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."
Dr. Nelinson is a student of the social relationship theory developed by noted psychologist Alfred Adler. It argues that personality develops in direct relation to two criteria: a person's "other directedness" -- that is, the capacity for social interest or social involvement -- and the person's level of activity. Best friends, notes Dr. Nelinson, often tend to have in common their levels of social involvement and activity.
"We all look for reciprocity in a friendship," he says. "If you think of this in terms of which of two people brings the most to a friendship, there has to be something to share, so if you're not involved and are sedentary, what do you have to share?"
And, he adds, "a person with high social interest and activity is more able to find things that draw them to other people."
In terms of children who grow up in surroundings less than ideal for the development of empathy, he says, the bottom line is that "people still want to be with people. At Woodbourne I see kids who are survivors. I believe in the resiliency of the human spirit. A healthy friendship is also resilient. If it's grounded in true social interest and a genuine feeling or caring, it can weather the storms that all friendships go through."
Some friendships, though, are not really friendships. Dr. Warres talked of the type of person who views others as an extension of themselves. Such people are often described by psychologists as narcissistic.
"There are two kinds of people, those who love things and use people and those who love people and use things," says Dr. Warres. "Narcissistic people have trouble with friendships. They use people for their own ends. You end up feeling used."
On the other hand, says Dr. Warres, "Whenever we begin to develop a true friendship with reciprocity, empathy, it's wonderful."
For one thing, a true, multi-dimensional friendship "allows a person not to have to keep up facades." He tells of a man he knew who modeled himself after James Bond to attract women. "One day he met a woman he was very fond of. He began imitating James Bond and they went out for a while. Then he began to worry she was falling in love with him. But it was a false self. His impersonation had worked too well. He wanted her to love him, not James Bond."
When he confessed in a tear-drenched confrontation, says Dr. Warres, the woman replied, "Oh, you're so foolish. I could see through that at a glance. That's one thing I like about you." They got married and have been married 20 years.
"For me," says Dr. Nelinson, "love is a part of any friendship. You really love someone when you are truly hurt by the absence of that person. But my experience is that people take friendships for granted. They don't feed them and the level of activity begins to slide. A relationship is like a living organism, like a shark. It's ever moving. If it stops moving it stops breathing."
What follows are conversations with three sets of best friends.
KAREN AND ANN
Karen Gahm, a Boston-born management specialist in social work, was new to Baltimore in 1983 when she met Ann Slonim Rafal, also a social worker, at a training program. At the time, both were single and found much in common. Now, though, Ann is married and a full-time mother, the two are closer than ever, vowing to keep their friendship alive as Ann and her family prepare to move to Rockville.
KAREN: I was working as a trainer for the Maryland Institutional Abuse Prevention project, going around the state, training people who worked with emotionally disturbed kids. Ann was in one of my classes. It turned out we were the only women, the only professionals in that five-day workshop. Certain people you work with, you can be very intimate very quickly. We talked about being together and being friends, but we didn't call or see each other for a while. Then I remember seeing her in a car. I remembered not knowing exactly how I knew her but I said I've got to call her. We shared a lot in common. We're both Jewish and there's something to that. We were both looking to meet men, to date. We were both ripe for a friend.
ANN: I was scared to death to go to that training session because it was at a home for boys. It could have been miserable, but the one thing we have in common, we make the most of situations. Karen made it fun. At the end of session Karen invited me to her house. I had gotten close to some friends, but too close too fast and it didn't work out. It's very parallel to someone you're dating. It just wasn't right. I wasn't enjoying their company. So with Karen I didn't want to get involved too quickly. We took a couple of trips together. I had a little circle of friends I brought Karen into. Now it's almost like family. My sister calls, my mother calls and Karen calls.
