Friends (or, Contemplating the Connections of Humanity)

I don’t want to get all mushy and sentimental, because those of you that know me know that I’m not either of those things. Okay, maybe I am a bit mushy in the literal sense, in that I need to lose weight, and therefore parts of my body have a squishy consistency, and if you want to point out that sensitive subject, be my guest. But I’m definitely not one of those mushy emotional people. I like to keep most of my emotions bottled up inside, where they can eat away at me over the years, like a slow-acting poison (but that’s a topic for another time). Still, the last several days have been very emotional for me, and in sorting out my feelings, I felt compelled to write a few things down.

In the last five days two people that I have known for many years passed away, I met friends face to face that I only knew through the magic of modern technology, I was reunited with others that I’ve gotten to know over the last several years, and I made some new friends. To say that I’m exhausted would be an understatement, and to be honest, it feels like I’ve lived multiple lifetimes in less than a week.

Amidst the deaths and the reunions and the introductions and the sleepless hours flying cross-country, my mind has been racing around the concept of friendship. In this modern age of social networking, the term “friend” has taken on a more subjective meaning. It is now possible to be “friends” with someone that you have never met face to face, never talked to, don’t really know, and will probably never get to know; but thanks to the click of a few buttons, suddenly you are magically connected to someone new. It all makes me think of the wise, and in hindsight prophetic words of the legendary hip-hop group Whodini: “Friends is a word we use everyday, but most of us use it in the wrong way.”

I consider myself lucky to have a really great group of friends. Most of these are people I have known for at least fifteen or twenty years (yeah Ted, I’m talking about you), but then there are some I’ve only met recently, even though it feels like I’ve know them forever. And then there are those I don’t really know at all. Maybe they know me from my writing, or they listen to me on the Cort and Fatboy Show, or perhaps they are one of those habitual friend collectors that troll different social networks and collect friends the way some people collect baseball cards. The specifics don’t really matter, because to one degree or another, all of these people are in my life.

I don’t want to get too deep into any sort of spiritual/religious discussion, because as far as I’m concerned, it is more polite and appropriate to talk about your bowels than theological beliefs. As much as people don’t want to know about your poop, they want to know even less about what/who/if you worship. All of that said, I will say that I believe—as certain faiths/spiritual practices believe—that all life is connected, even if we can’t see or completely comprehend that connection. I spent this weekend in Athens, Georgia, meeting new people, all of whom had been brought together by the documentary film Darius Goes West, which served as our initial connection. And all of the people I encountered had an impact on me.

It is important to understand that each and every one of us is the sum total of every experience we have ever had. It doesn’t matter how big or small that experience is, or even if we don’t consciously remember the experience. Each and every thing that has happened to us as individuals defines our very being. But more than that, the sum total of every experience our parents had, which defines them, also defines us. And the experience of every person we meet, which defines them, will come to define us. And even the experiences of a person we may never meet, will define us. I never met Abraham Lincoln, Adolph Hitler or Rosa Parks, but their actions and experiences have defined the world we live in, and therefore have defined who I am. All of us, no matter who we are, are connected through our actions and experiences, and the actions and experiences of everyone else impact us, often in ways we can’t comprehend.

We live in a chaotic world of conflicting ideologies where people use everything from political views to religious beliefs to skin color to ethnic origin as a means of identification. We pick our allies and our enemies based on things as ridiculous as what school they go to, who they vote for, who they chose to have sex with, which God they worship, what color clothes they wear, what side of the street they live on, how much money they make—and the list goes on and on, becoming increasingly insane with each example. But somewhere along the line we have to realize that we are manufacturing all of these reasons to love and hate, because it is easier to deal with another person if they aren’t a person at all, but some label that they have chosen for themselves, or that we’ve placed on them.

But when all is said and done, we are all simply human beings. And any other labels placed on us to describe who we are pulls us further away from our humanity. Think about this: every label you use to describe yourself—be it political, religious, professional, national, ethnic, or the name of the sports team you’ve pledged allegiance to—is just another disconnect from your humanity.

I apologize for all this rambling, but these are the thoughts that ran through my mind sitting on a plane, contemplating the two people I’ve know over half my life who died this weekend, and the new people I met. I thought of the impact both John and Virginia had on my life, and I realized it could not be measured. And then I thought about the impact of the people I just met, and I realized that too will never be measured.

The crossing of paths and the connections of life are so intricate—both subtle and complex—that we can go our entire lives and never fully comprehend how these things have effected us. And even though we may never comprehend the depth and magnitude of each action and interaction we experience, it doesn’t mean that we are absolved of recognizing that these things exist. On the contrary, any of us that have the audacity to claim to be a human being, have an obligation to understand their role in humanity, and part of that role is acknowledging that who we are as individuals is tied up in everyone who has ever lived, just as we are also connected to everyone who ever will live.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I appreciate all of my friends, those that I know, don’t know, and never will know. As I struggle to come to better understand myself, I must acknowledge the impact that countless people across the great expanse of human existence have had on me. I owe many of these countless people a profound thanks (and others probably deserve an asskicking).

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