jew, and an Atheist. Needless to say, we were an odd bunch, but it didn’t matter that we had such different backgrounds, different interests because we were there for each other. We didn’t need to be in the same classes to be friends because our friendship spanned beyond the simple shared activity of attending class together and doing homework together. Nearly all our communication was through Skype messages and I only ever saw them in person one or two times, but we were always talking or working together up until the late hours of the night. These friends of mine felt like truly genuine, great people that I was blessed to call friends. They put up with me when I was in peak stress mode about school, helped me get through the rough patches together, and I knew I could count on them. Friends meant having a support system of people to laugh with, cry with, survive school with.
Friendship Now. I betrayed the STEM student in me and indulged the mini philosopher in me when I dropped my Differential Equations class to take Philosophy of Friendship spring semester of my senior year. As a result, I spent hours upon hours in class and out of class discussing and learning about distinguishing utility friendships from virtue friendships, how to identify fake friends from true ones, and what an ideal version of friendship would look like. I took this class with my close friend and we would argue back and forth at great lengths regarding these various aspects of friendships that the class touched on, and then run off and discuss our own tangential ideas on friendship for even longer. These conversations frequently diverged into greater back and forth discussions about religion, life, purpose, values, experiences, and worldviews. I learned so much and grew so much from these conversations alone regardless of whether or not we saw eye to eye on everything at the end. None of our differences in perspectives mattered because our single most important shared interest in helping and learning from one another was what made us such great friends. I’ve experienced a lot of friendships in the last 19 years and I’ve spent a considerable amount of time thinking back on each of them, the ways in which they began, the ways in which they ended, how toxic or healthy they were etc that have lead me to my current view on friends and friendship.
Friends means people…
- who know you and accept you for you, along with your flaws
- who support you and look out for your best interests
- who have hopes of helping you grow and develop as an individual even if that means calling you out on your bad decisions and holding you accountable
- who invest time to put your needs above their own immediate needs without any foreseeable benefit for themselves
- who have virtuous traits that you admire and want to learn for yourself
- who may not stay in your life forever, but who you can still value while they are
Such types of friends are extremely hard to come by, so if you do, appreciate them and hold them close. By no means do I claim this to be the standards I impose or demand of anyone who wants to be my friend. Instead, I consider it to be the gold standard of friendship that I have refined over the years and set for myself in terms of the kind of friend I aim to be for others around me, a goal I still consider myself to be very far off. At the end of the day, friendship is a two-way street and you have little control over the other person, but that’s okay because at least the experience will hopefully guide you to be a better version of the person you were the day before and this is something you will always have control of.