KAREN: We lead very different lives now. She's got a daughter I'm totally in love with. Ann and Mark met and were engaged in four months. I know I felt some jealousy. You're happy but you're also disappointed and angry. Selfishly so. But I have grown to love Mark and Mark has accepted me. I was around for the beginnings of labor for both their kids. I go to dinner at their house once a week. I'll call up that day and say, "How about tonight? Should I bring something over?"
ANN: When I got married, Karen felt like we were going too quickly. Her approval was not 100 percent in the beginning. And I was afraid. My father had said, "Once you get married you won't see your single friends as much." But we've been able to carry through all our life's troubles. It's been very pleasant. My husband Mark would say Ann is our adult interaction.
KAREN: I feel comfortable calling Ann about almost anything. It's almost a safety valve. I'll call at 6:30 in the morning, I know they'll all be up. And she will be there for me to give me feedback and to support me. We complement each other. The important quality in a friendship is unconditional support. If I go and start doing something crazy, Ann will say fine. She would give me advice and support no matter what. It has to do with giving emotionally. I have a friend who is the nicest guy in the world. He will help you with anything, with money, etc. But he doesn't know how to give emotionally. Taking is also something I've had to learn to do. For me to be in control is so important. Usually I'm more a giver and a listener. Taking means you can accept something. And I've grown in that area because of Ann.
ANN: I've learned from Karen how to be a good friend. Her style was "I would do anything for a friend." I didn't know that style. I had never been challenged before in that way. We have grown to expect certain things of each other. We have similar values and enjoy the same kinds of things and people, the same kinds of activities. Over time you can trust that person to be a keeper of secrets, a supporter of emotions.
We're different. She's a risk taker. She's independent in more ways than I am. She's successfully single, basically happy and comfortable with herself. I'm more conservative in lifestyle. I think we live vicariously through each other. I live through some of her. It makes me feel good about myself that I spend time with someone like her. She takes care of me emotionally. Very much so.
Some are givers and some are takers. Karen is more of a giver, I'm more of a taker. You have to be able to take emotionally. It's the delicate balance of a friendship. You wonder why some people don't have friends. It has to do with being able to trust and to be able to be intimate. My brother has new friends all the time. He is a giver. But he doesn't let others in.
KAREN: The thing we do worst is be mad at each other. Neither of us handles it well. There have been times we've been angry but we've hardly ever shared it with each other. We just let it go. It might manifest itself by one of us not calling. Part of a relationship is that people need to express what they feel. Our style happens to be we want it to slide. If there was one thing I'd want to improve, it would be ability to deal with negative things.
The sad news is, they're moving. I moved from Boston, and left a best friend. We are still best friends, but we don't see each other. When we do see each other it's like we haven't been apart for a second. I'm totally convinced it will not change our friendship. We'll always be best friends.
REBECCA AND CAMERON
Cameron Gerlach and Rebecca Butcher Schoenfleiss met 11 years ago in Baltimore when their careers as illustrators brought them into regular contact. Their brief love affair in those early days has paved the way, they say, for a more meaningful non-sexual relationship today as best friends. They still consult with each other over their free-lance art careers and Cameron is a frequent guest of Rebecca and her husband, Volker.
REBECCA: I had to talk Cam into liking me. I had a lot of respect for his talent. He was funny and I was drawn to that. He was a very likable guy. Then we really, really started to like each other. We couldn't be separated. We did everything together. But when we were involved as lovers I wasn't comfortable. I started thinking it isn't unconditional. It spoiled it. Now it is unconditional. I can tell Cameron anything. He listens and he understands.
I made it clear to my husband, Volker, that Cam was my friend. Volker is not the jealous type. One time I asked Volker if he felt uncomfortable about me seeing Cam. He said, "No, I think you need Cam. He makes you laugh."
CAMERON: My first impression was I couldn't stand her. She was snotty, arrogant, cold. Prim and proper. She wore white. I thought, "How could she be an artist and wear white?" It took a long time. I guess I was probably protecting myself. But I never met anyone I had so much in common with. In terms of a relationship, it was the best and the worst I've ever been through. It was really intense for a time back then. I saw it as life the way it should be. Then we started having arguments. We stood back and went our own separate ways.
