Sandra M. Levy-Achtemeier, Ph.D.

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Circles of Friends

Published on Friday, August 19, 2016

Circles of Friends

The Saints in My Life

Now I know you are probably sick and tired of my talking about finishing the darned book. But I’m telling you folks (why have we all started talking like Donald Trump?), I’m telling you folks, the last few weeks of finishing up have bordered on the bizarre. Believe me!! (Okay, enough with the Trump talk!)

To make a long story short (as they say), this past week has been particularly strange regarding music publishers. For the past two months I have jumped through all the hoops and done my best for a timely response from six different music publishers. To date, I have heard from two. Last Monday, when calling the Nashville office of one of the other companies (after speaking with one secretary and leaving a long voicemail), I got shuffled to their office in New York. And then I got bounced back to the Nashville office where I was finally informed that the company was no longer handling requests for copyright permission to quote in print form (e.g., in books like mine). Despite the fact that my request had been sitting on someone’s desk for two months, and despite the fact that I had repeatedly emailed follow-up queries, this was the first time I had been informed that they were no longer handling requests such as mine. The bottom line was that I needed to start all over with another music company to make my request.

I’m telling you folks (sorry, Trump again), this is an example of the maze I have gotten caught up in to secure copyright permissions – overall I would say the most bizarre experience of my entire professional life. It would be funny if it wasn’t so bizarre.

Now, why am I going into all this when this blog is about friendship? Well, the next morning I woke up at 4:30 a.m. in a state of turmoil about the work ahead of me, starting all over with a new request. And the first thing I did – before heading downstairs to eat some breakfast – was head to my computer and email my closest friend (like a sister, someone I’ve known for 20 years or more) about what was going on. Contacting her, letting her know what was happening in my life that day, was more important to me than eating so I could get to work.

Which brings me to what I want to talk about here.

My Daddy always said, “If you get to the end of your life and you can count on one hand your real friends, you’re lucky!” I always thought that was kind of cynical. But my Daddy was a very wise man, and isn’t it funny, the older we get, how much more we appreciate the wisdom of our elders. By the way, the lead photo is a snapshot taken of my Dad and me ... okay, a few years back, alright?

I thought of his saying that about friends when I read an intriguing think piece in The New York Times Sunday Review section dated August 7, 2016. (See the second and third photos below.) The piece, written by Kate Murphy, had an intriguing title: “Do Your Friends Actually Like You?” Murphy describes some recent research carried out by scientists at MIT who studied individuals who had known each other in a classroom setting. They rated each other on a five-point scale ranging from “I don’t know this person” to “One of my best friends.” The researchers found only a 53-percent agreement rate between pairs of respondents – while almost all of the subjects expected identical reciprocity. That is, almost all believed if they liked someone, that person also liked them to a similar degree.

Murphy spends the balance of the article talking about the nature of friendship – hard to describe but something deep down; most of us know what the word means. It may be easier to say what friendship is not: Not merely instrumental, that is, in order to wangle a deal or get something in return like a coveted invitation to something; not using someone to escape boredom or to gain some kind of self-gratification or ego boost. As Murphy quotes, “it’s not about what someone can do for you, it’s who and what the two of you become in each other’s presence.” One expert notes that we are in danger of losing the art of just spending (wasting?) time in each other’s company, replaced now with the efficiency of tweets and texts.

Importantly, Murphy cites the work of a British evolutionary psychologist who describes layers of friendships one can have in one’s life. He describes the topmost layer as probably consisting of two people – spouse or partner and best friend. The next layer (or outward circle, if you prefer) can hold at most about four others, “for whom you have great affinity, affection and concern and who require weekly attention to maintain.” And up (or out) from there, are layers or circles of more casual friends – folks you really like but spend less time with. And then there are acquaintances you are friendly with ... but you are not friends in the classic, deepest sense. So if you claim to have 400 “friends” on Twitter, chances are ... they are not.

At base, “friendship requires the vulnerability of caring as well as revealing things about yourself that don’t match the polished image in your Facebook profile.” Who was it who said “a friend is someone who knows you very well ... and likes you anyway.” That kind of deep friendship is built on trust, and there are brain effects when you spend time with one another – in person or on the phone. Brain effects that cause a warm feeling, a letting down of the guard; again, a vulnerability in each other’s presence. Murphy ends her piece by asking the reader to identify those in his or her life who are true friends: “Who makes time for you? Whose company enlivens, enriches and maybe even humbles you? Whom would you miss? Who would miss you?”

Let me end this blog with a wonderful quote from the poet Maya Angelou: She says, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” (Quoted in The New York Times, Saturday, July 2, 2016, p. A15.) A true friend – one who inhabits a space in, or at least very near that inner circle – makes you feel valued and loved. And the feeling is mutual.
Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.>

Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.

I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. Other posts by Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
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