Monday, April 1, 2013

Some Thoughts on Friendship and Military Service

Basic Training seems like so long ago that I might have just dreamed it. Mostly, I remember a random jumble of exercise, immunizations, the smell (and flavor) of CS gas, and bits of knowledge that might have served some small role in keeping me alive if i had ever actually been deployed to a combat zone. I can generally only remember anything more specific randomly, and only when a related conversation triggers a memory. One memory, however, resurfaces on almost a daily basis, even nearly 20 years later.

My drill seargeants were good people, for the most part - tough, because that was their job, but they really seemed to want us to succeed. In between segments of required training, they would randomly insert bits of advice. Some of the advice was useless, innaccurate, or simply served as filler when they ran out of stuff to yell at us about, of course, but a reasonably intelligent person could figure out which advice mattered and which advice should be ignored.

On the first day of basic training, in the minutes between a very loud hour of insults and a separate hour of sorting out who might need a few extra insults, one of my drll seargents stood in front of the formation to offer a bit of advice. I remember nothing of that 5 minute speech except this statement:

"Y'all are going to learn how to tell the difference between a friend and an acquaintance."

He was absolutely right, and that lesson served me well throughout my admittedly short military career (I signed up for 6 years, and I did not re-enlist). In civilian life, however, even for friends or acquaintances I met in the Army, it always seemed to come up short, and I always had trouble understanding why.

The missing piece is deceptively simple, yet provides painfully little insight: People change.

My dad was in the Coast Guard. Throughout my childhood, I moved every two to three years. I remember some of the early moves being painful, and I remember being told that I would make new friends. I never formed the kind of lifelong friendships that I saw other kids around me forming, but I did eventually discover that I could use the completely new environment as an opportunity to start fresh - I didn't just make new friends, I made a new me. I spent the rest of my childhood experimenting to figure out who I could be and who I wanted to be. Some of the experiments were successful, and others were absolute failures. By the time I finished High School, I had decided:

I just wanted to be me, but I didn't want me to be stagnant and boring.

That's a more difficult goal to reach than it seems like it should be. It is inherently a moving target. I looked at my grades at the time (having slept through numerous poorly taught classes where nearly all of the material was review was one of the failed experiments) and the jobs I could get with a high school education, and I quickly determined that if I did not go to college, I was doomed to be stagnant and boring, even if I gave up just being me. I could not see any way to pay my own tuition at the time, so I joined the Army.

The Army held up thier part of the bargain - I got to do intereting things, and they paid a large portion of my education costs, though it did take me some time to fit all of the pieces together to make it happen.

Once I was old enough to understand that I really could make new friends, but my previous friendships would wither and die from lack of attention, I began to wonder how my parents handled moving. They seemed to always have really good friends - the kind of people who would show up on any random weekend and split wood for 4 hours in exchange for a bowl of chili and a good conversation (well, maybe several bowls of chili, but I still think the conversation was more important). Each time we moved, a whole new set would appear. Occasionally, we might hear from someone 5 or 10 years later, but rarely more than a few words and a general interest in our well being. I accepted this at the time, but did not really understand.

After I joined the Army, the reason became extremely clear. Moving takes a lot of mental energy. Not only do you have to pack and haul all of your stuff (except the stuff you sell or throw away to fit within the weight limits) across the country, but when you get there, you have no social network, no professional network, and no hobbies to take up the time you are not spending with friends. You have a blank slate. The hobbies that might have interested you in your previous location might not be available in your new location, so you pick a new set of hobbies, and you build your social network from that set of hobbies. Military service members are surprisingly adept at building new professional networks, since they are primarily building them with people who have also recently moved and have some critical piece of their network missing - often that critical piece is built right into your job description on the day you arrive. At this point, you have changed enough that you probably would not fit in with your previous friends unless they moved to your new location and either worked closely with you or picked a few of your new hobbies to rebuild their social networks.

Achievement Unlocked: Catalyst for Change.

External influences often provide the catalyst for change. In my experience, very little change truly comes from within. I might want to exercise more and lose weight, but unless I intentionally put myself in an environment where that change is either necessary or a byproduct of something else, I probably will not just suddenly decide (internally) that I am going to run four miles a day until I am not fat anymore. I lost a lot of weight backpacking in college, when I actually had time to do interesting things, but I chose a hobby that helped me to get in better shape rather than just choosing to get in better shape. That hobby also required a group of like-minded people. Once those people were no longer like-minded (and I had less time available), I stopped backpacking.

I (sort of) stayed in touch with a few friends I met in the Army (five, unless I am forgetting someone), and I have watched them have a completely different set of experiences that have shaped their lives, interests, friendships, and even caused some of them to move in civilian life, providing a catalyst for even more change. These people meant a lot to me. I still value their friendships, but every year, we become even more different - and more distant.

