(Jeff Jacoby writes an annual column in the form of a letter to his son Caleb.)
My beloved Caleb,
You had your four-year checkup last week, and Mama marveled at how serenely you sailed through it. You didn't complain about a thing -- not even at getting two shots and having your finger pricked for a blood sample. What a change from last year! Back then you hated the exam and began whimpering as soon as we walked in. You were in tears through most of the checkup; the only thing that mollified you was the dinosaur stickers you were given when it was all over. When the nurse offered you some post-checkup stickers this year, you just smiled and said, "No, thank you."
Lots of things are different about you now. Last March you weren't in nursery school, you couldn't pronounce "L" and "S," and you invariably answered "Wednesday" whenever I asked you what day it was. In a way you didn't twelve months ago, you've got a real personality now, with increasingly well-defined character traits. It's clear that you've inherited your mother's stick-to-it-iveness, for example, and your father's book fetish. We seem to have passed along the shyness gene, too. That contagious laugh of yours, on the other hand, you came up with on your own.
Conversations with you are so much more interesting, now that you can articulate your thoughts. Even when you don't know the word you need, you're able to get your point across. I knew you had remembered a dream for the first time after we had this colloquy one morning:
"Who was that woman?"
"The one I saw when I was sleeping."
But of all the things that have changed for you over the past year, none has greater potential to enrich your life than something you discovered on your own: friendship.
There were children you played with in the days before school, but they were just playmates -- fun to run around the park with, but out of mind as soon as they were out of sight. Now you have friends whom you think about when you're apart and whose company you relish when you're together.
I'm getting used to hearing about your friends -- especially the current favorite -- on almost a daily basis. "I wish Matan's family lived in the house next to us," you said last week. "Then I could play with him every day." On Wednesday morning, you told me, "This is who I like the best: You and Mama and Matan. And Peter." Matan doesn't realize what exalted company he is in -- your father, your mother, and your favorite stuffed animal!
A few weeks ago, it was Akiva you talked about all the time. No doubt a few weeks hence you'll be enamored of someone else. In January you announced, quite firmly, "Zoe is not my friend." Lately you appear to have changed your mind about her. (Or did she change hers about you?)
For you right now, Caleb, a friend is someone you want to be with -- period. "Young people who are friends, unlike the old, want to pass their time in one another's company," Aristotle observed long ago. "That is how their friendship is carried on." It is as true now as it was then.
But in time you will understand that friendships come in many varieties. You can have wonderful friends whom you see daily, and others you don't see for years on end. You can have friends in whose conversation you delight, and others with whom talking is pointless. Some of your friends you may esteem as saints. Others you may love for their devilishness. I'm sure I won't always approve of your friends -- but already you are teaching me how little say I have in the matter.
Lately, "I'm not your friend!" has become your fiercest declaration of anger. I guess you've figured out that withdrawing your friendship can be a kind of punishment. That is a good thing to realize -- but far better is to know how to choose friends well and make your friendships last.
You haven't asked for my advice, -- on this subject, what child ever does? -- but I'll offer some anyway. Seek out friends whose character you admire. Give more thought to what you can do for those you love than to what they can do for you. Treasure the friend who can criticize you fairly. Remember that friendship does not mean perfection: When a friend makes a mistake, as someone once said, the friend remains a friend and the mistake remains a mistake.
But my best advice is the old advice: To have a friend, be a friend.
You may not realize it, but every time you make a new friend, you improve on G-d's handiwork. After creating the world, Genesis says, He noticed that something needed fixing. "And the L-rd G-d said, It is not good that man should be alone." Indeed it is not. Loneliness is a dreadful curse; I pray it never afflicts you.
I know that little of this has meaning for you yet, Caleb. But gradually you will see that when there is friendship in your life, everything is better and brighter. Friends make your good times more joyous and your burdens easier to bear. An hour spent doing nothing with a great friend can be the most satisfying activity imaginable. As the Chinese say, When men are friendly, even water is sweet.
All my love,
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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