Being a good friend

My father had an example he would quote often. As a principal of a popular school, he had thousands of examples to choose from! Yet one example stayed constant through the years. One hard-working student beat the odds and got into an IIT in an era before coaching institutes and 99.9% cutoffs. Just through his own merit, studying by himself, without any help from home where parents were very ordinary folk. His working hard to crack IIT had a cascade effect on his classmates, and they all were tutored by this guy. These were days when getting into an Engineering college was mighty difficult, and ranks had to be in 3 digits if there was no reservation. This batch of students wrote all entrances and while the first of them got thru IIT, many of the rest got into top colleges like BITS and REC. Almost as good in those days. For a small town, an ordinary school with very low fees, and mostly first generation students, it was nothing short of heroic!

The example my father made out of it was about peers and the influence they have. No other factor comes close to having that sort of a grip on our lives. Not parents, not teachers, not religion, not circumstances. Peer group is the single most powerful influencing factor on our lives and personality, primarily because we don’t recognize it! Every other factor we resist. Influence of the peer group, we celebrate and dig deeper into! Docile children turn unruly by choice, and the bullied becomes the bully. A student who wouldn’t open a page becomes a bookwork, and the lethargic become champions.

When we’re young, we often don’t have a choice on choosing who our friends would be. The group of kids who live around our homes and the ones we study with at school automatically form the first circle we’re a part of. But as we grow up, our ‘intelligence’ starts choosing. We gravitate towards those who make us look cool. Or so we think. One of the primary functions of a friends’ circle is to absorb pressure. Friends allow us to vent and dissipate pent up energy. And it is natural that we choose those who allow us to do so. But therein lies the problem. In today’s world, friends circles regularly run into hundreds of people. And technology allows us to be a part of dozens of circles at the same time. In addition to people we know, social media allows us to pick and choose thousands of unknown folk who become a part of our circle through our choices. The noise we generate is unbelievable. And the pressure to belong has never been higher in human history. To belong, and to participate itself has become a stress-inducing factor. From being a dissipator, peer groups have become stress creators.

An unanswered ‘Good morning’ is cause for friction! A message replied to an hour later becomes redundant as plans are made already without us in their midst. We’re on a very short leash. If friends want to go to the movies and you don’t want to, the group’s dynamics change immediately and you’re made to feel left out. Expectation is a bitch. And our circles expect complete involvement from us all the time. So we play the game whether we want to or not, as the threat of not feeling like a ‘part’ of the group is a constant Damocles sword. Because of the noise and the clutter, resisting the pressure has become almost impossible. Especially in formative years when other people’s opinions are still very important to us.

But sadly, many of us never grow up! We lead our entire lives meeting others expectations and wanting to belong. The circles change, the expectations increase. Nothing else changes. Where technology should have made it easier for us to reach out to the right folk and to relax, it has become the exact opposite. School groups from our childhood continue to behave exactly like we did at school. The bullying continues. Fun at the expense of others is what forms the groups’ core. The topics have changed from games, films, and girls, to money, career, and girls (or boys if it is a girls’ group — they’re no less 😉 ). The way the banter goes on hasn’t changed. Ganging up against the timid hasn’t changed. Girls get married, have kids, pursue careers, and in their groups, trash-talk the families they marry into, and consider it a stress buster. It isn’t!! Makes things worse because we have to act normal with the same people in a few minutes again. Its a bloody drug, and keeps dragging us back to that phone. But what if whoever is on the other end of that message / call doesn’t stoke the fire? What if they gently move our focus away from the negativity and talk about something beautiful? Initially it may anger us, as we’ve gotten accustomed to taking acceptance as support. We don’t need anyone to actually support us. We just need them to hear us out with well-timed Ah’s and Ouch’s. And then they take over the baton and we reciprocate. Once this mutual scratching is done, we both (or the entire group) go back into our lives with increased frustration in our systems.

What sort of friends are we if we encourage our ‘friends’ to dwell on negative stuff? We give big lectures about the power of positive thinking and make jazzy presentations to our office staff, and in a few minutes, we turn to our phones and become the same thing we warned others against? Tragedy is that we call it ‘letting our hair down’. It isn’t busting any stress if we’re adding into the stream! Why is it so difficult to understand that we are making things worse for ourselves and for all around us? Can’t we get better at encouraging our friends? Can’t we stop the conversations from moving to judge people and making assumptions? Can’t we tell our friends that we don’t want to hear about the negativity they’ve perceived in their day? Is it so difficult to talk about music, art, good food, and positive experiences without getting drawn into comparisons, judgements, and putting people down? Is it that difficult to be a good friend?

It isn’t a difficult choice to make. When we were kids, in order to appear cool, we did stuff we did not enjoy. All of us did. What adults are we today if we continue doing the same thing at a larger scale? How have we become a better person? One change we make — to stop fuelling negativity, will change the dynamics of our group. Not everyone will like it. But as grown ups, we should have already come to a realization that we can’t please everyone! Our actions are not meant to please others. If what we do makes our mind quieter instead of more agitated, we know we’re on the right track. It is a constant effort. But it is not even necessary to try and change the narrative. Often, just not participating in stuff we don’t enjoy will make the difference. We don’t need to do this in order to make the group better. We make ourselves better people. Less stressed, less agitated, adding less into the already overflowing stream of nonsense. And we’re not doing it for others. We do it for ourself. We do it because it gives us peace. Saying something because we are expected to is not necessary anymore! We should have reached a level of comfort with ourselves that doesn’t need others confirmation for us to feel good.

The guy who got into IIT did not get into it for others. He did it for himself. And others benefited from it. Not everyone did. And he did not blaze a trail for his family to prove a point. He just did. Being a good friend isn’t to empathise with our peers on every topic under the sun. In this world of overcrowded ‘friendships’, it often means just to step back and stay available, but on our terms. Not stoking the fire is what being a true friend means.

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