Friends: Then and Now

The word “friend” sure has taken a beating in the last decade or so.

As a member of the generation that actually saw the advent and rise of social media, cellular telephones, and other technologies, I try not to cultivate the grumpy old man image, but I think we’ve lost something.

Remember telephone calls? If you’re old enough, your remember when phones had wires. You held a nice, solid, substantial “receiver” to your ear, and you heard every word the other person said. Now we hold a little electronic brick full of lithium batteries and digital circuitry to our ears, and despite the incredible sophistication of it, we hear about half the words the other person says, right up until the call drops.

But enough about hardware and technology. Let’s go back to the word, “friend,” and how its meaning has drifted.

I’m a bit of an introvert, and although I’ve never been diagnosed, I think (and so does my wife, an autism expert) that I have signs of mild Asperger’s. Social situations are hard for me, but at the same time, I feel a need to belong and I need some form of interaction. It’s always been kind of hard for me to find people with whom friendship just comes naturally, and that handful of people are vitally important to me.

But on Facebook, when last I was on, I had hundreds of people on the list of those Facebook calls “friends.” And in my work in community theatre and sound engineering, many more people call me a friend. The lines blur, sometimes. What IS a friend now, in this “Like, React, Comment” world?

I find myself facing a kind of crisis. Last week, working toward getting a show ready to go up at a theatre an hour away, I got pretty thoroughly exhausted from working five 20-hour days in a row. When I get that tired and overwrought, I tend to become emotionally labile and everything hits me harder than it ought to. By the end of last week, everything had boiled over and I was a mess. I tried to explain to my wife what was getting to me.

You see, I possess the knowledge to do something very few people can do. I can mix, record, process, and reinforce sound. And I have the skill to do that uncommon work to a standard even fewer can match. It’s what I do. I mix, therefore I am. I think a lot of those around me see that as my identity, and if they do, I’ve probably encouraged it. I think of it as my biggest asset.

But that’s not me. It’s what I do, but it’s not the whole of who I am. Inside me is a soul, a person, a life. I’m human behind the professionalism and the seriousness and the detachment of my work. If you look behind my eyes, as only a handful of people have ever bothered to do, there’s a person in there. I have a heart, which sometimes is frozen and sometimes is on fire. I have longings and hopes and dreams. I feel joy and pain and love and fear and all the other emotions that make us human. I have a personality, I feel empathy and compassion, and I believe in the power each of us has to make another’s life a little brighter and a little better.

But even I forget, now and then, that I’m more than my work. When someone finds what I do useful, when they need me to do work for them, that’s a sign that they respect my ability, not that they respect me. Often it has nothing to do with me as a human being. Sometimes it’s just the pragmatic procurement and management of a resource. It’s a director seeking out the person who can make his show sound its very best.

And it happens a lot. I usually oblige because I love what I do and I feel flattered. But the part of me that longs for connection, for acceptance, for belonging … that part of me sometimes doesn’t understand what’s happening. That part of me gets carried away and unconsciously forms within myself a fantasy that I’ve been sought out because I’m liked — me, not my skills. I feel a connection that’s most often not there. Because I’m so desperate for that sort of friendship, because deep down inside I want people to like me, I seem to subconsciously extrapolate that. I think the psychological term is projection … I take that feeling and externalize it so that it appears real to me.

I go out of my way to make these people happy — working myself too hard, setting impossibly high standards for my own performance and beating myself up when I don’t clear the bar, doing things no one asked for because I think those extra gifts will be appreciated and received with gratitude, because friends do things for friends, right?

Then, later, when the event’s over, my delusions of friendship cause me no end of pain when my gifts of extra time and effort are rejected or ignored without a moment’s thought, and when I never hear from these people again until they want something from me. It’s my own fault. I tried to superimpose the visage of a friend upon someone who thinks of me as just another co-worker. I brought that disappointment upon myself.

The kind of friend I need is the kind represented by that handful of people in my life who have actually invested their time and their hearts in knowing who I am, and who have shown me who they are — inside, not on the surface. The guy who brought his family to meet me in Virginia and dragged my out-of-shape ass up Humpback Rocks and back down, he’s a friend. The wife who stands by me and tells me I’m worth something even when I’m feeling completely worthless without a console in front of me, she’s a friend, too. The people who call me on the phone just to see how I’m doing, how life’s treating me, what I’m thinking and feeling, those are the people truly deserving of the title, “friend.”

Work and friendship are not mutually exclusive. I learned that from Jerry. I started out as his part-time employee, but over years of working together, we became good friends. We learned a lot about each other, benefitted greatly from our separate and mutual experiences. Jerry passed away several years ago, but I know he was the kind of friend who saw who I was, just just what I could do for him.

I do wish there were more true friends in my life, but quality is more important than quantity. I cherish those who show me true friendship.

This vacation from social media has been a real eye-opener, and so has a recent theatre-related experience that really cut me deeply. And in the stark light that my recent total exhaustion shone on it, the truth of my own silliness was sharply limned upon the darkness I was feeling. Once I’d had some time to rest this weekend and recover the capacity for objective reasoning, I came to some decisions.

While I have theatre-related obligations through the end of the year that I must honor, after that I’m going to change my approach. When I’m asked to work a show, if it doesn’t hold any special appeal for me, and doesn’t seem worth working myself half to death over, I will simply say no.

And when I do accept a show, I will take great pains to remember that I’m there as a volunteer employee, not to be part of a social group, and that not everyone who asks for my help is my friend. I will do what I’m asked to do to the very best of my ability, but I will not set excessively high standards or volunteer to go way beyond what’s needed. Because every weekend I spend volunteering my time to people who see me as useful is a weekend I could have been spending with people who see me for who I am, who love me for who I am, and who want my company, not my industry.

Maybe some of the people who worked with Scott the audio engineer will be interested in knowing Scott the person.

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