I have a recurring dream… I am back in college and I go back to my dorm room to find complete strangers there. Where are my best friends Woody, Bill, Steve, Tom and Ed with whom I shared four wonderful years playing poker late into the night instead of studying for exams, debating politics over stale beer and pizza, road-tripping to an all-female college to DJ at dance parties? They are nowhere to be found.
In my dream I am my age today (62) surrounded by other students in their late teens and early twenties. Why am I here? I had graduated over 40 years ago and I am back in school again? I’ve been there/done that. What is there for me to learn this time around? I feel lonely and lost, desperate to find someone whom I recognize, someone that I can call a friend.
At this point I typically wake up in a panic, followed by a wave of relief and joy with the realization that this is just a dream. Thank goodness my real life is filled with people whom I love and love me in return. I am not alone in this world to fend for myself without anyone to cover my back. I have a small circle of close friends with whom I can share my greatest joys, my deepest disappointments, my treasured hobbies and recreations. We have vacationed together every year for the past 35 years.
Nevertheless a few months will go by and I will have this dream again. My wife Tonia suggests that perhaps imbedded in this dream there is a lesson, something that I have not yet learned which is why it keeps coming back. I take her advice to heart and do some self-reflection.
Underpinning this dream is a deep-seated fear of losing what is the most valuable to me in my life, my dearest friends. I have always known that friendships can deteriorate over time with neglect. Therefore I make a special effort to stay in touch either physically, verbally or via text/email messages. Shared experiences are essential in maintaining the bonds of friendship.
So what would it take to break these bonds that have been forged over decades of friendship? The withholding of love, compassion or sacrifice due to selfishness or self-preservation.
I have been blessed with the good fortune of living in a rich country during a period of peace and prosperity with the benefits of a good education and rewarding career. My friends and I have never had to confront the challenges of poverty, ill health or debilitating misfortune. In one of my favorite movies The Big Chill, a chill always goes up my spine when the character Nick exclaims to his best friends from college:
“Wrong, a long time ago we knew each other for a short period of time; you don’t know anything about me. It was easy back then. No one had a cushier berth than we did. It’s not surprising our friendship could survive that. It’s only out there in the real world that it gets tough.”
What if the real world that my friends and I had met was not the United States but a developing country in which we had to fight for precious resources to survive or to advance? How might we have behaved with one another then? Would we be able to lean on each other in times of desperation and suffering?
People who have been convicted, faced social ostracism or encountered crippling disabilities have said that during those difficult periods you find out who your true friends are. My close friendships have never been put to such tests and I hope they never will. However, the question remains: will I be there to assist my friends if it puts me and my family in jeopardy?
I would like to think so, but to be honest I don’t really know until I am actually in that situation. Perhaps not knowing is what haunts me which is the lesson behind this recurring dream. If I don’t know how I would behave as a friend in the face of danger and peril, then I need to experience what it feels like to be totally alone in the world. Feeling that pain of isolation will hopefully fill me with courage to act as the true friend that I would like to think I am.
Michael is the Founder and President of Fung Capital, a venture capital firm investing in early-stage technology companies. He has been married to his best friend Tonia for 33 years and father to two wonderful children, Karina and Mason. Most recently Michael co-founded Roses in Concrete, a public charter school serving primarily students of color in East Oakland. He and his wife started Karma Pictures, a media company developing feature films telling Asian American stories. He served on non-profit boards such as Center for Asian American Media, Head Royce School, and Center for the Pacific Rim at USF. Michael has a B.A degree from Harvard College and an MBA degree from Harvard Business School.