Friends come and go like the waves of the ocean, but the true ones stick to your face like an octopus.
Today is the birthday of one of my oldest friends that I have known since Junior High. It is also the birthday of a person I have become friends with through a mutual acquaintance. I have known one for more than three decades, and the other for about two years, and I haven’t even met him in person. Yet I still refer to each of them as my friend.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the term “friend,” and how it is used as a catch all phrase by many of us to describe the people we interact with in our lives. But clearly, there are differences between the friend you hang out with for a casual drink after work, the one with whom you share a yearly vacation, and the one whom you call at 3 am to tell your secret fears and painful truths. And to make it more complicated, how we each define and categorize our friends may be quite different, so the friend you think is your movie buddy actually thinks of you as his best friend.
As a scientist and engineer, it’s been stressed to me that in a system you need to take the time to define each variable. Furthermore, you need to clearly describe any assumptions made in creating a system when you are trying to understand how the system works. This is two-fold: so that everyone involved knows what is what, and that, if things go wrong, you know how to fix the system. Taking the time to do so removes ambiguity. This is critically important when you have a system defined by people with varying training: a macromolecule means something very different to a polymer chemist and a molecular biologist. There have been many times when I see people arguing over results and they ARE SAYING THE SAME THING, but they don’t know it, because they haven’t taken the time to learn each other’s language.
Now some may say—that’s overthinking what should be a pretty spontaneous interaction. You meet a person, you like each other, and you hang out. Sometimes that’s once (that guy turned out to be racist after three beers!) or it sparks a lifelong relationship where your kids grow up skiing together yearly in Vermont during winter holidays. But, I say that taking time out to reflect on how and why we value certain friends in our lives not only helps us to treat them accordingly (the friend you’d fly out to hold her hand during her cancer battle versus the one you just meet for drinks and bitch about work), but also tells us something about what we value in life and helps us understand ourselves. Our friends are some of the most influential people in our lives, and whom we choose to spend our time with shapes us and, in the best cases, helps us grow to become better persons.
As for my two friends with birthdays today? I may have known one for much longer, but they both share traits I value highest in this world: kindness and compassion. My decades long friend is a dedicated and loving person, with the best hugs, infectious laugh, and a smile for everyone (plus a Disney fan like me!!). The one I have known in the virtual world has organized a fund raiser in memory of his father and is cycling 100 miles down the Keys today, and is always seeking ways he can support his friends and community. I feel fortunate and blessed to call each of them my friend. May they both have the happiest birthday today, with many more. And hopefully, someday soon I will catch up with each of them in person. For the best part of friendship is about shared experiences: enjoying life, laughter, and love.