Posted by: Mark Nielsen | August 5, 2013

Call Me Zelig the Zealot (aka What Kind of Friend?)

English: Woody Allen in concert in New York City.

Woody Allen, who I don’t THINK ever made a movie with Kevin Bacon…(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lately I’ve been considering the increasing number of “six degrees of separation” moments that I have encountered the past few years. Even though I know it is narcissistic, there’s a part of me that really wants to be identified as one of those “the man behind the man” characters, the people who quietly play an important role in many others’ lives, or even in history overall — like Woody Allen’s Zelig movie character, or Forrest Gump, or of course my all-time fave, George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

Here’s an example: I had a conversation with two female friends this morning during a break while I was helping to lead Vacation Bible School at my church (Redeemer Chicago [ELCA], for the record. ) The three of us cover a lot of territory, in terms of demographics:  Jeanne is a late-30s Catholic/evangelical hybrid and Wheaton College grad from working class Elmwood Park,  Valerie is a black woman, post-50, a Baptist/Lutheran with professional ties to the national Lutheran and local social services communities, and me, a Catho-Menno-Penteco-Evangelical-LutheranLite Progressive in my soon-to-be-late 40s.

In about ten minutes of talking, I found that each of them knew at least one of my reasonably close current or “old” friends (Julian, whom Jeanne knows from Wheaton… and Spencer, whom Valerie knows from LSSI).

In other circles (education, church and para-church settings, nonprofits in general, and the film-and-tv world being the most frequent), I have the same thing happen with some regularity: the “small world” phenomenon — the one where two people know me, and know each other, but didn’t realize the other knew me.

So… am I kidding myself about my own mega-size network of acquaintances? Or am I really that connective glue that holds it all together? (Ha!)

Facebook, of course, only makes it more complicated to sort out. Who is a “Friend” these days, and who is just a friend? Is somebody like Corin from London a true friend? He’s someone whom I only met once, and may never see again. But he listened mercifully to my long sob-story as I had a small breakdown, and dealt with some aspects of my divorce for the first time. But we keep up on facebook, kid around, get serious, etc. So probably, Corin’s  more important than most of the high school acquaintances I have not seen in 30 years (though with reunion coming up in the fall, who knows what to say, or what the coming decade will bring…)

And finally, what kind of friend is one “called” to be? How does making friends, or maintaining friendships, build or sustain society, or advance the “kingdom of God” (however you cook up that phrase)?

Good questions here, maybe with nothing more than a vague answer. Because I’m a work in progress, with a unique life journey to be grateful for, and plenty of fellow travelers with whom I’ve given or received a unique, Mark-flavored, Yahweh-flavored sort of love.

If you’re one of those kinds of friends to me, thank you ever so much for making my life richer. You rock! Even if you’re the other kind, thanks also.  Life’s a beach, and then you dive. See you out in the deep end!


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