Cultivate solitude and quiet and a few sincere friends,
rather than mob merriment, noise and thousands of nodding acquaintances.

William Powell

When you look around you at the people in your life, you’ll be surprised how many you have; but what does each person mean to you? This has been highlighted to me in the past few months – people have come into my life, people have left my life, people have supported me, people have not understood my position or my decisions – so who are they all? William Powell’s quote was an interesting one as it does highlight exactly what is true about my life. The only additional quote that I would like to add is that ‘blood is thicker than water’. This is a quote that you often hear.

The past few months of my life have been as challenging or more challenging than any other time in my life. I’m thinking back to when I flew down from Malaŵi to boarding school in South Africa for the first time – I was only just 11 years old. The next major challenge was when I flew from Malaŵi to the UK for a year at college – I was only just 17 years old. As I think back, it makes emigrating to the UK in my early 20’s now feel very easy … but the past six months or so have equalled these challenges. In my article Reach high, for stars lie hidden in your soul. … I talked about being married for 15 years – with disappointment this relationship came to an end during 2010. Having made the decision that my marriage was not working I left the island of Madeira at the end of November, 2010 to go to the UK as I had promised that I would be at my closest friends (L) graduation from University. In my articles of Take care of your body and Silent Gratitude I talked about leaving the island and going to the UK, then leaving the UK and going to France. It’s since my trip to central France that I’ve really had the opportunity to look closely at those people in my life.

For someone born and brought-up in a colonial environment, friends were often more of a family than blood family were. Living in a colonial or even an expat environment, we only saw our family members – uncles, aunts, cousins – when we travelled to see them. In a colonial/expat environment, it is more usual for the family living in that environment to travel than the family who remain in the ‘home’ country to visit. So I grew up in an environment where we spent the time we would normally have spent with family, with other families in the same situation.

This was all brought home to me recently when I found myself ‘homeless’ as part of separating from my ex-husband. Where do I go? The colonial environment I grew up in no longer exists and I’m living in Europe. My parents live in Australia as does my brother and his family – so going to them is not an option. Cousins, aunts, uncles live across the globe – southern hemisphere mainly (South Africa, Zimbabwe, Australia) – so going to them is not an option. I went to the dictionary to find the definition of ‘family’ and was presented with:

  • A basic social unit consisting of parents and their children, whether they are dwelling together or not
  • A social unit consisting of one or more adults together with the children they care for – maybe a
    single-parent family
  • Any group of people closely related by blood – parents, children, uncles, aunts, cousins
  • A group of people who are generally not blood relations, but who share comments attitudes, values,
    interests, goals and frequently live together – an example would be a hippie community of the
    nineteen sixties.

My closest girl-friend on the island (E) and I talked about this, when she made the comment about finding it easier to confide in friends rather than in her parents. Like me, she grew up in an expat environment. So I found myself wondering about how we treat our family and our friends differently. Then of course there are the other groups of people in our lives – acquaintances for one and then there are the others in our lives – bosses, colleagues, teachers, mentors, coaches, facilitators, doctors, solicitors, and yes the list goes on.

The dictionary definition of the word ‘friend’ is:

  • A person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard.
  • A person who is on good terms with another.
  • A person who is not hostile.

But for me these two definitions are not clear. Through living in the south east of the UK for many years I’ve been lucky enough to make a number of friends and two of my closest girl-friends in the UK (well you know us girls, we must have our ‘best’ friends) did tell me that I could go there. So does this make them closer to me than my family? In some ways yes it does and in other ways no it doesn’t. It makes them closer to me as they are more aware of what is happening in my life on a day-to-day basis, but my parents are in regular contact and are providing me with phenomenal support through email communication. Although my closest girl-friends offered me space in their homes, I am lucky enough to have another close friend in France who being on her own, has space in her home for me to relax, regain my health, while maintaining my working hours and planning my future.

To complete the research, I found that the dictionary definition of the word ‘acquaintance’ is:
– A person known to one, but usually not a close friend.

Family, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, etc. are the personal relationships that we have in our lives and the dictionary definition of the word ‘relationship’ is ‘an emotional or other connection between people’. So whether we are talking about family, friends, acquaintances, or the others in our lives – we are talking about having a relationship. Emily Dickinson said ‘my friends are my estate’. Charles Caleb Colton said ‘true friendship is like sound health, the value of it is seldom known until it be lost’. The quote that I truly resonate with in relation to friends is what Walter Winchell said when he stated ‘a real friend is one who walks in when others walk out’.

It’s interesting as the last few months for me have been quite intuitive and in some strange way quite enlightening. Although my immediate family – my parents and my brother – have been incredibly supporting, as they live so far away they are unable to provide me with the level of support that I’ve needed. Although it’s strange how often I thought that a particular person was a friend and when I truly needed their support, their love, their friendship; they weren’t there. It really doesn’t matter how often you think, ‘but I’ve always been there for them’ … when you need them it’s true that you will find out if they are a true friend. ‘A true friend walks in when the rest of the world walks out.’

When I think back – I travelled over the UK in the early 1980’s with someone I always thought of as a friend – not my best or closest friend – but a good friend. Although we haven’t seen or spoken to each other for many years, over the past few months I’ve suddenly realised that although I thought of her as a friend, I was only in her live as long as I was ‘useful’. Anais Nin did say ‘each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new ‘world is born’.’ In the past years I’ve met people born and brought up in the southern hemisphere – one born in the same hospital that I was, but again when I think back to those I thought were friends, when I needed them – they weren’t ‘available’. On the other hand, I’ve had a fabulous experience with rekindling friendships through the internet. Coming from a colonial, an expat environment, which added the complexity of boarding school. I walked away from the friends I had made at school knowing that I would probably not see them again. I left Malaŵi again not knowing if I would see the friends I grew up with again. Remembering that my experiences were gained before the days of the internet – no email, no sms/text messages, no skype; my experience had been gained when friends, whose parents had come to Malaŵi on contracts, had not stayed in touch. So are these acquaintances or were they friends who are no longer in my life. Since my life has started to change I’ve had real confirmation that ‘true friends are the ones who never leave your heart, even if they leave your life for a while. Even after years apart, you pick up with them right where you left off, and even if they die they’re never dead in your heart.’ Yes, through the internet over the past year or so friends from my childhood have come back into my life – some as true friends and others as acquaintances who may over time become true friends.

The last six months for me has truly confirmed my definition of family, friends, acquaintances, and others. What is yours?
I don’t care how poor a man is; if he has family, he’s rich.’ Dan Wilcox and Thad Mumford (Identity Crisis MASH). Desmond Tutu said ‘You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them. Family are truly a social unit consisting of parents and their children, whether they are dwelling together or not; where you can truly rely on their support in times of trouble.
A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out.’ I can’t say it any clearer. Anais Nin’s quote is so true ‘Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new ‘world is born’.’ Those friends who have stood by me over the past six months have truly explained what true friendship is and each in their own way.

It’s true that ‘I have a million acquaintances but just two or three true friends. I can’t hid anything from them.’ Ian Somerhalder. As William Powell said ‘… a few sincere friends, … thousands of nodding acquaintances.’ I have found that I have a large number of acquaintances with whom I can have fun in a social environment, do business with, but I know that they are not there to provide me with any support on a personal level at all. My experience has confirmed this Chinese proverb – ‘a man should choose a friend who is better than himself. There are plenty of acquaintances in the world; but very few real friends.

I can tell you that we have only one mission and that is to make ourselves happy.
The only way we can be happy is by being who we are.

Don Miguel Ruiz.

© 2011 Barbara J. Cormack
First published under Cormack’s Capers in Magna Intuitum