Then I had to make a decision about what kind of relationship I wanted. It was kind of painful her getting married. I was really hoping she would come back and solve my problems. But I had to make a decision and I decided I really liked her as a friend. That was important. I do everything I can to let Volker know I'm not a threat. I don't see myself as a threat. I think it's important that both sexes have influences from the other. But society has a real prejudice against it. I feel we're almost doing something wrong because she's married and we are friends. We're not allowed to be friends. Certainly we must be having sex.
REBECCA: What do I seek in a friendship? Unconditional acceptance for who I am. That feeling that I can be comfortable. Not all of my friendships are like Cameron. He knows me like a soul mate. To Cam I offer total acceptance of whatever. When you're a couple like we were, your welfare depends on his actions. There is almost a selfishness to what the other person does. It affects you. But not in a friendship. When we are just friends we let each other be who we are.
CAMERON: Now that we aren't involved, we talk more openly than when we were involved. Back then, things became secretive. The most important thing now is being comfortable and being unchallenged in a way. I don't want to be confronted about everything to justify myself. When you get into a relationship, people come with preconceived ideas of what the role of the significant other should be. To be a provider, etc. We don't have to deal with that.
REBECCA: I think trust is the essence of any relationship. I can't imagine not trusting Cam totally. It has taken me 10 years to get to this point. That's the investment people are fearful to make. People finally trust someone and they get hurt. Trust means you can tell a friend anything and he will still like you. He might say that was really weird but I still like you. Cam really listens. I can say something about his work like "This doesn't look right," and I don't think he's offended. I respect what he says about my work. Our work, our styles are different, but of the same caliber.
CAMERON: To a friend I offer a safe haven. A place where you can step out of everyday hustle and bustle and feel comfortable. A place where you don't have to put on airs. An ear, a sort of unbiased opinion about things. She gives back, too. Becca is one of the few people who can say, "I don't like something" and I won't get upset. It's usually valid.
REBECCA: When we go hiking, I like to get there. Cameron likes to stop and smell the flowers. And that's good. He's a rose smeller and I'm not. It would not be as interesting if we were the same. Our differences are what add the fun to the relationship.
JERRY AND ROCKY
Sales representative Jerry Meyers and construction superintendent Rocky Davis trace their close friendship to their sophomore year at Mount St. Joseph High School, when they began playing folk music together. Since then the two West Baltimore men have been nearly inseparable. Their wives, Debbie and Bonnie, have become close friends and the Meyerses are godparents to the Davises' son Sean.
ROCKY: It's easy for me to like Jerry because we're so opposite. We bounce off each other all the time. When he has a problem or I have a problem, he only has to say one word. It doesn't necessarily negate the problem, but it eases it. You couldn't have that with anyone but a close friend. I feel fortunate to even have a close friend. If people say they have a lot of close friends they are lying, or they don't know what the meaning of a close friendship is.
JERRY: Rocky is very easy to know. He's very passive, a type B personality, whereas I'm a type A. He's not judgmental. He is not quick to pass judgment. He accepts me at face value. He doesn't try to qualify me and put me into a slot to fit him. I don't think he feels intimidated to be a friend. Our relationship is based on common life experiences. We met at an impressionable age. We had common interests -- we played music together in the same band for 15 years. I have other friends, clients, who at best are superficial relationships, not the kind of people I would have to my home or who would have me their home. But Rocky and I have shared our families. Our spouses are very close friends because of our friendship.
ROCKY: You're not really aware you're working at a friendship. If I were to go around and say, "Jerry, we've got to work on our relationship," that's crazy kind of talk. You can't analyze it. But we have always been available to each other. And we have traditions. His mother-in-law has been coming over to my house on Christmas Eve for the past 15 years, reading "The Night Before Christmas" to my children. Jerry always tries to shy away from family stuff, but he's a member of my family whether he likes it or not. Heaven knows he's the first one to get into an argument with my father.
