Mind Matters

by Rev. Robert H. Tucker

Number 379
August 28, 2000


Robert Frost
1874 - 1963
Awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1924, 1931, 1937, and 1943.

Role Relationships

Reuniting with a group of high school friends with whom I had spent some important years turned into a disconcerting experience. The back-slapping camaraderie and the catching up on each other's lives over, we then recounted uproarious experiences (and a few sad ones). Finally silences began to form until a person would dig out of memory another long-forgotten escapade. The silences got longer as there were fewer remembered incidents. Finally, we departed. Driving away, I felt both exhilarated and vaguely despondent. What had been no longer was. Nor would it ever be again.

I have heard the same story from individuals who returned to their former office to visit their co-worker friends. Very shortly, they felt the impatience of others woven into the genuine welcome. Concluding the visit was the ritualistic chorus of "We need to get together sometime," all knowing that would not happen. The exhilaration in seeing old friends was accompanied with a vague unsettledness over the demise of what had once been so vital.

Confirmed, for me, is foreigners' common observation that Americans are very friendly, but they lack friends. Having lived in a foreign country where friendships were very dear, I understand the comment.

I have found it helpful to distinguish between friend-relationships and role-relationships. Friend-relationships span changed circumstances, distance, absence and even silence. Role-relationships originate in, and are dependent on, an external structure: work, church, volunteer activities and sometimes even family. In such role-relationships, genuine friendliness and helpfulness are present. However, when that binding element ends, so often does what one assumed to be a 'friendship.' Confusing role-relationships with friend-relationships inevitably results in bewilderment and disappointment.

To friend-relationships and role-relationships, I would also add the situational-relationship: the people with whom we are together situationally--in high school and college, the seat mate on the airplane and the colleague working on a committee.

Role-relationships and situational-relationships provide us with a friendliness that we can mistake for friendship. (Time tells which is which.) There is sadness in life when a person confuses role-relationships and situational-relationships with friend-relationships. For, when the role or situation ends, as they do, one is then left bereft and lonely, even feeling betrayed.

Identifying the above categories may be new; the reality is not. The eighteenth-century writer Samuel Johnson wrote: "If a man does not make new acquaintances as he advances through life, he will soon find himself left alone. A man, sir, should keep his friendship in a constant repair." The twentieth-century poet Robert Frost restated it:

 No memory of having starred
 Makes up for later disregard,
 Or keeps the end from being hard.
 Better to go down dignified
 With boughten friendship by your side
 Than none at all. Provide, provide!

--Robert H. Tucker
28 August 2000
© Robert H. Tucker, 2000.

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