I’m a bad friend. I know I am because there are many unanswered emails in my box, lingering invitations that I’ve ignored. I don’t call anyone unless a predetermined time for a chat has been set over email. Visits are short and at places where food and drink is cheap. Nobody would say “Call Gillian” when the shit hit the fan because I might not answer the phone, and if I did, I don’t have luxurious things like a car to help move people around or get somewhere fast.
I have reasons for not being a good friend. They say time is money, and I don’t have much of either, so I’m always looking for more time to find more, well,… The to-do list is so big that friends are both additions to and casualties of it. “Email Monique,” I write; two weeks later I scratch it off either because our conversation is dead or I finally did it. They understand. Right? I rationalize in my head that they are busier than I am, on business trips, looking after kids. All I have to do in comparison is manage the list and an occasionally demanding cat. We try to organize book club dates and meet-ups: everyone in true big-city fashion whips out their phone to examine the calendar, filled with must-dos and appointments and the partner’s G-cal entries. Dates get negotiated, renegotiated, then someone gets left out because they can’t change this trip or that deadline.
Therefore I’m no worse than anyone in my circle. How privileged, how disgusting of us to lament our busyness, the oh-so-tiring administration of our social lives. How terrible that I have “so many friends” I can’t fit them all in.
Is friendship really the routine organization of face-to-face encounters? I see Sija every three months or so; Deb every two weeks. Paul maybe every two months and Calvin once a year. It’s comforting to know, like the holiday season or the bathroom cleaning schedule, when your next encounter “should” happen. You get the itch, the wondering what’s going on in that person’s life. Anything outside of the routine is disruptive: you brush away attempts, waiting for the right time. We just saw each other three weeks ago, you think. Later. I can’t fit them in right now.
Then too long goes by and the guilt piles up so much that you have become a bad friend.
The only time we stop to think about the possibility that friendship doesn’t have to be encounter administration is when a friendship doesn’t fit into that. Someone calls at an odd time and just wants to talk. You sit down for a quick chat and four hours go by. You dump the news and they drop everything and show up with a casserole. It didn’t matter that they had tickets to a concert; they’re now in your living room.
Do your friends really like you? asks the New York Times. Many don’t: “Recent research indicates that only about half of perceived friendships are mutual. That is, someone you think is your friend might not be so keen on you.” Like the middle class and roots music, saying what friendship is not is much easier than defining it. Experts in the article say, “People are so eager to maximize efficiency of relationships that they have lost touch with what it is to be a friend.”
More importantly, friendship is “who and what the two of you become in each other’s presence.”
Whether the friend sits and listens in the absence of their own agenda, or serves to distract from the “Elephant,” the true ones are sometimes a surprise, hiding and waiting for the right moment to come out. When they do, you realize how much you hope you can be that friend yourself someday.