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January 14, 2009

You’re my best friend

I recently joined one of those Internet social networking sites. Why not? If I am going to spend my life sitting at home alone in front of my computer, I might as well do it with the illusion that everyone I have ever had a pleasant conversation with is right there in front of me. Am I right?

It’s funny. The other night when I was trolling for “new” “friends,” I noted, ironically, to myself, that I was really being productive. I found more new friends in one hour than I might ever have been able to actually talk to over the course of a whole weekend, even if they were lined up one after the next. The confirmations were coming so quickly, I got a little endorphin rush. Boy, am I popular! And it didn’t cost me anything at all! No cover. No bar tab. No cab fare. Awesome.

I was thinking about making a joke amongst my little friend community about how many friends I have, but the idea seemed like it might require more tact than a standard “Status Update” might allow. And, considering my generally unpleasant personality (I understand that many people think I am aloof, judgmental and off-putting, but the truth of the matter is that, like many people, I suffer from a crippling lack of self-confidence), I know that making jokes about being popular would only garner derision.

A couple days later, one of my “friends” managed to make the joke I had been toying with, but because she is ever so much more genuine (I fear that I belong to the post-reality movement), it came across as playful; all I could do was hang my head and celebrate her success without commenting.

I don’t mean to diminish the value of these networking tools. In fact, I really think they’re terrific. Still, the designation of “friendship” deserves a little more consideration than a quick keystroke request and a corresponding confirmation. Do I really have 200 friends?

A few years ago, I saw a French movie called “My Best Friend.” Directed by the reliably great Patrice Leconte and starring Daniel Autueil (one of my favorite actors; see “Cache,” for instance), this one actually got me to the theater and has stuck with me ever since. I thought of it a week or so ago while talking to some friends at church, and then, like a bolt of synchronicity from outer space, it showed up on IFC mere days later. What luck!

Autueil plays an art collector who mistakes his competitors for friends, until one night at dinner, they shock him horribly with the news that no one likes him, that he has no friends. He swears that he has a friend that they do not know, and enters into a bet to produce him in 10 days. Thereafter he must find a satisfactory candidate for friendship and develop a sufficient bond to present him to his colleagues, and in short order. It’s a heartbreaking, feel-good movie, full of powerful insight into the nature and value of friendship.

Over the last couple weeks I have caught myself using my “status updates” as bait for commentary (which I guess is the point) and hoping that I would garner a comment that might turn into a conversation, or at least some clever banter. I even caught myself being jealous of others who seemed to have a natural talent for maintaining their community in this virtual fellowship hall. But I think it is best to defy the natural tendency to turn such a thing into a competition. Certainly, friendship has nothing to do with competition. Indeed, it seems that it can only succeed when the parties are determined to give more than they can ever hope to receive, and receiving, find the grace to multiply the gift.

I think it is tragic and sad that our culture has abandoned friendship as a teachable goal. While our national documents promise the right to pursue happiness, we are offered no guidance in this endeavor. It’s a little more complicated than reading, writing and arithmetic, right? Maybe this is something we can work on amongst ourselves.

For further consideration: Listen to the entire Beatles catalog chronologically and watch Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” or make the phone call you keep promising to make but haven’t gotten around to. This second option is designed for those of you who don’t have so much free time.