Most people would agree with what Thomas Jefferson wrote over 200 years ago: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” But what T-Jeffs left out (besides women), was a disclaimer: that although all men may be created equal, the “we are all equal” statement holds little weight from person to person. There will always be a social hierarchy: we each form judgments about who we like and don’t like, and the way we treat these people is anything but “equal”.
Because individuals still have these biases and prejudices, a we-love-everyone-equally Pleasantville is an impossibility… and it’s so far-fetched that even the prospect of living in such a world is frightening. But this historical digression leads us to our relationships today, and how complex our personal caste systems have become. Today, we have levels upon levels of relationships, even amongst people we like. We have best friends, good friends, semi-good friends, friends we like to party with but can’t trust, friends we can trust but are kind of boring, friends we haven’t seen in years, friends we’ve seen last week… all types of friends.
So, how do we manage all these relationships, especially as impending weddings force us so stratify our friends even more? Instead of taking the “I like everyone equally” route, we can find a few lessons from history to classify our friends…
So, for this purpose, imagine yourself as an all-powerful despot circa the Middle Ages:
Serfs (unfree peasants under feudalism): You know those people that you call “friends” but are really glorified acquaintances? These are serfs. You don’t really pay attention to serfs: you can’t remember their names, occasionally forget what they look like, and get them confused with other serfs. The serf is the middle child, the forgotten Ninja Turtle (Rafael), and the guy you squint at on the subway because you think he looks vaguely familiar. We all have our serfs, and we all are serfs… sans the hard labor and bondage (for most of us).
Peasants (agricultural workers living on small plots of land): Peasanthood is what you strive to achieve when you’re a lowly serf… that level of friendship where at least there’s mutual recognition. Peasants are people you associate with a venue: an English class, a student organization, a volunteer event, work. They’re usually one degree of separation away (friends of friends, or friends of family). They are the friends you’d actually stop to have a conversation with on the street (versus doing the quick-wave or head-bop), and friends who you’d wish happy birthday for… through Facebook.
Merchants (the medieval businessmen you’d lend money to): These are the people you’d consider good friends… They are the friends you went out with every now and then, have some fun stories about, and could incriminate with photographical evidence of less-than-stellar moments. They’re a step above peasants, but not the friends that you would necessarily confide in with all your deep dark secrets. They are the friends that you wish you got to know better, but for some reason, you never did. Perhaps they were just too busy selling opium to children.
Nobles (the landowners who you invite to your extravagant dinner parties while the serfs and peasants starve): These are your really good friends. These are the friends you always go out with, the ones who know you well enough to take you home before you make a bad life decision. They are the friends who you keep up with often and genuinely care about. They know your quirks, your pet peeves, and your weird habits. Even though they may not be your “best” friend, they’re the Phoebe to your Rachel and Monica. They are a part of your “crew” and know all your inside jokes… and who will definitely be at your wedding, if not in it.
The Court (the friends that you let live in your palace…your medieval entourage): These are your best friends. These are the friends who will take you home AND make sure the trash can is angled directly under your head. These are the friends who will listen to you ramble on for hours about your alien theories, and then gently convince you that scientology really is crazy. These are your friends who you’ll call on the toilet, and they’ll know it even before you flush. Even your dad knows the names of these friends. They’ve seen you angry. They’ve seen you cry. They’ve made you laugh when you were upset. They know all your embarrassing stories, and you know theirs… and you know the secrets will stay untold. You know you can trust them with anything, without fear of judgment. They are the ones who you’ll call at 3 am for no good reason at all, if only to sing a few verses of Bleeding Love, burp into the phone, and say “I love you.”
Ultimately, we have few nobles and even fewer members of the court in our lives: the majority of the people we know are merchants, peasants, and serfs. But we can’t be landowners in everyone’s feudal system. It’s hard to climb that ladder, and the designation of nobility is sacred; too many nobles can dilute their importance, and then we often must discern between our good friends and peasants/serfs in disguise.
This exercise–and squeezing the most we can out of this analogy–may seem like a vain attempt to label something (friendship) that transcends categorization. However, like everything else, not all friendships are created equal in the eyes of individuals: we all have to figure out a way to pare down the wedding invite list. So yes, invoking the feudal system to describe modern-day relationships would make Jefferson recoil… but hey, sometimes history repeats itself.