“ A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him, I may think aloud.”
As a boy, I counted friendship cheaply. Anyone who’d play ball with me I’d call a friend. And maybe in a boy’s world that is enough. But as we get older, the consequences of friendship are deeper and profounder. And we come to learn the deep and sacred value that is a friendship. It is a rare soul that I’ll count among my friends.
When I was a senior in high school, readying to leave that boy’s world and enter into the world of men, a teacher of mine often told me that I could count myself a lucky man if, when counting those on whom I might call a friend, I could fill up a whole hand. Just five fingers, and I could count myself lucky.
Five friends seems a most meager number, yet the value of one friend is infinite. Five would indeed seem superfluous were it not also true that every friend represents a unique infinity, and did not every friend alone hold some one-of-a-kind key that unlocked some secret door in your soul. Friends unlock who we are, help us to discover what we can be, help us to fulfill the old Socratic dictum, Know thyself.
I’ve met many a kind man or woman, and would not diminish the value of pleasant acquaintances. But I do not want to diminish the meaning of the word friend by applying the word friend too liberally. And granted, I may use the word casually in my day to day conversation; yet in my deeper hours, I would place to word as carefully as I’d place a newborn child in a cradle.
After university, where I counted myself rich with friends, most of whom I’ve lost contact with, I travelled to Russia as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and there I learned a deeper sense of the word friend when I learned the Russian word druk. Now, in any Russian-English Dictionary, druk translates to friend. But though a dictionary can help us crack a word open as a nutcracker might a nut, we cannot understand a word till we have eaten of its flesh. Living with Russians I learned what no dictionary can teach, what experience alone can offer: wisdom.
After having lived for several months with a host family, with whom I lived for my basic cultural and language training, I shipped off to live in the tiny Far Easter village named Yagodnoye. The village is tiny, about a two hour drive down the Amur River from Komsomolsk-on-The-Amur. There, I lived as an English teacher, and as the only foreigner. I adapted, roughly, and learned how to get along. Every day an old PE teacher named Vladimir came over and taught me to speak red-neck Russian passably well through the winter I lived there. I had a handful of other buddies who’d come over and help me out as well. But none helped me so much as did Vladimir.
During one holiday, I took leave of the village, proud of what I had learned, though exhausted. I went back to Vladivostok to visit my host family and host mother. My host mother was thrilled that I had learned to speak Russian so well, and that, for the first time, we could hold a decent conversation. She asked me how I had adapted, and I told her that I had adapted well. I told her how I got along, and then told her casually that I had made many friends in the village. She looked at me, serious as death, and told me that I was naive. She told me that I had not made so many friends. She told me, Those are your acquaintances, and that I could not call a single person druk until they had proven utter trustworthiness. She went on to explain that, in Russia, the meaning of the word druk had formed a special meaning owing to historical conditions. In Stalinist Russia, for example, calling the wrong person druk could lead to the dreaded midnight knock, grab, and stuff into a train car, which lead to some remote labor village. Indeed, the village in which I taught was a labor village built by Stalin.
I never got to test any of my relationships long enough in Russia to learn if any of my buddies were worthy of the word druk. I suspect Vladimir I could call druk. But he, like several of my other buddies, loved his country, and was dirt poor. All of my colleagues who had experience with Russia warned me that I had at least one government shadow making sure that I was not spying. Indeed, the Peace Corps was accused by the Russian Government to be spying. The Cold War had created deep suspicion. And that suspicion leads me even to this day to ask if my best buddy in the village was my friend. Nor can I blame him if he was paid to shadow me.
Now of course I was no spy. I lack that competence and ability to keep my mouth shut. And I had a tendency to get too often too drunk with my buddies to keep sensitive information hid. I was just an English teacher out in the adventure of life trying to learn what this thing called life is.
Every year that passes, I take Emerson’s words more and more profoundly. “A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him, I may think aloud.”
When we have a person whom we may endeavor to call a friend, if we do not trust to speak our mind fully and honestly, we cannot yet call him a friend. And if we do speak honestly, and that person would not use what we would say for his advantage against us, we have that far in him a friend. If we find that we must calculate carefully what we would disclose, the assuredly the word friend does not apply.
With Vladimir, even if he were hired to be my shadow, there was nothing I would have kept from him that was in his interest. And I think he knew this, and so enjoyed our time together. I suspect, based on the wisdom of my gut, though I spent but one long Russian winter drinking tea and chatting with him, that he would have backed me, because he would have learned that I would do the same for him. So I do think of him as my friend. But the other guys—they’re buddies.
Most of the guys I know are buddies, and buddies are great. But a to be a friend—that’s another thing altogether.