Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Family, Friends & Acquaintances

Occasionally I have heard people remark as proof of their affection that their parents are their best friends. I prefer to preserve a distinction between family, friends and acquaintances.  Each is important; but each is different. Neither requires the signals of one to elevate the other. Indeed to commingle the qualities of one with the other is a mistake and can lead to unfortunate results not the least of which is disappointment. One must learn to distinguish the substantive differences in order to avoid unintended contamination of the relationship.

At a plodding pace and after protracted and impassioned analysis I am proceeding to re-engineer certain of my sensibilities, specifically the response to complex emotional influences of those acquaintances whom I erroneously described as friends. The judicious use of the word "friends" is the heart of this imbroglio. While I won't attempt a definitive description of what constitutes a friend I believe instead I may rely upon the easy way out by suggesting that friendship is like love; namely, something you instinctively know and accept. Friendship is - if I may steal from a decidedly visceral context - as identifiable as any appetite.  No amount of spiritualism or mental acuity or circumscribing wariness figures in the detection of a hunger; it is both palpable and indisputable. I wager that friendship is the same. You know who your friends are (though admittedly its employment commands both caution and precision).

It is axiomatic that we have few friends. Often by contrast we have many acquaintances.  Frequently the extent of association with acquaintances borders on what one might expect of friends - sharing meals together, perhaps even travelling together; more often just working together or sharing common interests. Seldom however do acquaintances cross the line of friendship to become dependable and reliable any more than someone is mistaken as family; the natural boundaries invariably persist.

Anyway, whatever it is that captures the essence of friendship, the point is that we normally know when someone is our friend or not.  What is not quite so clear is  how to maneuver among acquaintances. Perhaps the simple answer lies in a study of the circumstances in which the congress of acquaintances arises. If for example the motivation for a convention is a unilateral need, then chances are the association fulfills some object of one of the parties only. There is of course nothing wrong being helpful to someone to accomplish their specific goals; but one mustn't confuse the purpose with friendship.

Generally speaking friendship is between persons of a similar age. There are naturally exceptions but the rule is certainly more common.  Age differences, especially if particularly remarkable, hint at a myriad of possible qualifications and sometimes outright poisoning. It would constitute utter speculation to delineate the many undercurrents to such a confederacy.  Suffice it to say that unless one can unequivocally vouch for the relationship then perhaps it is worth examining in closer detail before things get irrevocably out of control.

I must say that after having run an intense sole proprietorship for the past forty years, it was anything but uncommon for me to align my personal affections with my clients for whom I worked so assiduously.  In hindsight I fear that I may have improperly characterized those associations as something more than they were.  Not that there was anything whatsoever either wrong or improper about those associations; but I perhaps failed to distinguish the close business relationship from a personal friendship.  This failure didn't become apparent to me until after I had closed my practice.  It was then I discovered - albeit shamefully slowly - that the exhaustion of my legal utility had wrought a corresponding diminution of the foundation of my so-called friendships. This is something which is so well known by most and so well documented as to amount trite reiteration.  Nevertheless I seemingly missed the point for quite some time. My only defence in my tardiness to make this realization is that the narrowness of my social scope throughout my practice of law succeeded to prohibit the cultivation of more varied relationships than those founded initially upon a business connection.  In effect all of my relationships stemmed from the practice of law and I seem to have made an inductive leap that so too did my friendships (without of course knowing that there was any difference).

The only obvious clue I might have had to the true substance of friendship harkened back to my boarding school days when it was only one's friends to whom one was close.  Every other relationship there was unmistakably stained with and strained by some ulterior purpose whether athletic (team related), by rank in the cadet corps or pipe band, by hierarchy as a House Captain or Prefect, or  merely as an Upper School or Lower School boy. Because so many of us by design went to the same undergraduate university, those friendships continued in that environment as well.  But by the time I got to law school the focus of my life was beginning to narrow very rapidly and very few people qualified as acquaintances much less friends.  I did however make some fast friends during the law school period of my life and they continue to this day.  Now the landscape is vastly different.  I have concluded that my friendships worldwide are few.  I am also learning to separate myself from those other relationships that I mistakenly thought of as friendship.  This is not an effort to be chary; rather it is intended to understand the mettle of the alliance.  Without a doubt I am very fond of many people whom I would not otherwise call a friend.  The difference of description is not one of caliber; rather it is one of education. If one were to misinterpret the substance of a relationship, it can lead to some unforeseen and undesirable results which neither party envisioned.  The metaphors for misinterpretation are just too rich and the consequences too absurd to bear repeating!  Yet it requires a level of sophistication to avoid the trap. And there is also needed an element of maturity, in particular discernment (the ability to judge well). Once again it is a matter of education, being able to recognize something for what it is.

It would be ingenuous to suggest that the distinction between friends and acquaintances hasn't an upshot.  Certainly it does. While both associations may be pleasant and rewarding, friendship undoubtedly warrants and merits greater absorption. The thing is, one mustn't allow oneself to become warped by a relationship which isn't what one imagines it to be.  That's where the discernment comes in, being able to identify the substance of a relationship for what it is.  Once those parameters are clear, the evolution of the relationship is guaranteed to be both fruitful and happy rather than characterized by deprivation and anger. Unfortunately there is no one but oneself to blame if the characterization of a relationship is incorrect. The recipient of the misconstrued beneficence can hardly be maligned for accepting the gestures of goodwill. But to expect something in return is an error.

To my thinking I dedicate a lot of energy (and sometimes capital) to the cultivation and preservation of a friendship. I won't pretend to be so innocent that I don't pursue an objective in most things that I do.  If that objective is thwarted or diminished by misconstruction, I am inclined to resile from its pursuit. I may even seek to absent myself from the fray if for no other reason than to avoid further misinterpretation; and failing that, my sense of pragmatism evokes in me harsher considerations, sometimes even rebuttal. In short, an undertaking may not be worth the effort.

I embrace practical application especially now when time is running out. The toleration of slipshod behaviour is a privilege whose time has passed. In any event it is so much easier to deal with things when you know where you stand.

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