Friendship is one of life’s great gifts. Last weekend I drove to Cincinnati to see my best friend, Dan, who has had heart trouble for several years. I’ve known him for all of my adult life. We met in college during my first semester. I was seventeen—young enough that he knows me by my childhood name, Joey, as if he’d been a neighborhood kid. Our memories are intertwined. We share a long history of personal references. Although I’d had a few close childhood friends, Dan was the first person who shared perfectly my enthusiasm for literature and art. We traveled to Europe for the first time together. Now when we meet up, we go over those moments, reliving and reassessing the past. We make new realizations about people and places as we reminisce. With your best friend, it’s possible even to forgive yourself, to let go of your personal failures and to be okay with the way things have turned out. There’s an emotional safety in such a friendship.
The same is true of a couple of my friendships from grad school. They don’t reach quite so far into my past, but they developed at a time of life when it was still possible to be kids together, playful, dreamy, vulnerable. By the time you start a career, it’s virtually impossible to form such friendships. You become sensible and guarded, cultivating a respectable image of virtue and responsibility. Maybe you have a marriage to protect also, and children to teach. You grow up. But any deep friendship is essentially childish. True friendship is based on the kind of idealism and hope and faith that only kids have. With a great friend, you feel like a child again. You regain your innocence. You open yourself to possibilities.
Friendship is a revelation. Try to recall your first friend. For me, it was a kid in our neighborhood, Eddie Reynolds. He was mine in a way that a brother or sister can’t be, because I chose him. We chose one another. We discovered our connections—through sports, through favorite TV shows—and we invented our own jokey way of talking about the things we cared about. In discovering the other, we find ourselves. You can’t do this in your own family, where everyone already knows you and has you pigeon-holed. With your best friend, you get a fresh start. You build up a fictional world in which your own quirky perceptions and reactions shape reality. Your opinions finally matter, and you get to know yourself. Combined with this exploratory element is the work of supporting one another in the larger world. You get more pleasure from your best friend’s successes than you do from your own.
Now my friend Dan and I are turning our attention more toward the ends of our lives. Our possibilities are increasingly in the past, as if we could live backwards and, by reliving, open up new vistas for our former selves. Much of life is really about revision, re-imagining. You need time for that, but it doesn’t have to be the time in front of you; it can be your past. Even as time is running out, my friend and I have our whole pasts in front of us—so much time to live. No matter how bad things get, if you have a friend, you can keep going.
Music: "Why Can't We Be Friends" by War