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Friend or Companion

By Thea Iberall

When I was on the research faculty at USC, I played tennis with some of the other women professors. I really enjoyed getting to know them and hoped to become friends. I had active conversations and was friendly. But the friendships never went anywhere and I couldn't understand why. What was it about me? I was supportive, interesting, social. I knew how to make friends and had some very deep friendships. Was something wrong with my personality? Then I learned something about the various levels to relationships. For example, some people are companions, others are friends. Companions are people who share interests, like bowling or going to movies. With companions, the activity is more important than the person. I have had companions in my many activities through the years: going to concerts, temple, church; doing advocacy work; doing judo, playing tennis.

With an actual friend, the person is more important than the activity. I have a friend who visits from New Hampshire. Doesn't matter what we do when we are together, it just matters that we are together. Gaining that insight between a companion and an actual friend cleared up so much for me. I relaxed more and eased into acceptance about my social skills, and it helped me accept the changes when people moved in and out of my life. I stopped feeling guilty for not being a better friend to a companion.

But what does it take to turn a companion into a friend? In an article in a UCLA magazine, the authors say friendship takes lifelong care and positive action, that it requires empathy and a lasting curiosity about others. I think it also takes time. A person who says they are your best friend after you’ve had two business interactions with them just sounds plain crazy. They are inappropriately trying to jump an invisible boundary.

How does one cross the boundary appropriately? It takes time to nurture a friendship, to explore conversations and share experiences about things that matter. It takes asking questions and listening to answers. Friendship is about doing things for friends without expecting an immediate reward. And having respect for differences and tastes while still maintaining an enjoyable time together. There are no awkward silences. There’s a rhythm, like nurturing a simmering pot. Friends can actually share brain wave patterns. The day a friend of 30 years treated me like a companion tore through my heart even though I knew this too had to be accepted.

I’ve heard that we can only sustain meaningful connections with 150 people in our lifetime, but we devote about two-thirds of our social time to just 15. Friendships need recharging, like the way we recharge our phones, electric toothbrushes, and electric cars. I have a friend who makes the commitment to calling all her friends every few months in order to stay in touch. I call my New Hampshire friend at least twice a month.

Maybe the companion or friend label leads to expectations. Maybe that’s good or bad. I just know that sometimes the energy between two people doesn’t flow and I respect that. I have a metric for determining whether someone is a companion versus a friend. If I drop that activity from my life, do I stay in contact with that person?

The world is changing due to technology and climate change. We sit here in our incubator connecting with people from all over the country at a very deep level. And whether we are companions or friends, we connect through our hearts. We are learning together, being empathetic with each other, and expressing our curiosity through active listening. I’m glad I share this space with all of you.

My hair is paper thin

and my temples

have sprung white

and silvery chimes.

My eyebrows,

once over plucked

now grow as a soft

and wild meadow.

Sweet rolls unfold me

without an actual

sugary glaze

because I’m not


I am a woman

a mother, a daughter,

an aunt, a great aunt.

I am a soul sister,

and a neighbor.

Daily I listen to people’s stories

and follow their dreams;

it’s an honor

to earn my living this way.

Poetry and prose write me

lyrically, literally, lushly

but also zeroing in on the

zenith of my truths.

Often I see my darkness

as a key to better understand

the complexities

of this reality.

I am far from perfect

and with age this pleases me

since it complements

my crazy craft of creativity.

Listening to my silvery chimes

those gray tendrils sing,

you have more to give.

Love has grown with you well

let’s dance this second half of living

as a union with oneself.

Participants’ Reflections

  • In the grocery store yesterday, I heard the loudest screaming that one can imagine. Two women were greeting each other and obviously hadn’t seen each other in a long time. They were jumping like on a trampoline and couldn’t express enough how great it was to see each other. It was frightening at first. As I left the store, I went through a list of my friends who I hadn’t seen in a while who I would be so excited over. As I drove home, I laughed as I pictured coming into the presence of people in our group here. Which one would I hug first? Thank you for the reading. Aren’t we blessed to have people when we see them that we want to squeal and jump.

  • Thank you. I differentiated people as acquaintances or friends. I like the companion idea. There are people I like to do things with, and it’s different. I haven’t seen people I used to play mahjong with and I don’t care. The pandemic has separated them out. The people who are my true friends, I have made a point to get together with them by zoom or phone. That doesn’t diminish the kind of relationship one has with people one enjoys doing things with. It’s just different.

