A Theory of Friendship (with rockets)

4623670_1_lFor the past few years, the nature of my work has led me to encounter very interesting people for very short periods of time, usually just a few hours. Most of the time, a personal relationship would not continue after that (though an institutional one sometimes would).

This suited me. I like people. I like working with people. I like thinking with people especially. But people also take a lot out of me. I believe that I am by temperament what Proust advised writers to be… a gregarious loner.

Illustration: I remember a moment when I was on a People to People trip in high school… we were all on a bus driving through the south of France, a week into the excursion, by which time I knew most of my fellow travelers and their names and dispositions. During this particular drive, almost everyone, including the guy sitting next to me, had fallen asleep — but I was wide awake. I’d just finished “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” and didn’t want to wake anyone up by reaching for another book. So I simply looked around at all the sleeping people on the bus — thinking about their names, thinking about their faces, thinking about how much I loved all of them. Any time I am on a long bus trip I still recall that wonderful silence.

But it was not insignificant that all of these beautiful people were asleep. In the waking world, thinking about how I ought to behave with each one of these people might cause me a degree of anxiety. These sort of rapidly assembled, immersive groups (think summer camp) are particularly stressful for me, and I often have to withdraw for a good amount of time each day just to keep my sanity. This has gotten worse, not better, as I get older and my empathy with people of all types deepens.

So that’s me. And brief, intense encounters fit well with that — I didn’t have to bother to build in the recharge time. But lately, for various reasons, more and more relationships have endured. And I have spent a good deal of my energy thinking about how to properly maintain them, how to respectfully engage with and love others in ways that are proper for the time and place and situation.

Since my neuroses themselves have neuroses, this has led me to wonder: why would I spend so much of my energy on these new people and not on the many significant people I already have in my life? I have been blessed with friendships that have endured since kindergarten, with colleagues who can finish my sentences, with a spouse who understands and accepts flaws I don’t even know I have, with family members old and new who I know would dive in front of a truck for me. I have all this, yet my mind still dwells on how new acquaintances might misinterpret a question or be offended by an ill-timed quip.

I did my best to heap the blame on myself, judging my own thoughts to be self-indulgent or obsessive or vain. Yet today a vision popped in my head that helped me forgive myself.

It was this: relationships of all kinds are rockets. Whether the person in question is a friend or a colleague or a lover, there is a fire that drives the first phase of the journey, and it is in the nature of human beings that this should be so. It takes real power to wrench someone free from the general mass of humanity, to elevate their position in such a way that we can witness their souls from a distance.

And this fire is not without its dangers. Vessels collapse on the platform and fall out of the sky. We lose potential friendships in arguments over politics or etiquette or the cultural significance of Taylor Swift. We insult somebody’s preferences in food or in faith. We miscalculate, and while we don’t lose lives, we do lose lives shared.

And the fire seduces us. We come to believe the bright lights are the point of it all, that the thing we were building is a firework and not a starship. Folks who investigate process addictions know that there are those who get “high” on the courtship period of romance, quitting every lover when that early glow fades. I’m sure the same is possible with admirers and confidantes and collaborators too.

But the fire is not the point. The fire is just a tool to get us where we’re going — the infinite reaches of space, silent and serene. Within the bounds of all my most enduring friendships (and my marriage, and probably all lasting marriages) there is the same kind of reassuring silence that obtained on that bus in France, an unspeaking acceptance and love. I know its nature from phone calls with friends that come years apart but pick up just where we left off, or from the little notes my wife sometimes leaves inside my books when I travel, trusting they’ll fall in my lap at just the right moment. The relationship has acquired its own momentum.

Does the rocket have a destination? I don’t know — it seems of little importance. All I know is that up here it is far easier for two people to stare outward together in the same direction. That’s not my line… but hey, what’s a little plagiarism between friends?