By Thea Iberall
When I was on the research faculty at USC, I played tennis with some of the other women professors. I really enjoyed getting to know them and hoped to become friends. I had active conversations and was friendly. But the friendships never went anywhere and I couldn't understand why. What was it about me? I was supportive, interesting, social. I knew how to make friends and had some very deep friendships. Was something wrong with my personality? Then I learned something about the various levels to relationships. For example, some people are companions, others are friends. Companions are people who share interests, like bowling or going to movies. With companions, the activity is more important than the person. I have had companions in my many activities through the years: going to concerts, temple, church; doing advocacy work; doing judo, playing tennis.
With an actual friend, the person is more important than the activity. I have a friend who visits from New Hampshire. Doesn't matter what we do when we are together, it just matters that we are together. Gaining that insight between a companion and an actual friend cleared up so much for me. I relaxed more and eased into acceptance about my social skills, and it helped me accept the changes when people moved in and out of my life. I stopped feeling guilty for not being a better friend to a companion.
But what does it take to turn a companion into a friend? In an article in a UCLA magazine, the authors say friendship takes lifelong care and positive action, that it requires empathy and a lasting curiosity about others. I think it also takes time. A person who says they are your best friend after you’ve had two business interactions with them just sounds plain crazy. They are inappropriately trying to jump an invisible boundary.
How does one cross the boundary appropriately? It takes time to nurture a friendship, to explore conversations and share experiences about things that matter. It takes asking questions and listening to answers. Friendship is about doing things for friends without expecting an immediate reward. And having respect for differences and tastes while still maintaining an enjoyable time together. There are no awkward silences. There’s a rhythm, like nurturing a simmering pot. Friends can actually share brain wave patterns. The day a friend of 30 years treated me like a companion tore through my heart even though I knew this too had to be accepted.
I’ve heard that we can only sustain meaningful connections with 150 people in our lifetime, but we devote about two-thirds of our social time to just 15. Friendships need recharging, like the way we recharge our phones, electric toothbrushes, and electric cars. I have a friend who makes the commitment to calling all her friends every few months in order to stay in touch. I call my New Hampshire friend at least twice a month.
Maybe the companion or friend label leads to expectations. Maybe that’s good or bad. I just know that sometimes the energy between two people doesn’t flow and I respect that. I have a metric for determining whether someone is a companion versus a friend. If I drop that activity from my life, do I stay in contact with that person?
The world is changing due to technology and climate change. We sit here in our incubator connecting with people from all over the country at a very deep level. And whether we are companions or friends, we connect through our hearts. We are learning together, being empathetic with each other, and expressing our curiosity through active listening. I’m glad I share this space with all of you.
My hair is paper thin
and my temples
have sprung white