2023 Word of the Year: FRIEND

This makes me mightily nervous, but there it is. It is an idea I’ve had on my heart for years and years, and after pondering for the last few days about a word for the year, and going back and forth on whether I would choose a word, whether or not it really mattered, or was useful at all, this word came to mind as I was cleaning the kitchen and thinking about…Friends. I don’t choose it because I love it — not at the moment — but because it is important.

My whole life I’ve kept people at arm’s length. This tendency of mine would obviously come from several sources, some of which would be my upbringing/family culture, my introversion (including active interior life, reading and thinking, and contentment with that, energized by alone time, energy sapped in large crowds), and in later life a lack of trust because of all those years of disappointment in people.

Many years ago, while living in NYC as a 20/30 something, a “friend” (in quotes because of what I’m about to tell you) and roommate told me that … don’t remember exactly how she said it but here’s the impression of her words I’ve carried through these decades since … she didn’t think people viewed their friendship with me the way that I viewed our friendship. In other words, I considered us good friends, where they didn’t. I felt close to them; they did not feel the same closeness. I do not put friend in quotes because she was not a friend to me; indeed, her caring enough to tell me that (maybe it was out of frustration?) showed her to be my friend. But did she feel I was a friend to her?

So those words have haunted me through the years as I’ve gone through these next phases of my life — marriage, motherhood, moving across the country, new sets of friends acquired because of my career as a homeschool mom — and I wonder even as I have warm feelings about my friends and thinking ‘we’re good’, are they not feeling the love? Are my self-sufficiency and numbness from being burned keeping me from being a true friend? How much do we get to account for our personality-type and neurodiversity, anyways?

Now let’s throw in social media that came to be a part of my life since my…. let’s see, I’ve been on Facebook since 2009 (and what a difference it is from previous online discussion forums!) so since I was in my late 40s. What a blessing and ‘curse’ it has been. I have ‘friends’ from all over the world. I count them better friends than I had prior to the online life. Like-minded friends. Not always same age peers, since much of my life, marriage and motherhood, came later in life than most, but more like-minded than I’d ever had before. I suppose when the whole planet is the pool from which to find like-minded friends, you’re going to do pretty well. But the ‘curse’ — the dependency on it to air my frustrations, my joys and sorrows, and that need to get a response that you don’t realize is there until you get little to no response to whatever joy or sorrow that you have posted about.

I recently started reading You Are Not Your Own by Alan Noble — first, because Cindy Rollins has been reading and raving about it, and then because other friends (my awesome online friends) are excited about reading it and discussing it….online. In this book Noble strongly addresses our modern world and much disordered affections. He talks about this inner focus of the self and finding your own meaning and needing the world to hear and accept your own meaning, all the while they’re doing the same thing, having the same needs.

“Everyone is on their own private journey of self-discovery and self-expression, so that at times, modern life feels like billions of people in the same room shouting their own names so that everyone else knows they exist and who they are — which is a fairly accurate description of social media. To be recognized is to draw the gaze and the attention of others. To be affirmed is to draw their positive gaze. But if we are all responsible for creating and expressing our own identities, then everyone is in competition with everyone else for our limited attention, and no one is secure enough in their own identity to ground us with their approval. How can we cope with such fierce competition?” (p. 25,26)

As I read his words, I tell myself that while I am not like all these modern people on their ‘journey of self-discovery and self-expression’, and when I put myself out there it is because I have something to say, something that I sincerely want to share with my world, I still feel a strong sense of rejection when I do not ‘draw the gaze’ in any way whether positive or negative. (But, of course, I’d prefer the positive.) So where is this coming from when I didn’t put it out there to be personally noticed? I know that a great deal of it is the hurt that the ideas have been rejected or not even acknowledged, but that pang that I feel for myself is just really troubling, and I know it affects my willingness to put anything out there, including these very words that I am typing.

So what does this have to do with being a Friend? It’s really just a piece of the puzzle that makes me want to stay safe at home, in my own place and in my own thoughts. Who am I thinking of when I say Friends? I am thinking of both those local, as well as those online. I wonder how much it will help if I realize that they need me just as much as I need them — their thoughts and encouragement. How much will it help if I keep putting myself out there — with my thoughts and questions and offers to help — regardless of the silence in response? How much will it help if I own up to them my fears and insecurities?

My younger brother was a good friend to me and many others. He kept his college friends until the day he died at age 31. He stayed in communication (even before the internet!) and visited them often. After his death, one of those friends sent these lyrics to us which we laid on his grave —

I hope the day will be a lighter highway
For friends are found on every road
Can you ever think of any better way
For the lost and weary travellers to go

Making friends for the world to see
Let the people know you got what you need
With a friend at hand you will see the light
If your friends are there then everything’s all right

It seems to me a crime that we should age
These fragile times should never slip us by
A time you never can or shall erase
As friends together watch their childhood fly

Making friends for the world to see
Let the people know you got what you need
With a friend at hand you will see the light
If your friends are there then everything’s all right

~ Bernie Taupin/Elton John

Nearly twenty-five since his death, and my brother keeps teaching me. I want to be a friend like James was.

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