A close friend once quipped that family is the reason we have friends. On the surface, the line comes across as a dig at family with its sometimes fractious relationships and challenging dynamics.
But there is another layer, a more positive one, that can be gleaned from the axiom. Friends fulfill a relational need that cannot be addressed within the family. For no matter how much someone says their mom, brother, or cousin is their best friend, their family history is intricately and indelibly woven into the fabric of their “friendship.” And as such, it will always play an unconscious role in the relationship.
Another maxim holds that we’re blessed or stuck with the family we were born into; friends, on the other hand, are matters of choice. But are they? Do we consciously and deliberately choose our friends, especially those we grow close to, or are friendships the result of inexplicable or ineffable forces?
Have you ever said that so-and-so is like a brother or sister to me? If so, was that so-and-so already a member of your family — cousin, nephew or niece — or were they outside of it? If you have a like-a-brother or like-a-sister, what made them so? Can you zero in on, pinpoint or delineate the specific events, interactions, et alia, that led up to that relationship developing in a deeply personal manner? Or was it that you realized at some point that you and they shared a special bond that didn’t need to or couldn’t be explained? It just was.
As is my wont, I took my friend’s maxim and flipped it: Friends are the reason we have family. That thought prompted me to consider those who as an only child or orphan don’t have blood siblings. Then there are those who have siblings but are not relationally close with them.
I have friends for whom those scenarios are true. Some consider their friends to be their family. We often call such relationships virtual family, but I wonder why we feel compelled to include the qualifying descriptor virtual since it serves only to minimize their relationship(s) and relegate it/them to a second-place status. After all, they might consider their friends to be their true family. Which means there are families, and then there are families.
Plain and simple, friend and family relationships are complicated, which paradoxically makes them neither plain nor simple. In psychology, an applicable term is antinomy: a paradox in which opposing truths are equally true and valid. It’s a world that I love living in. It’s one of complexity and ambiguity, which I traverse with kindred “out-there” spirits in the pursuit of something we cannot exactly put our fingers on. They’re my philosophical family not to be confused with my literal family or my non-virtual, mix-of-friends family. Yep, it’s complicated.
Since I’ve been blessed to be one of 13 siblings and have oodles of friendships made over the course of my lifetime, when I think of those I feel close to, I imagine them in two broad groupings. I picture each group as a colored sphere — sage green is my choice — with the shades of the color increasingly getting lighter as I move from the center outward. At the center of my birth family circle, I place those I feel closest to, and at the perimeter, those not so much. At the core of my friends circle is my non-virtual virtual family, and on the outer reaches are those I call transactional or superficial friends, the ones who get in contact only when they need or want something.
So yes, the family-friend matrix is complicated. But it is that complicatedness that makes friendships fulfilling and vital for healthy aging. Unlike a complication which can disrupt unity and smooth functioning, relationship complicatedness suggests intricacy, complexity.
Consider creating your own matrix. While doing so, identify traits, attributes and other aspects that were and remain integral. A vital one for me is trust because trust is like glass and reputation in Ben Franklin’s aphorism: once broken, never well mended. You will, of course, identify your own.
Jerry Fabyanic is the author of “Sisyphus Wins” and “Food for Thought: Essays on Mind and Spirit.” He lives in Georgetown.