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Friends Don't Grow on Trees

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Yaakov Salomon

Why are some people blessed with wonderful, caring friends while others seem destined for loneliness?


I have a gut feeling that 'Friends' is something more than a trendy sitcom. I mean Google just gave me 63,000,000 references for friends, in .28 seconds. That should tell us something.

And it does. Our search, our desire, and our need to surround ourselves with people we can share our lives with, begins when we are not yet verbal and seems to never ever end.

At times, it seems that our very existence is frequently dominated by the friends we have -- or have not. We long for friends; we require friends. We yearn for friends; we pine for friends. Friends can give us reason to live… to cry… to emulate… to strive… to show off… to play… to be silly… and to be somber.

What power!

And yet, defining exactly where this immense might really emanates from is elusive. Think of your three closest friends and try to identify the role they play in your life. Not so easy, is it? Now try to imagine experiencing any event of your life, of even minor significance, without any good friend with you. What could be more sad?

But attaining success in this most critical pursuit is far from automatic. We are all familiar with people who are surrounded with loads of good, loyal friends, while others know of no such circle. Instead, they shuffle along, pretending to love their autonomy and solitude ("You can't really count on anyone but yourself…"), while they suffer in silence -- alone, dispirited, and secretly afraid of tomorrow.

The question calls into focus the ageless quandary about God's role in pre-determining our lives vs. our own efforts in causing our successes and failures.

The question is, "Why?" Why are some people seemingly blessed with wonderful, wise, and caring friends while so many others somehow appear destined for loneliness?

The question is a troubling one. Not only because it affects so many people so profoundly, but because it calls into focus the ageless quandary about God's role in pre-determining our lives vs. our own efforts in causing our successes and failures. What is the reality? Are some people really blessed with those great relationships? Are others actually destined for a life of insipid isolation?


Great minds have grappled with this most central life question throughout the millennia. Philosophical literature and responsa are replete with attempts at unlocking the mystery of exactly how much God intervenes and determines our destiny and our decisions in life. While far from being an authority on this most confounding topic, I can state one truism about it. Not too many of us ever did or ever will fully understand it.

What does seem clear, however, is that few, if any, events in our personal lives occur without both of these dynamics at play. In other words, just about everything that happens to us, happens as a result of a combination of God's will and our own efforts.

For example, no one ever became a millionaire by collecting tolls on the Bayonne Bridge. Becoming exceedingly wealthy usually requires a plan of action, a failure or three, and a heck of a lot of effort. And then some divine intervention, as well (or a very rich and dead uncle). And yet, many follow the exact same formula and still come up empty-handed.

Similarly, it's unfair to expect to live a long, healthy life while you constantly feast on pastrami burgers, Cajun fries, deep chocolate mousse, and pancake syrup, never leave your couch except to meander over to the microwave, smoke three packs a day, and face constant financial and emotional stress. Of course, we all know people, some of them in their 80's or above, who seem to be doing just that. (We probably can't stand them!)

In other words, there are no guarantees. Usually we just play the percentages. In finances, health and countless other crucial areas in life we realize God has the final say, but we need to do our fair share. And then we pray and hope for the best. Very reasonable.

But not everything should be approached that way. There are certain facets of our existence that seem to be weighted more to one side or the other.

For instance, while cosmetics, clothes, style, and grooming can certainly help, a person's good looks are probably more dictated by God than by his own efforts. Frustrating, perhaps, but true nonetheless. And you might think you have 'lucky' numbers or are privy to some incredible "system," but whether or not you win the lottery is clearly more in the Divine domain than in yours. Sorry. And perhaps even more obviously, whether someone is prone to allergies or not has very little to do with how many vitamins he takes. These things -- and others -- have more to do with God's choices for us than our efforts for ourselves.

Sure, God's help is always important, but it seems that when it comes to our moral fiber, we hold the needle and thread.

Conversely, it could be argued that while people may be born with predispositions toward certain character traits (kindness, sensitivity, patience etc.), more often than not, we are responsible for our behavior. The more work we put into perfecting our temperament and disposition the more perfect they are likely to become. Sure, God's help is always important, but it seems that when it comes to our moral fiber, we hold the needle and thread.

So sometimes God's mainly running the show, sometimes we are, and sometimes it seems more equally balanced.


And now we come to friendship. Which category does that seem to best fit into? Many or most people appear to have referred this department to the supervisor Himself. As we said earlier, some of us are blessed with many wonderful friends; others are destined to relative solitude.

Frankly, I disagree.

Akiva, a friend of mine, heard that a rabbi of note was moving into his neighborhood some years ago. He had enjoyed a casual and infrequent relationship with him, but always dreamed of developing it into a true friendship. He didn't wait for the rabbi to move in and then "see what happens." He didn't count on serendipity (God) to orchestrate their paths crossing. He actually sat down and wrote him a letter before he moved -- welcoming him to the neighborhood and suggesting they plan a once-a-week study session for an hour, after the move.

Fact is, for some reason the rabbi turned down Akiva's initial request. But the letter was heartily appreciated and it launched their current friendship of note.

Friendship is neither a luxury, nor a burden, nor a symptom of unresolved childhood dependency issues. It is an essential component of the human condition.

Friendship is neither a luxury, nor a burden, nor a symptom of unresolved childhood dependency issues. It is an essential component of the human condition. Yes -- some need friends more, some less. But even the Sages of the Mishna -- some 1800 plus years ago -- implored us to, "Accept a teacher upon yourself and acquire a friend (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:6)."

And acquiring friends does not mean waiting at home for your cell phone to vibrate, and then deploring your bad fortune when you feel alone. Acquisitions of this kind require serious motivation, very specific strategies, and the courage to risk. It isn't easy to lay bare your vulnerabilities and chance rejection. Often you need to summon up some hefty doses of chutzpah to approach someone you barely know and strike up a conversation, ask a question, or invite him/her to an event. And circumstances -- real ones, like age, time, neighborhood, cliques, financial standing, shyness, bad breath etc. -- frequently present formidable obstacles to overcome. But it's worth the effort.

Life is just too complicated and fragile to go it alone. Everyone needs at least a mini Advisory Board these days. And hoping, praying, or expecting these friendships to breed and develop on their own is unrealistic, at best; precarious at worst.

Taking an active role in this crucial hunt means sitting down with pen, paper and brain and thinking through who, within your personal radar, would be a really valuable addition to your address book. Crude and unromantic as it may sound, specific tactics then need to be formulated and implemented in order to increase your chances of establishing a meaningful friendship.

"But doesn't God just sort of put people together if they belong together?"

Yes… sometimes. But more often than not, you need to do most of the work. And the same work ethic certainly applies afterwards -- when you want to make the friendship meaningful, satisfying, and lasting.

God can help. But you must make it happen.

That's just the way it is.


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