Tuesday, August 28, 2007


Centuries of wisdom agrees with the findings of social science: It's important to have friends. Those who have a support system in times of trouble, those who are able to share deep feelings or difficult decisions with others, are better able to negotiate life's pitfalls than those who don't. And of course, intimate relationships of mutual trust and enrichment are part of what makes human life worth living, as anyone who's had a close friend can attest.

I've never felt very good at making friends. In school I had very close friends with whom I was thrown together by the winds of fortune; feeling excluded from more conventional circles of interest, popularity, or ability, we formed our tight geek bonds. Those friends from elementary school (like Cheryl, who recently and to my great delight commented on this blog) and high school (like Margaret, Louise and Vickie) and college (like Celina and Scott) still make up the bulk of the very best friends I feel I will ever have.

But I don't feel that any particular facility of mine at the art of friendship is responsible for our relationships. I was a loner throughout most of my adolescence, firm in my belief that I could do as well or better on my own than in company with anyone, certain that relationships were simply opportunities to be embarrassed or to disappoint someone. The close friendships I had in my youth seem to me more flukes than accomplishments -- the exception that proves the rules of my antisocial tendencies.

I started changing in graduate school. For whatever reason I began to enjoy the spotlight -- I liked being the center of a group of friends, and I felt comfortable spending time (and lots of it) hanging out with people who liked me. And anyone who meets me now probably wouldn't believe that I was once a confirmed introvert; I'm an effusive, shameless loudmouth who is constantly hugging on people and exhibiting oversized emotions. I like the company of others and enjoy socializing. Sure, I still enjoy retreating into my books and blogs and knitting, and look forward to conference travel where I can overdose on solitude when I choose. But I'm not a loner by nature anymore. The social me is the real me, not a front.

Yet I have no more close friends than I've ever had, for all that I hang out and feel comfortable with a wider variety of people. There are individuals who are adept at inviting people into their lives and making intimacy comfortable; I've known them and I'm grateful for them. But I'm not one of those people. I have to be invited -- I feel false doing the inviting.

We heard from Archer's teacher a few days ago that he was unintentionally overlooked when it came time to claim rewards for having a perfect behavior record for the week. For Archer, the whole world hangs on predictability and routine -- that schedules are followed, that promises are kept, that cause leads to effect. I can only imagine the fracture in his autistic psyche if what he is owed, what he is expecting, doesn't come to pass. Everything falls apart if he can't use what he knows to predict what will happen -- it's the crux of the way he's laboriously learned to deal with this strange alien world.

Luckily for Archer, he has a friend -- or as close a version as a socially-impaired six-year-old like him can have. Savannah, a girl who was in kindergarten with him, has decided to take care of him; she leads him around in the cafeteria and draws him into games at recess. She took matters into her own hands and brought him up to the teacher after he wasn't called up to get his reward, and the matter was rectified -- not before Archer's fragile sense of order started to crumble, but everything was eventually set right.

What friendship will mean for Archer as he grows older, I don't know. For now, it's enough that he knows that there is someone who takes care of him, someone who will seek him out for whatever reason. He barely speaks to other children or meets their eyes, although the light in his face when other children speak to him is overwhelming. I hope he will have friends, though I'm pretty certain he'll never have dozens. In my experience, a few are enough, if they're the right ones, and if you can keep them.


Eric Grubbs said...

Right on, Donna. Thanks for sharing.

the secret knitter said...

I think you're selling yourself short in some regards. I don't know if I've ever felt as welcome as you made me feel during my visit. Or was that all a big charade? ;)

That's a really sweet story about Archer. Thanks for sharing.

Timothy said...

reading this post makes my mind drift back to morgan, from paul collins's _not even wrong_. i have always been a very social creature (though that seems to be changing in grad school), and i can't imagine life without a large group of good friends. but, you know, i'm with you: i can get by knowing there are people like savannah who are sincere and compassionate and will always welcome the morgans (and archers) into their lives. i just hope i can learn a lesson about friendship from this six-year-old girl.

Jenn said...

I totally understand where you're coming from--I used to be so painfully shy that I didn't even want to take credit for my own intelligence and abilities. College changed that for me :)

I'm glad Archer has someone who has attached herself to him--a friend who can look out for him.

dougb0 said...

Thanks for that post. It made me stop and think about my own life, too. I always seem to have a good group of "kinda close" friends (at least since college), but I struggle with going the last mile and having truly intimate relationships. I (like many people, I suspect) enjoy people's company for a while, and as long as things stay pretty much on the surface level. But I also tend to retreat into solitude pretty often. I hope not to stay that way forever.

The Archer/Savannah story almost made me cry. That's what I want my kids to be like.

Maureen said...

Thank you for that beautiful essay. I'm so glad Archer has Savannah for a friend.

Eric said...

I've generally had a small group of very close friends, but never socialized much with acquaintances unless it was instigated by someone else. I think that's changing some, in part from moving to Colorado where I knew no one. It was very odd to move here an to try to make friends from scratch. It happened, but two years later I'm still not sure that I'm as close with them as friends I made back home.

Doc Thelma said...

As one of your fellow introverted geeks, I consider myself fortunate to have connected with you in late high school.
But how come you always had a boyfriend and I didn't?