Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Does Friendship Have Value or Meaning?

I remember back in my elementary school days, (which was in the late Heian Era, if I'm not mistaken,) "disposable" somehow become synonymous with "modern". It seemed like they were coming up with cheap, throw-away versions of everything, and wanting to hold onto an item you liked could get you branded as a geek. But while people were happily filling up the garbage cans with their everyday lives, there was a lot of concern expressed that society was forgetting how to value things. From entertainment TV to those annoying newsletters they kept shoving down our throats at school, there was all kinds of moaning that nothing mattered anymore; once something was no longer new and exciting, or if it had a little flaw, you just dropped it in the bin and forgot about it. How long would it be, it was often asked, until people started treating other people with the same level of callous disregard that they treated their disposable lighters? Would relationships between people become just another throw-away convenience?

(Actually, I've met quite a few people of either gender that generally treat the opposite sex that way, i.e., "Use once or twice and toss out," but I digress...)

My first forays into the world of cyber-friendship happened when someone talked me into using the social network called ICQ. The original intent was to chat with friends and family back home in the US, but there was this thing called "random chat" which was enabled by default. Suddenly I was getting chat requests from people I didn't know in all kinds of different countries. It was a new and exciting thing for me. Most such "chats" were no more significant than chewing the fat with a stranger sharing the same park bench (I might offer the example of the Taiwanese teenager who insisted s/he was a frog), but I also soon encountered the "friendship request", i.e. being asked for permission to be entered onto a regular contact list so we could stay in touch. That was even more exciting for me, and I've made some very important friends as a result. However, it also meant that I had to endure the experience of being "unfriended".

Perhaps the first was a German woman who, after being an ICQ friend for about a month, suddenly said, "I only talk to happy people, not moody people," and vanished from my list. I was more than a little put out. Still, it didn't bother me quite as much as a Japanese guy, a music aficionado who had been a "friend" for the better part of a year, who suddenly started getting on my case about my (at the time) slow internet connection before all at once typing, "Aw, fuck it," and disappearing. The whole idea that friendship was less important than one's internet provider service was something I found very disturbing.

I eventually stopped using ICQ random chat (when it became nothing but porn ads) and then quit ICQ altogether. By then my regular friends had all migrated to other services, but I didn't follow suit because I'd found a new passion: blogging. That earned me an even bigger and more varied circle of friends, but it also brought even more distressing losses of friendship. Some simply faded away as life paths went in different directions, but others just came crashing down. There was my longtime friend Dave R., who had a habit of breaking contact with me every time he lost an argument, though I was always fairly certain he'd be back, and he always was. On the other hand, I could mention a certain Palestinian woman and a few Jewish men whose passionate yet surprisingly rational debates over the Israel/Palestine issue brought me into their circle. Suddenly the Palestinian woman closed down her blog citing death threats but thankfully reappeared later under a pseudonym...only to delete her new blog a few months later and disappear completely for reasons unknown (though I have to wonder if she was the "anonymous" who strangely attacked me a few times on this site). As for the Jewish men, one made his blog "access to invited members only" and took me off his list right after W. Bush invaded Iraq, and the other suddenly became ultra-militant and blocked me when I tried to reason with him. Blogging isn't quite as personal as social networking, but I found these losses painful.

Which brings me to the almighty Facebook. It's amazing how many of my old classmates and even former ICQ friends have come to be on my list. However, the fact is that the overwhelming majority of my "Facebook friends" were and are actually game friends, i.e. "friended" for the purpose of mutual support in games like Mafia Wars and Farmville. Most of them have had little or no contact with me outside the game arena, and their personal posts don't appear in my feed. I wasn't at all upset when 200 of them vanished after I stopped playing Mafia Wars, either. However, some of those game friends came to be, or at least seemed like, real friends, which made them more important.

