What is friendship? I’m tempted to quote the main character in Tuck, Everlasting and say “It just is!” Except it isn’t, not quite, if it ever was. Today we have friending someone on Facebook, unfriending someone, “to friend zone” as a verb, and who-knows-what else in floating around popular culture these days. I’ve raised eyebrows and hackles a few times when people asked “How many friends do you have” and my reply is “oh, four or five, at most.” This is not to say there are not a goodly number of people who I am friendly with. It is to say that my definition of “friend” is very tight. Friends are the people who, if they call at 3:00 AM and say they need help, I’m on the road, no questions asked. Because they’d do the same for me.
There are a lot more people who if they call at 8:00 AM and ask if I can help them with something, I’ll check my calendar or project list first. The distinction first came up when I was laying on my back on a creeper, scrubbing the belly of a Piper at the flying club spring wash day. One of the guys moved my jacket (draped over the top of a cooler) and observed that it smelled like woodsmoke. “Oh, I was at a party last night with some coworkers and acquaintances.”
“Why don’t you just say friends?” came the reply, followed by, “Hey! Root beer! Finally.” So I didn’t answer his question/comment. The answer would have been because only one of the 30 or so people was an individual I’d consider a friend. I don’t throw the word around like a lot of folks do. Call me old-fashioned, or peculiar, or exclusive, all are true to an extent.
Why I started musing about the word was a piece over at the Mad Genius Club a few weeks ago about the “problem” of love in fiction, and the apparent inability of current culture to separate love from sex. The comments include some talk about the Greek concepts and shadings of types of live, including brotherly love and friendship-as-love. I’ve seen a couple of bloggers, usually current or former military, refer to a very, very close friend as “my brother-from-another-mother.” There is absolutely nothing sexual about it, or about fictional friendships. Some of the examples given are Holmes and Watson, Frodo and Sam from Lord of the Rings, and Pippen and Merry, whose friendship doesn’t have the class and service connotations that Frodo and Sam’s relationship does. I have two very good friends who are male, both married, and that doesn’t change our friendship one whit. I get along with their spouses quite well, too well, some people would say. (Look, we’re writers. That’s why we’re talking about poisons, blast radii, ancient curses, and how to bump off the nasty head of the lab who’s probably really a secret agent from [evil conspiracy group here] at a tea shop, over tea, sandwiches, and cream puffs. Relax.)
One of the points about fiction is it gives writers and readers a chance to explore ideas and relationships. Modern romance (and writing in general, including TV and film) seems locked on the idea that love and physical intimacy are synonyms, and that the only friend is one “withe benefits.” Thus any two people who are very close absolutely must be lovers, no matter what the author originally intended, or currently intends. To which I say, “Oh get a grip.” And get a life.
One of the major themes in Robert Massie’s biography of Peter the Great is the incredible importance of several men who were friends of Peter’s, and the deep influence they had on him, mostly for the good. They kept him steady, gave him support when he was starting to find his way, introduced him to the wider world (outside of Russia), served him when necessary, and in one case the man was one of the few who could physically restrain Peter when he lost his cool – he was both physically large enough, and close enough a friend that he could lay hands on the Tsar of Russia without causing offense. There is zero likelihood they were lovers. But friends? Very much so.
In the next few Cat Among Dragons books, friendship is a major sub-theme, specifically that between Rada, Rahoul Khan, and Joschka von Hohen-Drachenburg. A delicate balance of rank, duty, distance, and trust has developed between the three, and how that changes, deepens, shifts, and manifests itself over time plays a role in the books. But Rada and Rahoul have zero interest in physical intimacy. He’s happily married and Rada’s glad for him. But they are so close in other ways that while they don’t quite finish each other’s sentences (unless they are quoting Kipling at each other, or hymn texts), they almost know what the other is thinking or planning. Which is a major part of why Rahoul is going grey in his 40s. Well, Rada and imagining what his twin children will be like as teenagers. In turn Rada is the only person who knows Joschka well enough to safely intervene when he goes into berserker mode, although she also knows how dangerous that can be, especially now that she’s no longer in her physical prime. And Joschka can reach Rada when no one else can, when she lets Commander Rada Lord Ni Drako overwhelm her Rachel Na Gael mask. (Rahoul just establishes a secure perimeter and waits until Rada finishes killing whatever inspired her ire, metaphorically or literally.)
It’s probably a reflection of my personality and beliefs that I just can’t make sex and love mean the same thing in every case. Nor can I bring myself to use “friend” as a verb. English is such a wonderful language, but it does have as much ability to muddy meaning as to clarify it. To say “I love ice cream” in German, “Ich liebe Eis,” is to invite correction, amused looks, or serious concerns about your choice of life partner and, ah, er, ahem, lifestyle preference. If you get my meaning. I befriend people. I have friends and make friends. I am friendly (after caffeine, most of the time, within limits, but not as much during cold season. Nothing personal.) I have never unfriended anyone, although friendships have ended due to death (theirs) or mutual decision because of certain life choices one or the other of us made. I do not believe in “friend-zoning.” Have I told a gentleman that I did not feel comfortable with our relationship moving into physical intimacy and possible marriage? Yes. We agreed to part ways on good terms and he found someone who suited him much better.
Amor, Liebe, Caritas, Philos, Agape, Amore. Friend, Freund, Amigo. So many words with so many meanings and shadings!