Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends

Levels of Personhood, via Brain Pickings

One night at dinner when I was 8 or 9 years old, I remember complaining to my Mom about a boy at school who was giving me a hard time during recess. I recall having trouble finding a word other than ‘friend’ to describe him.

He wasn’t my friend, and he wasn’t really an ‘enemy’, inasmuch that kids that age don’t really have enemies. Nor did we have any kind of adversarial relationship. He wasn’t particularly smart or athletic. I mean, neither was I; but I thought I was better than him at spelling bees and kickball.

So my Mom suggested that he could best be described as an ‘acquaintance’. She explained to me that you don’t necessarily have like or get along with acquaintances, but that maybe you acknowledge them as your peer of some sort. (this is well before demographic was all the rage) That worked well, mostly because I felt like I wasn’t ceding anything.

I’m still far more comfortable calling someone an ‘acquaintance’ than I am calling them a ‘friend’. It’s strategic. It’s honest. It’s comfortable. I’m still not ceding anything or allowing anyone to stake a claim in my emotional territory without some sort of treaty and ground rules. These days, like many people, I acquaint from a healthy distance via social media. And while I’m not under any illusion that it will supplant or replace real life human interaction, it’s a good alternative to the low-grade social anxiety I usually endure while meeting people in public.

This morning I came across a Maria Popova post titled Reclaiming Friendship: A Visual Taxonomy of Platonic Relationships to Counter the Commodification of the Word “Friend”. And while I think the commodification portion of “friending” is worthy discussion in itself, I was more struck by the visualization above, depicting the layers of personhood.

Within the ether of strangers — all the humans who inhabit the world at the same time as we do, but whom we have not yet met — there exists a large outermost circle of acquaintances. Inside it resides the class of people most frequently conflated with “friend” in our culture, to whom I’ve been referring by the rather inelegant but necessarily descriptive term person I know and like. These are people of whom we have limited impressions, based on shared interests, experiences, or circumstances, on the basis of which we have inferred the rough outlines of a personhood we regard positively.

This passage, correctly or not, validated how I approached most people. And if we were to take the visual as gospel, then I suspect that almost nobody in my life would fit into the friend segment.

And that brings me to this recent Op-Ed in the New York Times by writer Kate Murphy. There were a few passages that stood out, like this:

According to medical experts, playing it safe by engaging in shallow, unfulfilling or nonreciprocal relationships has physical repercussions. Not only do the resulting feelings of loneliness and isolation increase the risk of death as much as smoking, alcoholism and obesity; you may also lose tone, or function, in the so-called smart vagus nerve, which brain researchers think allows us to be in intimate, supportive and reciprocal relationships in the first place.

The reason I’ve tend to play it safe is because I felt that I’ve had no other choice, not because I have any phobia to commitment or intimacy. That I was at the mercy of others, or incapable of taking any sort of initiative socially. It is a big part of why I used to drink so much. But with sobriety, that blanket is forcibly thrown off and anxiety is laid bare. And while the first instinct is to cover those feeling back up, I’ve learned to use tools like medication and exercise to try and be more accepting of them; and not let them be a catch-all excuse or impediment to anything I want or need to do.

I’ve met a lot of people via social media. Would I call them friends? Would they call me a friend? I don’t know. I do know that I wouldn’t even be able to entertain the notion without the internet. I do know that I really, really want friends. And kindred spirits. And all the other titles and labels that go with knowing and meeting others.