September 20, 2003    Psychology


Some recent discussion with some immigrant friends prompted an analysis of what a friend is. We all agreed that clichés like the giving up the shirt on his/her back for you was pretty much common, but we had great divergence when it came to the issue of criminal activities. My Russian friends seemed to believe that a friend is someone who would lie for you, thereby risking his own incarceration; whereas I was of the opinion that a friend would counsel you to give yourself up and provide whatever aid and support he could through the rest of the process. Needless to say they were as horrified of my perspective as I was of theirs.

So what basic assumptions about friendship do we hold differently from each. Well, the first thing I can think of is that I would never put a friend in any kind of jeopardy and I would expect the same thing from a friend. This is not just the simple physical things, but also the emotional, psychological and spiritual. I would strive not to do something that would cause my friend and emotional pain. I would always try to increase my friends’ happiness, rather than do something that would reduce happiness. Let us consider some concrete examples of this.

I have friends who have a variety of dietary restrictions predicated on personal belief and religious beliefs. So when they come over to eat, I do my best to create food choice that are inoffensive to them. This does not mean that we do not question each other’s beliefs, but rather that we have learned to respect each other while exploring and trying understand our differences. In this way I avoid causing discomfort to my friends. Perhaps that is the difference, I do not want to cause discomfort or pain?

Actually it is not. At least indirectly I cause my friends discomfort or pain. Like when I share my problems with them, at some level they are discomfited by my problems. On the other hand I have not directly caused them grief, but rather shared my own in a search for comforting. So, is it an avoidance of direct pain that I strive for? Probably not quite. I have been, at times, direct in telling my friends my opinion about something even though I know that my views may cause them some pain. I suppose that I do try to do it in as gentle a manner as I possibly can, but nonetheless I have directly caused them pain.

So what else is at the root of this difference? I think that it is the expectation that my friends will always try to find the best me that I can be. In other words, they do not allow me the luxury of taking the easy road; they help keep me on the straight and narrow. I realize that the reason for this is that I have cultivated these types of friends over the years. I have, in my early adulthood, pruned those people who would harm me or involve me in some dangerous endeavor. I have kept closer to those who attempt to inspire me to be the best that I can be and do not accept second-rate efforts on my part.

So what is a friend? To me, a friend is the person who will counsel you to do good, but accepts you when you do wrong and stays with you as you strive to find your way back onto the path of a good and virtuous life. Am I good and virtuous, not at all; but with my friends, I know that I will never stray too far.

A Response from one of his friends, Quinn Solem:

Boris Kortiak has written a wonderful essay on friends. It is, I suspect, an essay targeted only to new immigrants from the former Soviet Union. In that context it makes sense, and is both beautiful and simple. It is like Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, delivered so many years ago, or so they say. His message is simple, like Christ’s: be nice, and don’t sin.

Boris is almost always nice.

Occasionally he sins.

I am V.I.P. in Boris’ life. That means that I can squeal on him about so many things he has said and done but can also back him as a good guy. I know most of the stuff that he wants to keep other people from knowing, but at the same time I can tell you about, for instance, what a good parent he has been to his daughter and son. I have known him since I was four or six years old, when he took me on an incredibly wonderful pheasant hunt where our weapons were rubber bands and paper clips. No animals were harmed during this excursion. Many years later we would go on a real hunt for squirrels with real weapons, on my own terms. Animals were harmed.

It is an indication of Boris’ character that he has refused to go on any further hunts with me on my own terms.

I know Boris’s family. I like them a lot. They are holiday family. By holiday family I mean that they are the people that you invite to share the special days of the year with. In the United States, these days are Christmas and Thanksgiving, and sometimes the Fourth of July. The Fourth of July, however, does not really count, because you are allowed, by sacred custom, to bring anyone to a cookout.

Aside from family members who you have to invite, is there a greater honor in the United States than being a holiday family?

Now before I get in trouble with my family members I must state that they are all welcome at my house at any time. Right down to the in-laws and fourth cousins. But then again, so are the members of the Kortiak family. Any time. Even if the holiday is the Ides of March. Or the birthday of a long dead cat.

Employers asking for references shouldn’t ask for the name of the last person you worked for, they should ask where you were on the last Thanksgiving. They could call up the people you ate with and ask for their references. This would be a much better system of checking up on your prospective employees, although I suspect that I would never see another Kortiak at my Thanksgiving table again. Much less the Ides of March.

As Richard Nixon once said “Character is Destiny.”

Alex, Boris’s father, was a programmer. My father was a programmer. My older, (but seemingly more youthful and beautiful) sister is a programmer. My younger sister (who is also youthful and beautiful) might be a programmer too, but she is doing more important things right now than worrying over how bits and byes flow through a computer. She is creating and raising the next generation of indubitably genus programmers. Or pilots, or business gurus, or cowboys, or rock stars, or whatever those little buggers want to become and do.

And guess what? The best man at my wedding was a computer programmer.

So Boris and I grew up in a big happy family of programmers.

Are Boris and I friends?

Sometimes I wonder. According to his essay a friend:

“would never put a friend in any kind of jeopardy”

Boy Howdy, I put him in every hind of jeopardy. Like a sample list?

- Stabbed him in the chest with the nail spike end of a road flare (not lit)
- Helped to blow chunks out of his skin with an exploding .22 bullet
- Choked him when he produced a mobius strip
- Slapped him to the ground over a girl
- Shocked him repeatedly with a piezo-electric 50 thousand volt crystal

This is all before I was 15 years old!

But Boris wanted this from his friends, as he so simply states:

“In other words, they do not allow me the luxury of taking the easy road; they help keep me on the straight and narrow. I realize that the reason for this is that I have cultivated these types of friends over the years. ”

And Boris goes on to say:

“This is not just the simple physical things, but also the emotional, psychological and spiritual.”

There is no short list for my crimes in this area. Just mention my name and he will smile like the Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland, mutter to himself, and flap his hands wildly. If you get to know him some he might show you some scars…Not all of them physical.

And what did Boris do to me? One time he was biting my arm, and my grandmother had to make him stop. She was very calm, and Boris was very calm, but I was sort of unnerved by the teeth around my forearm. I think that incident had something to do with him punching me in the nose and making it bleed, and may be linked to my slapping him. It was a long time ago. Another time he…

Well, we can let him tell what he did to me if he wants. I can tell you that if he is losing at a board game he may tip it over. Enough said.

One Thanksgiving year, after retelling some of these stories, Boris’ mother asked Boris “don’t you know how to pick friends?” We all laughed!

We laughed and laughed.

And why was this simple question about all this bloodshed and tears so terribly funny?

I don’t know if any one has that answer. Someone should ask Boris again, and this time, no laughing. It could be he has an answer.

He might say that our culture needs a new term for the relationships that holiday family’s form that continue through generations. That these relationships are neither friendship or family, but a fusion of both. The big happy programming family that was formed by the Kortiak’s, the Solem’s, and so many others in the 1960?s and 1970?s are long gone. But the children of those families, and now the grandchildren, still flourish, like a long abandoned farm that continues to yield crops. And that new fields are being added all the time.

He might call the farm Eblo.