Old Friends and Family
There is an old saying that you can choose your friends but that you cannot choose your family. Would it not follow that you would feel closer to your friends than you would to your family? There are times in our lives when we truly believe this and then there are times when the logic of that idea seems absurd. Looking at the differences in the two kinds of relationships makes me wonder about the power of genetics. In most cases, the only family member that one gets to choose is one’s spouse, the person with whom you create family. What is the connection of family? Does it tell us who we are? Does it define our past? Does that mean that all of those decisions are already made for us from the moment that we are born?
I try to choose my friends wisely. As I matured, it was more and more important to me that a friend was someone with whom I felt comfortable. In our generation we believed, for a time, that we could create a new definition of family. We could choose the people with whom we identified ourselves and we could redefine who and what we were and are. But without the attraction of “blood” I have found that those relationships don’t usually survive the challenges of life.
When careers become important, the first thing that we seem to let go of is friendship. It is the time that we no longer have to be with our friends and the ways in which they seem to change? Why doesn’t family fall victim to the same constraints? What sustains it? Don’t the people in our families seem to change less over the years and decades than our friends do?
Friendships are often born of common interest and location. What attracts us is the comfort of that commonality, the togetherness of it. Family is similar, but having your mother’s eyes doesn’t really change. Having your father’s temper is a lifelong assignment. The connections that are created by those things don’t have to be liked, they simply are. Of course families can also fall apart but you still have the same eyes, the same temperament. In one sense it doesn’t matter if you accept it or not, your challenge is to learn to live with it. Friendship isn’t like that.
In our years of rebellion, we tend to shrug off the commonalties of family, but as time goes on we tend to find our way back to them. But it is rarely this way with friendships. When friends drift apart, the likelihood of them finding their way back to each other is substantially less than it is for family.
Is it obligation that returns us to family? The weddings, the funerals, the births and of course the holidays. In my twenties, I lived with a group of people who believed that we had forged connections and traditions that would last the rest of our lives. One of these was a second Thanksgiving. We would all go off to our “obligation meals” and then happily return for the meal that we chose to have with our chosen family. While exchanging letters with one of those participants recently, he remarked that he had forgotten those meals and that they were a nice memory.
Perhaps that is one reason. All that old friends have after a time are memories, and memories sometimes fail and sometimes become distorted. These things don’t seem to happen as frequently with family memories. Why do we tend to see those more as moments that have defined us than we do our memories with friends? Are friends people that we want to look forward with and family people with whom we wish to look back? Is that one of the changing perspectives of age?
Childhood friendships that withstand the transition to maturity, that survive the pressures of adult obligations would seem to have similar qualities to those of family, but do they? Aren’t they also different from the connections of blood?
Does the size of a family make a difference? If you have brothers and sisters and cousins and a large extended family, do they become more important in your life based on the sheer quantity of them? If you come from a small family, do friends fill that void and therefore become more important? Is one of the functions of friendship to replace family?
Love is different. Love of family is something that you are taught from your earliest years. It is almost instinctual. Love of friends comes and goes. Some of it is sexual attraction. Some of it is the exuberance of youth. Some of it is the shared experiences. The basis of the familial love seems to be identity and trust. People tend to innately trust family and to be suspicious of those from outside. One is taught at an early age to be wary of strangers, but to embrace family.
James Joyce wrote “…friendship between a man and a woman is impossible because there must be sexual intercourse.” This discounts the idea of platonic love, but what does it say about the nature of the relationships between people of different genders within a family? It isn’t a consideration. Genetics changes the nature of friendship. They are not friends, they are family. People within families usually don’t describe other family members as friends. They are either close or not close.
Has social media made it more convenient to keep up with both friends and family or has it made it easier to not actually see them? Does communication through these networks carry the double-edged sword of staying in touch but not really going out of your way enough to actually touch?
Do the children of divorced couples whose parents have remarried create a different definition of what family means? Can one actually have multiple families? Do people whose marriages did not work out have a different perspective on what family means? Have they made family more transitory?
Do women and men have different ideas on what family is based on their gender? In the film the Godfather Part 2, Michael Corleone’s mother tells him that he can never lose his family. Does that old saw of wisdom still ring true in the 21st century? Are friendships at their best substitutes for family? Do they mimic them?
How does one join a family? Marriage creates relationships that are dependent upon the success of the marriage. My mother used to have the expression, “he is your uncle through marriage.” It was a qualifier that relegated the person to being family but not really. It was her way of saying that there was no blood.
What does the blood change?