Sunday, November 30, 2008 By Aaron Brown
The warm, yet difficult, business of friendship
By Aaron J. Brown
So I recently joined Facebook, a social networking Internet site where you connect with old friends and make new ones in the process. For a hipster Internet dude in his 20s (albeit late 20s), joining Facebook this late in life is kind of embarrassing, but it has also prompted an important question. Just what is a friend?
It’s amazing how tricky the business of friendship becomes over time. I made my first friend pretty easily. I climbed aboard the yellow school bus along St. Louis County Highway 7 on the Iron Range of northern Minnesota. I sat next to a kid with wild, unkempt blonde hair. After a moment of awkward silence, one of us suggested that we should be friends. And for two years this boy from down the highway would be my best friend. We both climbed on that bus looking for a friend, and fate put us in the first seat on the left side in September 1985. In kindergarten, we watched the Space Shuttle Challenger blow up on TV together.
The interesting thing about childhood friendships is that they often end abruptly, for very adult reasons that aren’t understood at the time. My friendship with the blonde kid from the bus waned as his family slipped into the sinkhole of poverty and violence not uncommon to the marshland along the quiet miles of Highway 7.
That sounds pretty tragic, doesn’t it? Like a sad play that wins a lot of awards. Here’s the thing. At the time I didn’t even notice until it had already happened. Friends pass in and out of a kid’s life with relative ease. I see this today with my oldest son, now 3, whenever we go to the play place at a fast food restaurant. We go there and Henry shouts, “Kids!” And he plays with them enthusiastically until it’s time to go and we NEVER SEE THEM AGAIN. One of them might be a future president, a future girlfriend, a future movie star but it wouldn’t matter. This moment in childhood would remain capped in amber, frozen at a moment when other kids didn’t have names but remained our friends.
Going back to elementary school, the years between 2nd and 4th grade seemed a constant realignment of friends and best friends. It took nothing for a kid to say, So-and-So is my BEST friend, not knowing that the term “best” was the ultimate in qualifiers, implying that all others were less. This was easy to ignore when grade school alliances constantly shifted, yielding a new “best” friend for each marking period. But later, it gets complicated.
As an adult, many of us have a hard time declaring a best friend. Sure, it’s easy to name a “best friend” from high school. A “best friend” from college. A “best friend” from work, or the Rotary Club, the church or the softball team. But a “best friend.” I think I could name a best friend, but if I did I’d be so worried about offending my other friends. At the same time, if you don’t name your spouse as your best friend you also risk stepping in a semantic bear trap. I have some friends who refer to each other as “bff2,” in a nod to the difficulty of naming a true best friend. At the same time, I see most of my friends far less often than I would like. There are so many important reasons why, all of them to be forgotten years from now.
In the end, wouldn’t it be great to do things the kid way? Everyone is your friend until proven otherwise. Your best friend is the one standing next to you.
Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Contact him or read more at his blog, MinnesotaBrown.com. His new book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range” is out now.