Thursday, June 18, 2009

who is Mom's best friend?

A lot of Mom's Korean friends, especially these days, claim to be her best friend. Mom has plenty of friends, but I've never heard her say that "So-and-so is my best friend," which got me curious. During a quiet moment at the ER the other day, I asked Mom whether she had a best friend, or whether she liked all her friends equally. She said without hesitation that she liked them all equally.

Ladies: on the bright side, this means you can probably still claim to be Mom's best friend, because you're on equal footing with all the other best friends. Less optimistically, what this really means is that Mom is happy with her circle of friends, and that for her, "best" refers to a group that she holds above an even larger group. No single person stands out.

Whether one has a best friend is probably a function of one's personality. Some think it's juvenile to "rank" friends, but others see it as only realistic to point out that, among one's friends, there are only those select few with whom one spends the best quality time, or shares the most private thoughts, or experiences the greatest joys in the spirit of philia. And among those in that inner circle, one stands out as the very best friend. When looked at this way, it's only natural that one friend will be the best. Why not be honest and proclaim this fact?

Mom is an extrovert (at least among her Korean friends; Koreans can be pretty cliquish, and examples of this-- among Koreans of all ages-- are innumerable), which makes it natural for her to have a large pool of friends. I'm an introvert, so I have a notion of friendship that limits, almost by definition, the number of true friends I have.

It's not always obvious which personality type-- extrovert or introvert-- has the richer existence. As an introvert, I tend to think extroverts go broad but fail to go deep: variety at the expense of profundity. I imagine extroverts would claim that all their friendships are equally deep and meaningful, but I have a hard time believing that claim when it's made by someone with 300 so-called "friends." A Korean Seon (Zen) monk who visited our church once explained why most monks* don't marry a single person: their love makes them want to marry everyone. While the sentiment sounds noble, I have my doubts as to whether all celibate monks feel this way.

The "broad versus deep" dichotomy may or may not be a fair division to make, but it does seem to represent a fundamental difference in outlook when it comes to friendship. I was once accused by an out-and-out extrovert of "not giving enough" emotionally. My accuser, a woman I wasn't even dating, was being driven nuts by my combination of civility and lack of sociability, but here's the rub: from my perspective, it's the extroverts who "don't give enough," because it's impossible to tell how deeply they value any given friendship. By not making obvious distinctions between and among friends and acquaintances, extroverts end up with a pile of relationships that seem rather shallow and hollow.

Mom and I stand at opposite poles when it comes to the matter of friendship. She has dozens of friends, but no true "best friends" in the introvert's sense of the term. Instead, she has many friends who claim to be her best (or oldest) friend.

Despite my circumspection toward this type of friendship, this situation gladdens me. As much as Mom is stressed out by the thought of meeting these friends while she's in her current reduced state, she craves companionship and brightens when her friends (Korean or otherwise) show up. She has no lack of callers, and the sheer number of get-well cards she has received from all her friends-- and here I include everyone, not just her Korean circle-- is nothing short of incredible. If Frank Capra had used Mom as the protagonist of "It's a Wonderful Life" instead of Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey, the movie would have had to be much larger in scale. And as the days pass, I learn more and more about the lives Mom has affected.

I might have mixed feelings about what extroverts call friendship, but if the current outpouring of sentiment is any indication, Mom is indeed surrounded by many good friends. As the song from 2001's Baz Luhrmann hit cinemusical "Moulin Rouge" goes:

The greatest thing
you'll ever learn
is just to love
and be loved
in return.

My ruminations on friendship aside, it's obvious Mom is loved in return.

*Korean monks who marry are most likely holdovers from a tradition introduced during the Japanese occupation (1910-1945). Certain forms of Japanese Buddhism-- not all, by any means-- allowed monks to marry. Some of those tradition-strains survive today in Korea as well as Japan. In Korea, such monks are a small but noticeable minority.


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