Glen Campell

It’s knowing that your door is always open

And your path is free to walk

That makes me tend to leave my sleeping bag 

Rolled up and stashed behind your couch … 

That keeps you ever gentle on my mind.

“Gentle on My Mind” by John Hartford, sung by Glen Campbell

The lyrics came softly from the truck radio as I drove home from work. Having heard them a hundred times, it finally dawned on me that this was the best definition of friendship I have ever heard.

Four things struck me in the lyrics. I am always welcome: “your door is always open”; anytime: “And your path is free to walk” for a long visit; and conversation: “that makes me tend to leave my sleeping bag rolled up and stashed behind your couch”; with unconditional openness: “that keeps you ever gentle on my mind.” 

“Friend” is priceless in its rarity and cheapened by its ubiquity. If someone tells you they have “739 Facebook friends,” that has about as much value as 739 Monopoly dollars. So how many friends can you really have? Anthropological research by Robin Dunbar, based on the size of animal brains and confirmed almost exactly by UK researcher Padraig Mac Carron, based on telephone records, tells us that we really have four “circles” or layers friends. Up to five very close friends, another 10 one circle removed, 30 more in the third circle, and 100 in the final group. 

Get two index cards and two 8½ x 11 sheets of paper. On the first card, write down the names of the five people to whom you feel closest. On the second card, write down the next 10. On the first sheet of paper, list the next 30. The last page, with 100 (really?) names of people you know, is the least important.

Some thoughts on eligibility. Your spouse or life partner may well be in the first group, but even in a great lifelong relationship, not necessarily so. Family members? Not all necessarily in either the first or second circle. My list of 100 certainly includes the two women at different Dunkin’ Donuts who know my order so well, they pour it when they see my truck pull into the parking lot. 

A few weeks ago, I was having lunch with someone who before our lunch was in my group of 100 but who, given the honesty of our conversation, I would like to move to the group of 10. He made an interesting point that I’ve heard before from one of my brothers. “I reach out to someone and treat them as a good friend. They are always happy to hear from me and we have a great conversation. But then we don’t talk again unless I make another call.” The soft hurt in his voice over the absence of reciprocity spilled out onto the table between the remnants of our lunch. So I shared the obvious. The friendship was more important to him than it was to the other person.

Turns out, this is not a rarity. As many as half of the people we consider our close friends do not consider us theirs. And that’s a two-way street. Half the people who consider us their close friend eventually realize we do not share the same sentiment. I found an interesting line in a poem (“Will You Ever” by Kaitlyn M. Lawn) that might ease some of the hurt:

“I don’t think you will

Ever fully understand

How you’ve touched my life

And made me who I am.”

Perfect examples? Teachers, mentors, neighbors, caregivers, and even perfect strangers who were angels when we needed an angel but whom we never thanked.

There is an epidemic of loneliness sweeping across our country today, especially among the young. Recent research by Cigna finds that fully 60% of us report feeling lonely. Robinson Crusoe, living on an island with a population of exactly 1, could reasonably say he was lonely. But with nearly 8 billion people on Earth and almost 334 million people in America, how is it that we’re lonely? Friends require effort, trust, and a shared vulnerability. Effort requires time, in short supply in our hectic workaday, high-achieving world. Trust requires even more time for repeated interactions for it to develop and grow. Vulnerability, while momentarily putting us in a weakened position, leads in the hands of a true friend to affirmation, strength and confidence. Meanwhile, the loneliness epidemic worsens.

To complicate matters, friendships do not last forever, but the work of developing and keeping them does. We move. We change jobs. People die. Old friendships slowly evaporate; new ones sprout and grow. But sometimes, just sometimes, the afterglow of a great friendship warms us completely:

“Though the wheat fields and the clotheslines

And the junkyards and the highways come between us …

But not to where I cannot see you walkin’ on the backroads

By the rivers flowing gentle on my mind.”

It takes less than a handful of really close friends to both lengthen and enrich our time here on Earth. But that very small number takes effort, trust and vulnerability. Go back and look over the names on those two index cards. The secret to a long and rich life is written in “the ink stains that have dried upon (those) lines.” As I look over my lists, know that many of you are on them. I only hope my writings lie as gently on your minds as your responses do on mine.

P.S. The song is really a thank-you to his ex, who both understood enough to let him go and cared enough to remain his best and perhaps only friend.

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