The other day I saw a post on Facebook talking about online friends, and then another friend of mine posted a poem about friends. I’d been thinking about the topic of friends for a while, so it doesn’t surprise me that I saw these two things within about 24 hours of each other. That’s the way the Universe works: you put an intention out there and you are provided with whatever you need to bring your intention into physical form.
A couple of years ago a lady in my writing circle presented a short piece for critique that she wrote to illustrate some ideas she had about the various levels of relationships. Since I’d been thinking along the same lines, her thoughts stuck with me, and they’ve been roiling around in my head ever since. Guess it’s time to get some of those ideas down in print, because this is my favorite way to clarify my thoughts.
There have been a lot of ways to quantify the level of intensity and intimacy of relationships from temporary to long-term and from casual to intimate. Friends can connect on the physical, social, emotional, mental and spiritual levels. My writer friend’s idea was that people who connect on a lower level don’t generally move up the scale, and that whatever level you connect on at first, is probably the highest level at which your relationship will go. There seem to be some exceptions to this, such as in long-term marriages, but for the most part, I think my friend is right. The type of relationship she was trying to show in her story was a man and woman who both worked as chefs in a restaurant, and who connected mostly on a physical, sexual, level. She wanted to show that no matter how much the two people wanted the relationship to continue, it had nowhere to go because they had connected at the lowest possible level. Her idea seems sound, and it certainly explains why office romances and one-night stands don’t generally work out. Frankly, when two people connect at the purely sexual level, I wouldn’t even call it a friendship, but I’d like to point out that our physical senses do tend to screen people out. I’ll return to this idea later.
Most of us have layers of friends that we’ve made throughout our lives. Some of us have been fortunate enough to maintain friendships made in childhood (through high school) and college. Many of us have at least one work friend with whom we also socialize, and we generally have separate circles of friends from church and special interest groups. Some of us have learned to our chagrin that people from two different friend-circles don’t always click socially. As adults, it’s hard to maintain purely social friendships because we are all busy with work and family obligations. Our social friendships tend to fall into predictable patterns, such as meeting for coffee once a week at church, meeting hockey-parent friends at games (substitute any other sport for hockey), or sending once-a-year holiday mass-mailings that describe all the things we’ve done over the past year.
Social friendships must be carefully tended or they will wither away. If we don’t make time for our social friends, even if it only means we keep them on our year-end mailing list, it’s easy to lose track of them, especially nowadays, when people are mobile and move often, changing not only their mailing address, but their phone number and email address. Before Facebook and other social media sites, social friends were the type who were physically nearby, and when we moved to a new location, we swapped one set of social friends for a new set. For the most part, our neighbors fall into this category. Even if we don’t move, we sometimes wander into and out of some of these social circles. A friend of mine told me recently that after her kids – both hockey players – graduated from high school, she realized that she hadn’t truly connected with her “hockey mom” friends. She has decided to cultivate a new set of friends based on her changing interests. A lot of our social friends are those with whom we have one or two things in common, but then we realize that they have opposing political or religious views that make an extended friendship very delicate or very awkward. We all seem to have at least one person with whom we have to be careful not to discuss religion or politics.
On Facebook, a lot of my friends are of the social sort, especially the ones I have met while playing games such as “Farmtown” or people I met through a special-interest page that I “liked” and posted to. We don’t correspond personally very often, if at all, but rather we respond to each other’s posts or comments once in a great while. Some of these people I have since unfriended, because they have posted something that I found objectionable, and sure enough, it is usually something about religion or politics. People with prejudices get taken off my list regularly, and I have probably been taken off some people’s friend lists, as well.
I’ve found that I have a number of in-person friends who are glad to see me and will make time for me if I bother to call them and set up a specific meeting time, but they don’t necessarily seek out my company. Online, these are the people who read my emails but don’t bother to respond. I am getting better at cutting these people out of my life, unless I have connected with them on a higher level.
One level up are friends that meet emotional needs. These are the longer-term friends to whom we can confide our troubles and get encouragement and support. Most family relationships are of this kind, as well. Among these are the people we can call at 4 a.m. in an emergency. This is the level at which a lot of romantic relationships begin, especially when we are young. These relationships are important to us for what we get out of them, but the fact remains that if the two people in the relationship are not supporting the other emotionally, then the relationship will eventually deteriorate. Believe it or not, it’s possible to have friends like this online. I can’t count the number of times I have posted that I needed a hug, and certain people have responded. Many of these are also the ones who kept in touch with me and offered encouragement when I was in the hospital recently. Most of these online friends are ones that I’ve met in person, and I’d say most of them – whether I’ve met them in person or not – are also ones with whom I have connected at the mental or spiritual level.
The next level up is a mental or intellectual connection, where ideas are exchanged. A few people are fortunate enough to meet someone like this at an early age, but most of us start meeting people like these in our young adult years, at university or trade school, in the military, or at work. This is also the level at which we tend to connect with friends from our religion or spiritual path, and friends from special interest groups, such as a writers’ circle, a book club, a knitting class, or a volunteer organization. These are the people we can talk to for hours while time whizzes by. These are the people we can connect with no matter how long we have been apart. I have a lot of these intellectual friends on Facebook, and I treasure them for the richness and variety they bring to my life experience. These are the people with whom I can have amazing, extended discussions on a variety of topics. These are the people who challenge me from time to time, and who open up new vistas for me, people who introduce a new idea or a new perspective on an old idea. As one who thinks of herself as an intellectual, these are the type of friends without whom I cannot exist. These people are my bread and butter, my meat and potatoes. Recalling my writer friend’s idea that people can also connect on any level lower than the one on which they first clicked , I find that it is from among my intellectual friends that I get most of my emotional support, and with whom I most enjoy socializing, whether in person or online.
