By Elise Cording
“How many of us are real friends? Callin just to ask you a question, just to see how you was feelin. How many?” –Kanye West
I’m acquainted with probably more than a hundred people at Cornell but can count the number of real friends I have on one hand. When I sit down and think about the people in my life at college, I realize I have a lot of “friends”: those people I see semi-frequently, get along with, and enjoy having in my life, but truly don’t know or really care that much about. It’s not that I don’t want to know or care about them—we just haven’t invested in each other’s lives enough to take the time and effort to divulge our personal histories, remember all the details, and keep up with each other’s everyday lives. Like Kanye West says in his song “Real Friends,” I wouldn’t call them up just to see how they were feeling, and neither would they. Especially in college, people are always coming and going in my life, but in any season of it, I can only ever name a couple real friends—the ones who seek my friendship as much as I seek theirs, who’ll choose to spend their time doing nothing with me just to hang out, who remember the little details of where I’m from and what I care about, and who give a damn about how and what I’m doing in my daily life no matter how busy theirs is. They’re the ones I have to remember to appreciate and hold onto by being a real friend back.
While it’s sad that these friends (not “friends”) aren’t easier to come by, I don’t think my situation is especially abnormal, seeing that an inescapable part of the college experience is living in the world of “me.” Unless you came to Cornell with lots of familiar faces from home or are from Ithaca, you probably left most of familiarity behind to “go it alone” in college. With family and community obligations significantly reduced, you now have the freedom to choose how to spend all of your time, and more often than not, you’ll make those choices based on what serves you best. After all, without your family around, who’s going to take care of you besides you?
But I think this heightened “me-mentality” in college sometimes leaves friendship on the wayside. We get caught up in how to create the best, most productive lives for ourselves that accomplish all of our goals within the limited amount of time we have to work with. (Since we all know that “busy” is part of the definition of being a Cornell student, and our parents aren’t paying all this tuition money for us to not “succeed.”) So instead of a friend being someone who you regularly give to (in time, effort, and love), they can become someone who you aim to take from—how can they make your life more successful and happy?
Perhaps all friendships are formed selfishly to a degree. Sociality pools resources and helps us get by in the animal kingdom. But whether it’s helping your social status, your grades, or your feeling of self-worth, the goals of friendship at a high-pressure college seem more self-centered than they used to during childhood, causing me to believe that we now treat it more like a commodity than a relationship. Maybe it’s because the stakes in life are higher now (we have increasingly more consequences and longer-term effects from making mistakes) or that there are so many options of people to choose from in college, allowing us to elect friends more according to our personal needs and desires rather than simply circumstances. Whatever the cause, the way we live out friendship during this stage of life seems to revolve mainly around its use-value rather than its intrinsic value as a partnership of give-and-take.
Now you may argue that friendship comes in many different forms, and even though a certain friendship may not be as intimate as others, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth keeping. To that, I remind you of the assignments you may be procrastinating right now by reading this, the dirty laundry you should’ve done a week ago, and your mom, who you were supposed to call yesterday. Throw in keeping in touch with friends from home, and you’ll realize your capacity for maintaining a large number of meaningful connections while doing college is pretty small. You may be able to have many “friends,” but not the ability to turn them into real friends.
The reality is we simply don’t have enough time or energy to prioritize all of the people in our lives who we may want to. Of course it’s important to show kindness to everyone you meet, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with continuing to interact with anyone whose company you enjoy or learn from. But creating meaningful relationships takes work, and as college students, we need constant reminding to not spread ourselves too thin. Being a real friend means making someone else a priority. So do you choose to prioritize your time maintaining a larger number of less intimate connections or a few close ones? Maybe you’re a vibrant social butterfly who drinks multiple cups of coffee a day and can do it all (keep thriving), but I for one, get exhausted simply trying to remember to show all the people I care about that they matter in my life.
Why do we need meaningful, intimate relationships that require so much investment in the first place? I think it’s safe to say we’re all facing loneliness, trying to make it at a stressful university in that awkward life phase where no one is physically caring for us anymore and we aren’t yet caring for other humans of our own. Many of us struggle with maintaining mental health. (Ithaca winters and prelims, am I right? Seasonal depression is real, as well as anything else you may be going through.) We need real friendship, full of care and love, in order to survive, to stay grounded and sane. We need somebody who can validate our existence, celebrating our joys with us and getting us through hard times. Otherwise, in the midst of all the inevitable personal failures and curveballs life throws, it can appear a lot less clear whether each of our lives matter in the grand scheme of things. Having even one dependable person around who you know without a doubt truly cares about you can be your lifeline, a reminder of your inherent value and connection to the world even during the toughest of times, and that’s worth more than ten “friends” combined.
So break the cycle of being just a “friend” to others. Choose a handful of people who matter most to you and give them your time, your energy, your love and concern, rather than trying to befriend everyone you meet and keeping them as low priorities or superficial fulfillments in your life. Make your friends important—keep up with the nitty gritty details of their lives, ask about their families, take care of them when they’re sick. Value those people for who they are, not for what they can give you. If you’ve chosen carefully and given yourself freely, they will reciprocate. You may not have a hundred friends, but you will have a few special people you know will actually call “just to see how you was feelin.” And hopefully you’ll end up leaving this place with more than just a diploma—with real friends who’ll still care for you through the thick and thin of years to come.