  • I heard that relationship typology about 30 years ago. And through the years, I’ve tried to find it. Ten minutes before we started this morning, I found the link Terry Gorski and his levels of relationships. Acquaintance is one of the levels. There are six levels. It’s worth reading.

  • Thank you for that. What came to me right away is how, as I’ve gotten older, I prefer to be by myself than to be with people I’m just going to be with. If I’m not going to be sharing deeply, I get bored and even angry. I am wasting my time in those situations. I am grateful I do have people I consider my friends. My spouse is one. I think a lot about this group. I feel like you are my friends. Sometimes when I click the leave button, I just want to hang out with you all some more. It’s a good feeling. It’s interesting to feel that you have friends in this space in this computer screen.

  • Thank you for this. I especially appreciated you saying there are six levels. I sat with the thought of companion which I had never heard of. I’m looking forward to reading about the six levels. My former spouse and I were companions. We had shared interests that did not last over time. An experience I’ve had with friends—when I taught or assisted with the choir—these different times when people were really significant to me and we shared vulnerabilities and joys. Yet, over time, life circumstances have changed. I’ve had this tug of war about how much to keep up with people and when to hold loosely and let go. If I don’t let go, there’s no room for new. This group is an example of room for the new. We do dive deep and what we say carries on through the day. I decided to withhold judgment regarding how things have gone. And give thanks for what has been and also I adore days that have room to unfold.

  • Thank you. I also tend to think of people as friends or acquaintances. I also don’t have time to spend with people if we aren’t going to connect. It seems like a waste of time. I went to an art museum this weekend and asked for one ticket. The ticket seller acted a bit like he was feeling sorry for me that I was going alone. But I actually like being in museums by myself. The difficulty comes in when I’m ready to let people go and they still want to hold on to me. I try to gently extract myself from spending time with them. It’s painful for them because it’s not like they’ve done anything. I just don’t know what to talk to them about anymore. Almost my whole life is around this spiritual growth. If I can find that element in whatever I’m doing, then I can have a conversation. I’m fine being alone because I’m not alone. I have all of you and some very very good friends as well. I think it does change with age.

  • I’ve always had a lot of acquaintances and some deep friends. What I’ve found recently is that a lot of my friends revolve around hiking. We’re out in the woods, share deep thoughts. I’ve had problems so that I can’t hike and it creates a dilemma. We get together on zoom. My issue is the worse I feel, the more I become introverted and I have less interest in calling people. It’s an issue when I feel crummy to make the effort to call when I’ve always been walking with them. It’s a challenge for me. For a long time, I’ve been wanting to call a friend but I can’t find her phone number anymore. I want to find her but I can’t. We were close a long time ago. When friendship revolves around certain activities and you lose that, what do you do?

  • It takes more energy. Both people are into the companionship activity and you become friends. It takes an extra amount of energy to keep it going outside of the activity. I’ve had that problem always. I’ve moved around a lot and I’ve seen the people who stay in my life and who don’t. I’ve lost people I’ve lost contact with. It takes extra effort to find people.

  • A lot of it is me who changes. I have an idea in my head of what a good friend does. And I can’t manage many good friends because I can’t keep that level up for a whole bunch of people. It’s not that they aren’t my friend, it’s I can’t manage it. I’ve met wonderful people but I can’t add them and manage to keep up that level of contact. This meeting is amazing because it is time-limited—we meet, we connect at a very spiritual and emotional level, and then we leave. During the day, I think about things that were said but I don’t pine for you. I’m pleased and love to see you, and if I had an opportunity to physically see you, I would make the effort. But you are not my friends. Does that make sense? It’s an interesting conversation.

  • That’s the idea. We are at the companion level. This is an activity that we are sharing because we all want to be doing it. It takes our own little effort to log on every morning to be here. So we experience this at the definition of what companionship is all about. Some of us have connections in other ways. Some of us are actually true friends in our outside lives.

  • Those that are close by and can see each other, if one of you said, I need you, you’d be there in a nanosecond. What is that?

  • I think of you as my spiritual friends.

  • We are all Soul Sisters and Soul Brothers together.

  • Technology is changing relationships. It’s true. And read the levels of relationships article. The whole typology really affected how I deal with people so that I don’t have guilt over the levels people are at in my life.

  • This is a wonderful conversation because it teases out aspects of our humanness.

  • Thank you. I love this discussion and topic today. Thank you to all who have contributed. I hope you all have a wonderful, blessed and gentle day. Think about your friends and companions as you go through your day. Thank you so much.

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