In the old days, back when we had just three television channels, we also had just three friends. One was a neighbor; one was the guy who worked at the next desk; and the third was a friend from high school. This was a simple life we led, and easily maintained.
Sometimes you’d think: “I’m spending too much time talking to the guy at the next desk. I may have to dump him as a friend.” But you didn’t, because of the immense inertial forces contained within an old-fashioned friendship. You basically felt like certain friendships weren’t even optional. There was no way out: You were locked in for life, because that’s what a friend was, by definition: a permanent, immutable relationship, even when your friend was doing 7-to-10 for money laundering.
Now, thanks to the digital revolution, we are friends with hundreds or even thousands of people, all of whom are a click away and may at this second be trying to conduct some kind of conversation with us. This includes people we had long ago forgotten about and who are determined to reenter our lives to remind us what dweebs we were in ninth grade.
Plus we have all these quasi-friends and “followers” on Twitter and Instagram. What you don’t want to have to do is maintain a running conversation with everyone you’ve ever known and feel obligated to “like” every Facebook post. But if you don’t “like” something, is that an overt act of unfriendliness? Is it unfriendly to be somewhat disengaged?
Fact: You have a finite amount of attention, a single headlamp, and you have to aim it wisely. Likewise, you can’t let a single friend occupy all your brain space. A friendship, unlike a child, isn’t supposed to be a project that requires heavy lifting and a major calorie burn every single day.
Even as you manage friendships, though, you also have to remember the ultimate rule: Good friends show up. Dependably. When in doubt, go. Be there. Friends remember friends who answered the bell.
I got to thinking about this topic after reading a short essay by Arthur Brooks published in the Aspen Institute’s magazine. Brooks says there are four secrets to happiness: spiritual enlightenment, family, friendships and work. He says of friendship:
“You have to work on friendship. You need to treat it like any other goal in your life — nourish and cherish your friendships, because if you don’t, you will get worse at it, and you won’t know how to do it later on in life.”