Even when it became clear one group "friended" me for the sole purpose of inundating me with a steady stream of Tea Party propaganda (which ranged from interesting and informative to some of the most ridiculous, bottom-scraping tabloid sludge I've ever seen), I still valued them enough to comment in a respectful manner when I pointed out blatant factual errors and outright hypocrisy in some of those posts. I wasn't surprised when their inability to refute my arguments led them to attack my character (classic Rush Limbaugh style) and then "unfriend" me, but I still felt a strong sense of loss. I felt even worse when, soon after that, my old friend Dave R. did the same thing to me (yet again, though this time more maliciously, though I'm happy we patched things up again before his tragic death).

Then there's this latest incident, which involves a "game friend" who has been a frequent face in my news feed and has come to seem very much like a real and significant friend over the past couple of years. Without prying too much or getting too personal, I'd done my best to be supportive as she'd gone through what was clearly a very difficult time in her life. Finally, after things had taken a strong turn for the better for her, she posted an open question which I answered quickly and bluntly. She said she agreed with me, but it turned out my wording had been careless; it sounded like I'd attacked someone close to her. My attempt at damage control apparently went wrong. The post soon disappeared, and over the next day or two I apparently got "unfriended" (though the person's "likes" and photos tagged to me keep appearing on my profile at times she's usually offline and disappearing again when she's likely online, meaning I was more likely blocked). What's really ironic is that, about a year ago, this person wrote a number of posts asking what I'm asking right now: has friendship been reduced to the level of a video game? Do people declare someone a "friend" when it seems like fun at the moment and then delete him or her from their world without a second thought when it seems old or inconvenient? Is real friendship passé? And if so, what does that say about us as human beings? Is it old fashioned to care about anyone other than yourself?

At Ye Olde Academy I was once told that a need for friends was a sign of immaturity or even mental sickness. Fine. I'll be immature, mentally sick, and old fashioned. It makes for a more attractive world.


  • Oh, I agree with IS important to have friends. No, it is NOT old fashioned to care about others. I spend my days teaching five and six year old children how to read, write, and (most importantly to me) how to be a friend. I want my students to be successful adults. In order to be successful, they need to learn how to communicate with others, how to take turns, how to listen and share opinions. I want these children to have the skills to look out for others, even when it is hard.
    I want these children to be empathetic, kind, flexible in their thinking. Open to understanding others. So, we spend lots of time on these skills and behaviors. So, I am apparently in the immature and oldfashioned section of the party. But I want to have friends. And I am glad that you are one of mine.

    By Blogger Aine Sonnen, at 3:08 PM  

  • I agree with Aine: I am happy to have rekindled our former friendship, Moody, and I'm looking forward to long years more, disagreements and all. Do you remember Justice Smith? Shortly after I got married, he gave up on our friendship entirely when it became apparent that I couldn't spend as much time with him as we'd both have liked. That is truly tragic, I valued his friendship tremendously. Here's to hoping old friendships can be rekindled and that the new ones we forge will last!

    By Blogger Andy, at 5:10 AM  

  • Aine
    Thank you very much. Yeah, we're the ones trying to teach communication in a culture that promotes selfishness and, increasingly, isolation. Isn't that the greatest irony of all; the increased communication offered by cell phones and the internet has made people more insular, i.e. more inclined to associate only with a select group while tuning out the world around them. This is the battle we face.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 10:13 AM  

  • Andy
    Yeah, marriage...or even a strong romantic relationship...can put a strain on other friendships just because of its very nature. Actually, over the past several years Justice has often asked me if I knew of your whereabouts or had any way to contact you. He drops by this site from time to time, so who knows?

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 10:15 AM  

  • So interesting your chronicle of various modes of friendships from the random chat ones to the game-based ones. I was sad to read about the misunderstanding through what might have been your careless wording. It's too easy to misread tone or intent in emails. I think online friendships are tenuous but the need for friends is certainly not a sign of immaturity.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:45 PM  

  • It is not imature or old fashioned!!! if you dont have friends you become dull and grumpy. with no friends to do activities with and chat with, you become an introvert freak. btw when i play games ppl always friend me and then unfriend me at the end of the day. And I just agnor the insults or rude things ppl say. I try to avoid the akward moments when I dont know what to say when a friend asks a rather hard question.

    By Anonymous April, at 8:06 AM  

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