OH, THE POETIC WAX JOB THAT HAS BUILT UP FO CENTURIES OVER THE TOPIC OF FRIENDSHIPS.
Take the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. He must have had a friend or two to have written "Think where man's glory most begins and ends/And say my glory was I had such friends."
Or George Herbert, the English clergyman who knew, even in the 17th century, that "The best mirror is an old friend."
There was 18th century lexicographer Samuel Johnson, who said, "A man, sir, should keep his friendship in a constant repair." Bostonian Henry Adams kept it simple with "Friends are born, not made." And the Bard himself, William Shakespeare, provided the classic consumer warning: "Friendships that are won by awards, and not by greatness and nobility of soul, although deserved, yet are not real."
Poet or peasant, it seems as if almost everyone grows up with some form of wisdom guiding his approach to friends. In my own house the most memorable maxims included:
Friends are people you like in spite of themselves.
If you can count your friends on one hand, you're a very lucky person.
You can pick, er, a peck of pickled peppers, but you can't pick your friends.
Not long ago, when I mentioned the topic of friends to Baltimore psychiatrist Steve Warres, he told a tale about a friend who had recently moved back to the United States from Poland after an eight-year stay.
Struck by the vast cultural differences in the two countries, she said it seemed as if everyone in the United States was either a psychotherapist or in psychotherapy, while in Poland virtually no one is in therapy.
"In Poland," she told him, "everyone spends the whole day
talking, one friend to another. You get up and talk with your family, you go to work and talk with your fellow workers, you go home and talk to your family about your friends. Work is an activity carried on while engaging in continuous conversation."
But in the United States, she observed, work is different. "Here people are always working. My roommate is always exhausted before and after work. Everyone here is busy putting up facades. People at night are too tired to engage in friendships. So people pay therapists for an hour to have a friendship, to unburden their hearts, to be real with no facades, to have someone who will listen. Because these people don't get it elsewhere."
Dr. Warres, who has observed the nuances of friendship development as a child and adolescent psychiatrist, and who also works with adolescents at Baltimore's Woodbourne Center, asked, "Are you thinking of moving back to Poland?"
She seemed surprised. "No," she said. "I'd never be able to stand it. Everybody is in everybody else's business. You have 27 people telling you what to do. No, I'll stay here."
Sometimes friendships are like that: You can't live with them, you can't live without them. More often, though, a friend is that priceless work of art that can't be bought, bartered or bullied. A friend is simply a friend.
"After all, if I believe you like me warts and all," says Dr. Warres, "what a tremendous thing."
And what a mysterious thing. The serendipitous meetings that often lead to lifelong friendships can probably never be fully explained or understood. Unlike love, said by songwriters at least to be a many-splendored thing, friendships have their own peculiar characteristics. Some best friends hate each other on first sight. Some friends are exactly the opposite, some are identical, some live hundreds, thousands of miles away and remain closer to a person even than a spouse.
The psychological clues to the mysteries of friendship are subtle things, says Dr. Warres, and have been seriously studied by professionals only in recent decades. While Sigmund Freud had little to say about friendships, his daughter, Anna, explored the critical stages of child development that govern lifetime behavioral attitudes toward others. She believed, for instance, that the most crucial stage is the moment at which a child progresses from playing alone to interacting with other children -- known in the psychology world as reciprocal play.
"Sensitive parents intuitively recognize this stage," says Dr. Warres. "They try to help the child engage with others. They try to teach empathy, which is a crucial ingredient with higher development. It is catastrophic for a child if he doesn't develop empathy. This ability to care about someone else's feelings is crucial in friendships. This capacity for empathy may be essential to survival."
One of his colleagues, Dr. Don Nelinson, chief of Adolescent/Diagnostic Treatment Services at the Woodbourne Center, believes that with rare exceptions most people desire to be a part of other people. "We all need a sense that someone cares," says Dr. Nelinson. "It's part of social interaction."