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Friends on the road
By Orson Scott Card May 6, 2010

When my wife was in school, she had a friend whose parents once took the family to live in Alaska. She well remembered the journey there.

"Once we left the United States and started on that long highway through Canada, there were only a handful of rest stops. Everybody had to stop and get gas at the same stations, eat meals at the same rest stops.

"Within a couple of days we knew everybody in every vehicle on that highway. Not only that, we knew their life stories and they knew ours. We had helped each other out in small ways and simply enjoyed each other's company.

"At one of the last stops, a lot of people exchanged addresses and promised to write. We had become friends.

"But I don't know if anyone actually wrote to anyone else."

Now, I suppose I could deliver a sermon about how easily we let people drift out of our lives.

But I draw the opposite conclusion: I think it's wonderful how easily we let people drift into our lives.

My wife and I were once on a long trip and had to do laundry in our hotel in Boston. It happened that a British couple were doing their laundry in the other machine at the same time, so we talked to them and they to us; we were all very cheerful and friendly.

After my speech and book signing that night, we were coming back into the lobby of the hotel and happened to pass that same English couple. They were now dressed to the nines, but we (being Americans) were more casually dressed.

I didn't try to stop them to converse -- I just smiled and said hi and was already moving on when I realized that instead of returning my casual greeting -- my recognition that we had met -- they "cut me dead." That is, they turned away from me without giving any sign of recognition -- though I know they saw me.

This is a standard British class-system method of putting in his place someone of a lower class who might presume on an accidental acquaintance. My wife and I had a good laugh at that, because we also had no desire to take the acquaintanceship any further.

There are only so many hours we can bear discussing cruise ships and guided tours with strangers. They had used up our quota for the month back in the laundry room. I'm afraid we're snobs -- we disdain the company of people with lots of money who are doing nothing remotely useful or interesting with their lives.

So the only disagreement we had was that they didn't even want to admit publicly that they had ever talked with us, while I was perfectly happy to give them a cheery greeting ... and walk on by without another thought.

There's nothing wrong with being civil and friendly and helpful to chance-met strangers. Sometimes we can do something that might make a positive difference in their lives; sometimes we learn things or receive great help from them.

In a way, it's like the Good Samaritan. The helpful traveler in the Parable provided all that the robbed-and-wounded Samaritan needed, including following through. But even in the Savior's parable, he didn't say that they moved in with each other or arranged for their children to marry.

Not everybody we meet on the road is in need of rescue and hospitalization. As with that Alaskan road trip, often all that is needed is good company for the duration.

The fact that afterward you don't become intimate friends, visiting in each other's homes or writing long letters every month, does not undo the good that you did for each other during the time that you shared a road -- or a laundry room, or an office, or a pair of airplane seats, or a line waiting to get into some public event.

When we're young and/or single, friendships have a kind of intensity to them. "BFF" ("best friends forever") is not so much a commitment as an expression of intensity.

When I was young, I had several friends who, during the years we were close, became so much a part of my life that I stopped using "I" and "me" because I never did anything alone. It was always "we" and "us."

You think that such friendships will never end. Then you graduate from high school, or change jobs, or move to another ward, and even if you miss that close friend for a while, you find new friends where you are.

When you marry, your spouse should become, by definition, the person who (as in the phrase from Carson McCullers's Member of the Wedding) becomes the "we of me." With no one else (except your children) will you be free to spend anything like the kind of time you once spent with your friends.

By the time we reach adulthood, we recognize that friendships are partly formed and unformed by chance. We live in a ward or work in an office and happen to hit it off well with someone we are thrown together with. We seek out each other's company during our free time. We call and chat. We might even take family vacations together, or develop traditions of game-playing or movie-going nights.

If they happen to have kids who are the same ages as our own, so much the better.

But when one couple moves away, or gets split away from you through a ward division, and we find that we have moved them off the calendar and onto the Christmas card list, there's nothing to apologize for.

Christmas cards and annual family letters exist so that we can continue to say, in effect, "Wasn't that time we spent together wonderful? We still care about you, and hope you still care about us -- so here's a letter that will help you catch up on what we're doing."

Meanwhile, there we are in a new job or a new ward, a new neighborhood, or on yet another airplane flight or train trip or long drive on a lonely highway. There are new people to meet. New people who will bless our lives, and whose lives we might bless in return.

Life is a journey, and we choose our friends and even our spouses from among whatever people we happen to meet along our way. Instead of regretting that most of these friendships recede quickly into memory when circumstances change, let us rejoice that our life's journey let us make so many wonderful and fascinating friends and acquaintanceships.

Copyright © 2010 by Orson Scott Card

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