JERRY: With Rocky, family comes before anything. I recognized early on how strong a family relationship he had. It's probably the closest I've ever come to being envious. He comes from such a strong family environment. It's one more situation where we came from opposite directions and we are drawn together because of it. I admire Rocky for being able to see what I see and react differently. I have a knee-jerk reaction to a lot of things. He has a very analytical reaction. He is slow to anger, but once he's angry it's Katy-bar-the-door. I am judgmental, I work from the balls of my feet, make quick decisions. His decisions are probably more sound than mine.
ROCKY: It takes me awhile to get going. It's very hard for me to speak in front of other people. With Jerry, who's a salesperson, he can do that kind of thing automatically. To me, a person who has to go out everyday and sell has to be a most creative person. Because you're going to be told no by a lot of people. That is the most horrible thing imaginable for me. I'd be devastated. But Jerry just gets right back up and goes on with his job. He's developed not a hard shell but a hard-nose approach that has helped me. I can bounce things off him and his hard nose. I'm not like that.
JERRY: Rocky can give off a false reading. He is slow but he is extremely creative and gifted. He doesn't wear it on his sleeve. He is not on an ego trip. He's very comfortable with himself. I am probably less comfortable with myself. Rocky wouldn't feel uncomfortable if he was in a room full of people wearing tuxedos and he was wearing jeans and a sweat shirt. He's not intimidated. I would feel humiliated.
ROCKY: I realized I was close to Jerry when his Mom died. I had never had death stare me in the face before. I remember driving to the funeral parlor with Jerry and his brother. I felt out of place. I felt maybe just the brothers should be together. I got out of the car and Jerry seemed to read right there what I was feeling. He says, "You're coming in with us. You've got to be here with us." And that was the end of the conversation. I stayed and I was a part of it. It's an experience I'll never forget. A good friend needed my companionship. He might not have said it to anyone else. He said it to me.
JERRY: My first impression of Rocky was in the fall of 1966. I was very much into folk music. A friend of mine brought Rocky to my house and in those days everybody played a guitar. But not only did Rocky show up with a banjo, he could actually play it. I knew he was really different. He didn't take the same route we all did.
Rocky got married at 21. It was the first time I realized I was growing up. You think you'll live forever and then, very quickly, Rocky was a husband and a father. He fell out of the close-knit circle of friends for a time, but we soon found ourselves bouncing back. When his first child was born we were out playing ice hockey together at 2 a.m. I had the first surprise party of my life when I turned 35. Rocky very eloquently told everybody there all the things I am, and he said if anyone says a cross word about me in his presence they're in trouble.
ROCKY: When we were in high school at Mount St. Joe's, Jerry had a Ford, a Mustang. I remember seeing this little guy kicking the hell out of that car one day. I don't know what the car did. His face had turned three shades redder than red, and he was calling it every name in the book. That was the first time I noticed Jerry. He is a person very into what's going on in today's society. He's up on all the people who are making news. I admire that in people. It wouldn't help me if he was the same as me. It would be like looking into a mirror and looking right through it. When you face someone different than you and can communicate, it's like a soundboard that vibrates. You can look into that person without realizing you're communicating. That's what friendship is all about: communication. And being a very good listener. That's something he does well.
JERRY: Could I get mad at him? You're damn right. He's made me mad a lot. He just laughs when I get mad. I knee-jerk over a lot of little things. But then I calm down and forget it. He laughs at it.
ROCKY: The only time I get exasperated with Jerry is when he does fly off the handle. Sometimes it is necessary for him to vent his anger. To me, someone would have to do violence to someone I loved for me to get as angry as he gets. But it's a part of him. It's hard to stay mad at Jerry, for goodness' sakes.