Friendships are positive-sum game relationships. We choose someone to be our friend simply because it feels good and not because of the benefits that both parties could accrue in the future. Most importantly, our friends are our identity. Religion, nationality, caste, and gender are identities that society imposes upon us. In this collectivist society, friendships are surprisingly our choices.

As we grow older, our friendships become shallow and rarer. One can become friends whenever one wants and can move on without dealing with “break-ups”. I do not doubt that we respect and care for our friends. We do reminisce about our pasts, the fun we had with them and yearn for such times. Yet, we do not seem to understand their significance.

In our high school and college days, friends are our bedrock of support when we have a heartbreak or fail in exams or if we are angry, confused teenagers. Our parents and partners demand a certain degree of politeness. But with friends – the sky is the limit to be informal. A friend is more likely to understand me if I am a non-conformant. The expression of self is more pronounced when friends are around us.

My friends have never been shy of lending me money when I am in distress. When I was in school or college, they got me whatever I wanted without expressing the slightest irritation. My friends are clever enough to know if I am genuine or having a free ride on them. Money was never an itching point in our relationships because my friends never really saw me as a stranger. I am sure this was the case with most of us when we were younger. Why is it then, even our closest friends during our school and college days appear in distant memory and not in present reality?

Could the answer be the self-centred way of life we have? If my friend lends me ten rupees of the twenty rupees he had when he was in school, what is stopping him from lending money to support his suffering friend now? On the other side of the equation, by constantly pestering his childhood friend of money, isn’t he becoming parasitic by exploiting the friendship?

This grotesque simplification of dynamics between friends illustrates self-centeredness, gradually creeping into our lives. It also manifests in many forms – What will I gain by talking to him for 20 minutes? , Is he going to be of any help to me? My career and life are “more important” than anything else.

In this materialistic world, we run for power and money and are blind to the small happiness of everyday life. Looking back, schools and colleges are the places where we lived carelessly and hence never bothered about how society would perceive us. But after some time, we are pressured to “succeed in life”, and we crumble to it. Would we sacrifice our parents for this great scam? No way! Our romantic partners? – Maybe or maybe not. Friendship? – Well, if an entry into the friendship is organic, why not the exit too? Friendships are the easiest to throw under the bus. Perhaps, we have restricted ourselves to have only two choices – career or friendships but never considered having them both.

Society is liberal in sanctioning inter-caste friendships because it does not threaten the caste hierarchy. We do not treat them as extended family members. Yes, you can disagree, saying that you have treated your friends as your own. But you cannot disagree that friendships come at the bottom of the hierarchy of relationships – Romantic partner, Parents and immediate family.

If you had a doublethink moment now – I treat my friends as my family, and it is also true that they come at the bottom of the hierarchy of relationships – you are not alone. We need a paradigm shift in understanding friendships.

Friendships are more than just relationships. They are rich, pure and non-demanding expressions. For instance, when my father fondly recalls how he met my mother, I see a friend in him, not a father. If my mother eagerly listens to my rant about the defeat I had in a football match and motivates me to win the next game, she becomes my friend. A romantic partner sans sex is a deep friendship.

Sometimes, it occurs to me that if our family expresses more of friendship and less of the role assigned to them by society, the world would be a better place as families are the building blocks of society.

Marriages and kids may take a toll on our life. Hence, it is always prudent to invest in friendships, which might be our bulwark against the vicissitudes and vagaries of life. Because we assume that our romantic partners and subsequent families to be the centres of our universe, we gradually start to ignore our friends. We all know that different relationships satisfy different needs. By now, we might be exerting too much stress on our romantic partners to meet all our needs. Hence there is a danger of other relationships getting paralysed because of the lack of friendships.

What can we do to stop active friendships from becoming ghost friendships? Stop for a moment and reflect. It will then enable us to come out of the cocoon called self-centeredness. And finally, there will be a day we will all have a childlike bliss because we have finally understood what friendship means to us!