Friends? Or Family? What’s it Gonna Be?

“You can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family, an’ they’re still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge ’em or not, and it makes you look right silly when you don’t.”

― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Is it friends ‘n’ family or friends versus family? Do we have to choose to invest in one entity over the other? Does one group take more work than the other, need more of our attention? What, if anything, should we do when family gets in the way of friendship?

Most of my friends care a lot about their families. I have friends who fly across the country — and even across oceans — to visit their parents regularly; I know friends who call their fathers every week, even when it’s often less than pleasant; and I have friends incredibly devoted to ailing parents, caring for them in a myriad of ways. And these people also have good friends.

I certainly care about my family, although it has dwindled these last years with the loss of my parents, and we did not start out with such a large family to begin with. I am quite intentional about keeping in touch with aunts, and cousins, and even an ex-husband — because he is family to my children, and so to me. And my children, well Fuggedabout. They are everything to me. But I still have friends. In fact, all sorts of folks I know stay connected to family — but also stay connected to friends. And that takes a lot of work.

I am thinking of a couple of friends who are so involved with family that keeping up their friendships is not a top priority. I am not saying this is in a critical way either, I am simply wondering about it. These particular people say they are my friend, for example, but I think we have different versions of what it means to be a friend. Maybe that’s the part that confuses me. Maybe what creates friendships is people who “friend” the same way. I truly believe it takes more work to keep a friendship going than a family connection in tact. (If you disagree, I would love to hear that take). Family will always be family. Certainly, there are numerous situations where members disengage from family, but even then that person you choose to remove from your life is still lurking around as your brother, mother, or cousin. But friendships on the other hand, well they can wither, and finally die, when no attention is being paid to them. Friends can disappear.

Probably in large part because I was raised in a small family, I have always relied on friendships as my network, my community. I have had all kinds of different friends: best friends, tennis friends, work friends, party friends… And these relationships have required nurturing from both sides. I could not call someone my best friend and then make a habit of ignoring her communications. That’s not friendly. And my tennis friends need me to ask them to play sometimes — it can’t always be on them to initiate a date. Work friends have to know that they can trust each other, that they can say things to each other that would possibly be used against them if those words fell into the wrong hands. Work friends are really important to cultivate, support, and encourage. My party friends? Well, thank God for them! They are the ones I can invite over for wine (my idea of a party is much broader than it once was), wherein they bring olives and crusty bread and I supply goat brie and a cozy venue for talking, relaxing, and enjoying each other’s company. Ya gotta bring something to the table with party friends, literally.

There are people who I think consider themselves my friends but don’t nurture the friendship. Again, I am not saying this is a wrong, it is simply a choice. But it confuses me as to the definition of friend. Oxford explains that the word’s origins are from “an Indo-European root meaning ‘to love’, shared by free.” Now, if you have ever been to First Baptist Church of Madison, New Jersey, you know that love is an action. Rev. (Dr.!) A. Craig Dunn made a point of saying that, and it has stuck with me. So, if to have a friend is to love someone then it cannot simply be a passive feeling of love, but must be an active show of love. That’s my take anyway. The people who call us friends but who are forever involved in family projects, issues, and events might be confused about the definition — or the requirements — of friendship. Maybe they think you can just entitle someone a friend and poof they are your friend. But, unlike your Uncle Joe who, like it or not, will always be your uncle, a friend can easily stop being a friend.

I’m not proposing anything dramatic here. As a matter of fact, I’m simply observing life and wondering aloud about it. But maybe this will help a few people ask themselves about their friendships — or just give some extra praise for the friendships they cherish. My astrological sign is Cancer, and supposedly that means I am extra emotional about friendship. You know, I have that shell I tend run into and all. And now, get this, I am involved (and looking to join whenever they “open the door of the church”) with Friendship Pasadena Church. And I work at Friends In Deed food pantry, for goodness’ sake! Because friendship!

I guess what I’m saying is that I have witnessed some people lose themselves in family to an extent that they have no real friends, no one who truly feels that they can count on these people. Maybe that’s fine with them, too. But I do think that sometimes we humans can sort of default to family because it’s a lot easier (even when it’s hard) to track with family than to work at getting to know someone whose communication style, background, and even beliefs can be so different from our own. And yet sometimes those can be our best of friends. If we give them a chance.

I’m just going to check myself every once in a while, make sure I’m treating my friends the way I would want to be treated. And I think I’ll stop expecting Family People to be different than they are, even when they call me friend. I am wondering, do you have people in your life that you feel sometimes hide behind “family matters?” Or maybe you know the opposite, those who have abandoned family — for a myriad of reasons — and pour everything they have into friendship. What is a friend to you? In this pandemic that we’ve been living through, friends and family gets bandied about all over the place. But they are not one and the same; they come with different directions, and I’m wondering what your interpersonal recipes might just call for.

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