On (Re)Defining Friendship in the Face of a Tragic Death and the Now
I feel blessed because I liked high school. I wasn’t so fond of the tests, and there were a couple of teachers I could have done without, but I liked pretty much everything else about it. I wasn’t one of the “popular kids,” but I found my space. I had my set of really close friends, but also knew lots of others. I don’t think I really had a problem with anyone. One of those people that I knew, but with whom I wasn’t close, passed away this week. And, though I didn’t know him well, I find myself profoundly impacted. Maybe it’s because he was my age, or because he, too, had a young kid, or maybe it’s just because anytime you know anyone that dies, it’s impactful. The reasons don’t necessarily matter.
Mike’s sudden passing has not only made me think deeply about the more obvious concepts of mortality, health and fatherhood, but also about friends and the very definition of friendship. I knew Mike in high school, but we didn’t hang out. We weren’t “friends.” We were friendly. Like so many relationships in our lives now, however, Facebook made us “friends.” We interacted in cyberspace and communicated with “likes” and occasional comments.
Though I didn’t know him well, I do know that Mike lived the good life. Spending time with him at a recent reunion solidified that reality. Smiling. Laughing. Engaging. As fast with a quip as he was with a hug, or a tequila shot, his spirit was on full display at the reunion. Since the reunion, Mike has been suggesting events, golf outings and anything else to get us back together. No sense waiting every five years to see everyone is what I suspect was his driving motive. I was looking forward to participating in some of those activities. No point in waiting.
When I first got onto Facebook, I “friended” just about every person I’d ever met. This included lots of people from high school. Maybe it was silly. After all, I hadn’t spent any time, or even communicated with so many of these people in more than 20 years. Why, now, were they suddenly my friends? They were “people I used to know” at best. So, I “defriended” a few of them. Admittedly, including Mike. He was clogging my wall! And in the Age of Social Media, this was a huge burden! No sooner had I done that, however, and Mike sent another friend request. I accepted it. And, in doing so, was taught a lesson.
Friendship takes on a number of different meanings. In some instances it’s all-encompassing. We have those friends who get calls when times are good and when times are bad. These are the friends that know us better than we know ourselves and the ones we turn to when we need a push in the right direction – even when (especially when!) we don’t know what that direction is. But, it’s naïve to think that all friends can be like this. So, there are others. There are those who were part of a profound life event or experience. I went to Israel when I was 16-years old and to summer camp when I was younger than that. The people with whom I shared these experiences will forever be friends – whether I talk to them or not. There are school friends. Friends from activities. And still others.
Then, of course, there’s that “Facebook Friend” category. According to some (including, at one point, myself), Facebook has diluted the meaning of “friend.” Although Mike technically was a school friend, Facebook Friend was more of the category in which he belonged for me. Though I remember him pitching for our high school baseball team, I had no idea the kind of spirit he possessed until we connected on Facebook. At one point, I thought the purely Facebook Friend to be the weakest of all kinds of friends. The least “friendworthy.” I don’t think that anymore.
I’m impacted by Mike’s passing because of the obvious, but also because I have a new understanding of “friend.” Since his passing, reading the posts about Mike has been a daily reminder about the importance of experiences and interactions with people. It doesn’t matter how many we have, what matters is that we have them. Although I may not have as many as Mike’s “all-encompassing” friends, or those with whom he played baseball, my experience with Mike was memorable. He was just that engaging. And despite the fact that my experiences were few, he has still taught me this valuable lesson.
When someone passes, it’s natural to think about our own morality. We’re reminded to hug those closest to us. Death is the ultimate equalizer, as it immediately provides importance to the now. It makes us sit up straight and take stock. It often makes us realize that we need to reset our priorities. We’re reminded how fleeting life is, and with our feelings of immortality removed, we’re vulnerable. We need to hold onto this vulnerability, as it provides a catalyst for self-discovery.
When tragedy like this strikes, the urge to come together and remember is fierce. The need to talk, share and reminisce is overpowering. And the thing is, it doesn’t matter how much I know about someone. It doesn’t matter how much someone knows about me. If we’ve shared space. If we’ve shared thought. If we’ve shared so much as a glance. Dear friends…That’s exactly what you all are. Friendship is as much a feeling as anything else. It shouldn’t and can’t be defined by, or weighted by how people met. Whether they met in cyberspace ten minutes ago, or in pre-school decades ago…who cares?
So I’m sorry I didn’t get the chance to know you better, Mike. It’s now up to the rest of us to take your lead and start planning the events, golf outings and anything else to get us all back together. It’s not even a question of “why wait?” It’s a mandate that we can’t.
Rest in Peace, Brother…