Friends are for keeps — sometimes

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My two best friends — according to them — are the skunk down the road, who visits once a year, and the crickets at the back door. They’re always trying to get close. They think we’re buddies.

Little do they know, I have enough friends — I’m on Facebook. At last count I think I had about the same number as that of the county cricket population. The words of Aristotle somehow seem to apply: “A friend to all is a friend to none.”

What would Aristotle know, though? Of my Facebook “friends,” I actually know who three of them are. Researchers say that excessive use of our electronic devices rewires the brain and shrinks those parts we need for concentration and empathy. So having too many friends means I can hardly be a great friend to any of them.

Neither our president nor his Republican opponent seem to want to be friends with each other, given their negative campaigns. Obama is said to be distant and not very sociable, while Romney, despite his social miscues, loves his glad-handing get-arounds to put him out there with the folks. They have two different friending styles, to say the least.

We’ve heard of Mitt Romney’s public goofs about the Palestinians and the Brits, Oprah Winfrey’s remark about “many in India who still eat with their hands,” and other miscues of public figures. They’re probably no worse than most of us are once in a while. We all get inconsiderate sometimes — like the blustering ballyhoo about the U.S. Olympic team’s uniforms made in China. As if that was such a great surprise—or insult.

Sometimes we almost seem to live in an unfriendly world. Look at our inability to talk to a live human being when calling by telephone to a business or government agency. They say the best way to reach someone is to curse a lot, since that will trigger emotion-detection technology, but that doesn’t sound very friendly, either.

Being able to comment is what draws people to use the social media. But that’s how so-called trolls — those threatening, insulting users who thrive on profanity and rudeness — often take over the conversation and muddy the not-so-friendly waters.

On the friendly side, Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton has conducted experiments and found that doing something for someone else decreases stress and makes us feel more effective and in control. Scientists at Stanford say that gazing at a beautiful landscape or taking a walk in the woods helps us to be more patient and compassionate with others. So it’s oh-so-possible to be friendly, after all.

More than eleven new smart-phone apps introduce their user to nearby strangers with common interests, with the chance to make new friends. That’ll come in handy, since 80 percent of postings to social media like Facebook and Twitter consist in people writing about their own thoughts and experiences — let’s hear it for our narcissism. We can’t really blame those media of making its users lonelier, though, as some have claimed. They can also help to deepen friendships, depending on how they are used.

Coming soon is the so-called glass device, the wearable computer that makes you look like you have a glass eye. It can be used as a memory aid or in other brain-assists, including how you interact with friends.

It doesn’t take much to “friend” a person on Facebook. A true friend, though, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “may well be reckoned the masterpiece of Nature.” In a fit of honesty, he later added that “it is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.” There seem to be lots of examples of that out there today, but that’s OK. Even skunks and crickets have their bad days.

Kozeny has worked as a teacher, counselor, and in pastoral ministry. He can be reached by e-mail to tko-z@sdc.org.