Connecting at the spiritual level right away is very rare, but it does happen. Many marriages start out at the emotional level, and it seems that, these days, a marriage that is confined to this level is the type that will break up sooner or later. Mine did. Emotional bonds can be cemented with sexual intimacy and day-to-day interaction, and the feelings seem to smooth out into a comfortable feeling of fondness, but if there is no meeting of the minds, the relationship seems to stagnate. I realized many years after my divorce why my ex-husband and I couldn’t stay together. We simply had not intellectual connection, and for someone like me, for whom the life of the mind is important, a mental connection with my mate is an essential ingredient. If I learned anything from my marriage, that was it. When a couple connects at the mental level, they describe their significant other as their best friend. When they connect at a spiritual level, that’s when they describe each other as partners, and many people specify that they are spiritual partners.
Gary Zukav’s original definition of “spiritual partner” seemed to have been limited to couples who are in a long-term, mutually exclusive relationship, which includes not only people who are legally married, but also couples who are living together in a common-law marital type relationship. Recently, he broadened the definition of the term to include those people with whom we have a spiritual connection, whether or not we live with them or are in a mutually exclusive relationship with them. I was happy to read this, because I consider a number of my friends in this category, and some of them happen to be married or in a significant-other relationship with someone else. Many of my friends who are members of my religion, Eckankar, fall into this category, and I have a few friends of other religions with whom I connect at this level.
According to accepted social wisdom, two people must not be very good friends if they don’t know each other’s favorite color, what they like to eat, where they went to school, where they live and work, or what their spouse’s name is. What I have found is that friends who connect at the mental and spiritual levels don’t always fit this know-everything-about-you pattern. I began to realize this when I started attending spiritual study groups in Eckankar, called Satsangs. The term satsang comes from India, and if you look up the term online, you find that it is a group of people who meet specifically to discuss spiritual principles. The term is used in Eckankar not only because it specifically states the purpose of the meetings, but also to make it clear that these are not social meetings or philosophical debates. Each Satsang in Eckankar meets for at least one year to discuss a discourse series, and some groups stay together for several years.
I began to notice that I felt very close to the people in my Satsangs, whether we socialized with one another or not, but the reason why didn’t really hit me until I attended the memorial service for one of my Satsang mates named Colleen. This lady not only attended my Satsang in the Twin Cities for several years, but she also drove me to monthly worship services for several years, and we served as Temple Hosts together one weekend a month. Since we lived about an hour’s drive from the Temple, we would typically spend two hours in the car together each time, and when we hosted on Saturday afternoons, our time together expanded to 4.5 hours. I felt close to her, and thought I knew her pretty well. She died in her early 60s of a series of strokes.
At an Eckankar memorial service, the officiator, a member of the Eckankar clergy, says a few words and then invites family members and friends to stand and share a few memories of the deceased. Colleen was an only child, and her parents were staunch Christians who did not agree with their daughter’s choice of spiritual path, so they took their daughter’s body home with them to North Dakota and refused to have anything to do with the Eckankar service. I was told they gave her a “good Christian burial.” Nevertheless, Colleen had a number of ECK friends who wanted to have a memorial service for her. She also had a number of work friends as well as a childhood friend and a cousin who wanted to attend a service in the Twin Cities, and who were willing to come to the Temple of ECK, even though it was unfamiliar territory for them.
When Colleen’s boyfriend, her friends and her cousin spoke, they told us that her favorite color was blue and that she was a graceful ice skater. They told us what she loved to eat and some of the activities she participated in with them socially. One of them mentioned that she had once worked for the FBI. This was, frankly, a shock to me, since I thought I knew her pretty well. I had no idea that she could ice-skate, or that she had been with the FBI. I began to doubt that we’d had a true friendship.
Then the ECKists began to stand up and speak. Our experiences with her were different. We had connected with her at Eckankar events, but not socially outside of our mutual spiritual path. The last ECKist to speak made it clear to me why our spiritual connection was so special. She thanked all the friends and her one family member for attending and telling their stories. Then she assured them that Colleen was alive and well in the Inner Worlds, and that she was present at the memorial, that she was listening to all their stories and laughing along with us at the fond memories.
Up to this point, I thought that the laughter I heard in my head was just a memory, but as I looked around, I noticed that other ECKists were smiling and nodding their heads. I realized then that the laughter I heard wasn’t just a memory; it was real, and the other ECKists in the room had heard it, too. The non-ECKists in the room, meanwhile, were scratching their heads, looking askance, or frowning in consternation. They couldn’t hear Colleen’s laughter, and many of them were obviously unsure about the afterlife or the continued existence of the Soul.
No matter at what level I connect with my friends, and no matter whether they are temporary or long-term, in-person friends or online ones, I believe that they come into my life for some specific purpose. Some of them are in-person only, while others are online-only. A good many are people I first met online, but then got to know in person, and a few are ones I met in person first, and then got to know better online. Each and every one has a reason for being in my life. When the purpose is fulfilled, they drift out of my life, and I no longer try to hang onto them, knowing that we are all connected in some way, even if we are no longer a feature of each other’s lives. Whether we spend only a few precious hours together or a lifetime, I treasure all of my friends and appreciate that they are there for my growth and unfoldment. The poem that was shared today was written by George Webster Douglas, and it beautifully captures how I feel about my friends. 🙂
“What made us friends in the long ago
when first we met?
Well, I think I know:
The best in me and the best in you
hailed each other because they knew
that always and always,
since life began,
our being friends
was part of Gods plan.