Again, I wondered why - and this time, I couldn't just watch someone else. My civilian friends tended not to have this problem, and they would randomly wander in and out of their friends' lives like they had always been there. Perhaps they had. My Army friends were too far away to observe, and they tended to shed friends just as fast as I did, which meant that if I talked to them even once a month, I would miss the critical details required to understand why.

I didn't talk to them once a month, of course. I considered myself lucky if I heard from them once a year. I also didn't put in a lot of effort to call them myself more than once a year (and some not even more than once every 5 years). This added to the feeling of separation. Not only was I hearing only a few bits and pieces of their life stories, but those bits and pieces were not representative of who they had become. Over time, my expectations in any given conversation were less and less representative of reality.

That lead me to think about the three high school friends I have reconnected with. I contacted two of them individually about five years apart. One had changed so little that I felt I no longer had anything at all in common with him. I enjoyed meeting him again, of course, but I did not stay in touch afterward. Another had changed so much that I felt I had very little in common with him, even though I could actually talk shop with him. Both were still good people - just not people I really connected with. Again, my expectations were not representative of reality.

A third has chased me down about every three to five years - not because I am particularly interesting or we have anything in common, but simply because the Army never really managed to teach her to disconnect. I find that fascinating, even when conversation topics become somewhat uncomfortable because we are so dramatically different. This is a person who actively tracks down friends and keeps them. How? Why?

Perhaps more importantly, either her expectations are representative of reality (which I doubt) or she has figured out how to handle the inevitable disappointment when her expectations are not met (or the similar sense of disappointment when low expectations are precisely met). This is even more intrigueing.

Achievement Unlocked: And the Horse You Rode In On.

The rate at which you perceive someone changing is dependent on where you observe from and your observation equipment (filters). If I only talk to someone once a year on the phone, nearly all of the elements of daily life are filtered out. This person will often appear to be changing very slowly, but upon meeting in person, I may discover that he or she has actually changed considerably faster than I thought. The reverse may be true in other cases. My expections are, necessarily, not representative of reality.

Neither are theirs.

I'm going to skip a few years now. I mean no offense to the gamers and other civilian friends I have had during that time. These are also good people, and I value those friendships as much as those who came before and after, but I would simply be repeating the same story over and over. I will mention, however, that my gaming friendships have mostly mirrored my Army friendships, while my civilian non-gaming friendships have mostly mirrored my high school friendships.

I have now lived within a ten mile radius for over ten years. I have moved five times during that time, but never outside the 10 mile radius. I have ONE local friend. I have a lot of really awesome acquaintences, and I truly enjoy spending time with them, but only one friend.

This does not really bother me, but it seems odd. While I was in the Army, I would have made four or five good friends within the first six months after I arrived, we would have spent a lot of time together doing interesting stuff that I would be able to tell stories about later, then we would have gone in totally different directions, and I would probably never hear from them again. Now, I spend significantly less time hanging out with friend(s), but over a six or seven year period, I have begun to gather a small collection of stories I can tell later.

During that time, I once didn't bother to call for nearly a year (I was in a pretty foul mood all year, so it is probably best I didn't call). When we reconnected, I expected the same disappointment I feel every time I see anyone else after a long time away. It wasn't there. We each had our own set of outside influences that provided a catalyst for change, but those outside influences did not include lifestyle changes (at least not on the scale that I would have experienced if I moved even 100 miles away).

My close friends from high school and from the Army have become acquaintences by my drill seargeant's definition. There is still an emotional bond that forms the basis for continued friendship, but I don't spend the time with them that I used to, and if they were all to move into houses within walking distance of mine, I probably would not spend significantly more time with them than I do now. We simply see the world from such different perspectives that we would not easily find common interests.

My only local friend would be an acquaintence by my drill seargeant's definition. We hang out a couple of times a month at most. Occasionally we fly together in WWII Online. We email once or twice a week. But the same emotional bond exists, and we have maintained shared interests over a relatively long time.

So how do I tell the difference? Is there a difference at all for civilians, or do they normally just drift in and out of their friends' lives whenever time is available? Has my experience in the Army left me with unreasonably high expectations, or has it simply enhanced my already prominent all-or-nothing approach to life, making connecting to people with a more relaxed approach difficult?

I'm going to make a few wild guesses here. I have no solid facts and few documentable observations to form a basis for these guesses, but the pieces seem to fit.

Civilians don't seem to have an urgent need to form new friendships. They usually already have a set of friends, and may expand it only when they find someone exceptional. They also don't have an urgent need to experience as much as possible with their friends before they move away. They form friendships slowly, in a much less intense manner.

Assuming the above evaluation is relatively accurate, and having seen the damage my intensity has done to acquaintences that could have become friendships, it seems logical that the most likely cause for my "limited success" is that the social survival skills I learned in the Army are not appropriate for civilian life (perhaps I have just become an unfriendly person, but I would hate to have to believe that). I have to wonder if this might even be part of the reason veterans tend to stick together and hire veterans first when they are in positions of authority in civilian organizations.