Art of friendship takes patience and practice

This column was originally published as part of my “Looking Homeward” series at

It’s a favorite story my father loved to tell.

A good friend joined him for coffee at a local diner. “How many friends do you have?” the friend asked, making the question mark a sharp fish hook instead of a simple mark of punctuation.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Dad replied, attempting modesty rather than confessing ignorance.

“Give me a number,” the friend urged, draining his coffee cup and signaling the waitress for more, acting smug, like he knew the exact answer and my father didn’t.

“Ten, five, three?” the friend probed, using fingers for visual aids.

“Oh, you know me better than that. I’ve got a lot of friends,” Dad defended.

“Seriously,” the friend said, “how many real friends do you have? I mean, people who relate to you because of you, not because of your role or position or station in life?”

The question hung there, Dad recalled, begging for attention and thought. They both creamed and sugared their fresh coffee in silence.

Finally, the friend concluded, “Most of us can count on our fingers, one hand only, the number of real friends who would be our friends regardless of our position in life.”

My father’s friend has a point. Almost all of the people who relate to us on a daily basis do so because of the position or role we hold for them in life.

It takes time and energy to develop true friendships. In fact, creating a good friendship can be considered an art.

Although it is easy to develop acquaintances, it takes an artist to keep the process going until a deep friendship develops. Aristotle contended that “The business of every art is to bring something into existence, and the practice of an art involves studying how to bring this something into existence.”

Developing deep friendship is not easy because it is an art, and no art comes quickly, easily or without study or thought. Becoming an artist in any area requires creativity, practice and patience. The art of friendship demands these as well. There is no magic formula to employ.

Many of us use recreational activities to deepen friendships. Nothing beats 18 holes of golf or an afternoon fishing to strengthen a friendship. Some reach out to acquaintances through their children’s activities. Others join clubs or organizations. Committee work creates a great way to get to know folks personally.

My mother, an avid note-writer and master of keeping in touch with her friends, faithfully transferred important dates from her calendar each year reminding her of birthdays, anniversaries and other special days in her friends’ lives. Her heartfelt notes nurtured many acquaintances into becoming real friends.

Dad’s friend was probably right. We have a few genuine friends, but hundreds of friendly acquaintances. Friendship takes time and energy, and limitations of both prohibit cultivation of more than a few close, genuine friends.

But, oh, aren’t they worth all our investments?

So don’t give up. Emerson gives comfort and courage: “Every artist was first an amateur.”