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Towards friendship

There’s been a great deal of upheaval in my life over the last handful of years. Mostly revolving around relationships I considered close…friends, lovers, inspirations, confidants, co-conspirators…Relationships with people that have played important roles in my life. The forms these relationship breakdowns took were common place. Lack of support and appreciation coming in. Feeling like an on-call resource going out. All couched in performative action, passive aggressiveness, and gaslighting. All happening through a multi-year cascade. One (or more) rolling over into another. Each complicating the prior and exposing true shapes.

I say “commonplace” easily now. That wasn’t always the case. The disconnect between my expectations of the responsibility people who care about each other have to each other and the reality of my continuing experience was immense. There was a point where I began to feel a bit crazy.

On the lighter days: How did my expectations get so wildly inaccurate? On the darker ones: If this requires so much work for little, if any, return - If the odds are high that difficult times are only exacerbated by my close relationships - Why bother at all?

I decided to get out of my own bubble and explore what other people had to say about friendship. What follows is a summary of some of the things I found. This overarching view is, to me, both informative (in a practical sense) and comforting (in a broader immaterial way).

None of what I’ve collected is a magically solves all problems. I’ve found I need to continually re-contextualized and re-considered it. I’m putting it here as both a statement of purpose and as a place to easily return to…

What is friendship?

Back in 2016 Maria Popova expressed concern about the increasing commodification of the word friend

“We have perpetrated a corrosion of meaning by overusing the word and overextending its connotation, compressing into an imperceptible difference the vast existential expanse between mere acquaintanceship and friendship in the proper Aristotelian sense.”

She goes on to create a taxonomy of friendship. A series of concentric circles of “human connection, intimacy, and emotional truthfulness, each larger circle a necessary but insufficient condition for the smaller circle it embraces.”

Maria Popova's taxonomy of friendship
  • Acquaintances: These are the people we are, quite simply, aquatinted with. Our connection with them begins and ends there.
  • Persons I Know and Like: “These are people of whom we have limited impressions, based on shared interests, experiences, or circumstances, on the basis of which we have inferred the rough outlines of a personhood we regard positively.” This is the group we most often conflate with friends. Both in the sense that we think of them as friends, also in the sense that we think of this when we self-define our responsibilities to friendship. This is a highly consumptive relationship. It thrives in the superficial world of social media. It is a photo, a sentence, or a Like.
  • Kindred Spirits: These are the people with whom we have a significant overlap in core values. We are sympathetic towards them and inspired by them. Though this relationship is informed by both parties performed public selves, rather than “from intimate knowledge of one another’s interior lives”.
  • Friends: The smallest circle. “[P]eople with whom we are willing to share, not without embarrassment but without fear of judgment, our gravest imperfections and the most anguishing instances of falling short of our own ideals and values. The concentrating and consecrating force that transmutes a kinship of spirit into a friendship is emotional and psychological intimacy. A friend is a person before whom we can strip our ideal self in order to reveal the real self, vulnerable and imperfect, and yet trust that it wouldn’t diminish the friend’s admiration and sincere affection for the whole self, comprising both the ideal and the real”.

How does friendship work?

In the February 14th, 2018 edition of Hanna Brooks Olsen’s newsletter, Hanna outlines some behaviors that make a friendship last:

  • Thoughtfulness: remembering birthdays, thinking ahead about what another person might like
  • Emotional openness and labor: actively admitting to what they're feeling, asking how the other person feels, comforting
  • Supportive behavior: listening, calling back to check in on someone, following up, making plans to help a person feel connected

These fit nicely with Maria’s definition of friendship. They are the core of actions that build and maintain the foundation (trust) that enables the level of connection and vulnerability required for genuine friendship.

What about love?

bell hooks takes a radical approach to love. She makes a deeply convincing argument that the notion of love as a nebulous undefinable thing is profoundly incorrect. In the book “The Will to Change” she defines love as:

Love is action and not solely feeling.

It is the willingness to nurture one’s own and another’s spiritual and emotional growth.

It is a combination of: care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect, and trust.

She goes on to say that when any of those things are missing, there is no love. There may be the potential for love, but in that moment when something is missing love does not exist.

That resonates with me. I like it because it eliminates the myriad of commonplace excuses we might make in an effort to avoid the responsibilities of love.

If we change the first line to “Friendship is action and not solely a feeling”, the remaining definition nicely encompasses Maria and Hannah’s thoughts.

In practice

All of these ideas together creates a useful lens to look at advice and action around friendship.

For example: A reoccurring problem in my friendships has been people disappearing for extended periods of time (not the occasional ghosting - anywhere from six months to more than a year of no response). The advice I’ve routinely seen for handling these situations is: If those people return without any acknowledgement of their absence, you don’t owe them anything. Pretending it never happened is absolutely not an option. You can choose to have a conversation with them about it, but you do not owe them that.

That was hard to get my head around at first. It made me uneasy. After all a friendship is rare and important. Shouldn’t you make every effort to salvage it? Mix in a bit of the ridiculous but none-the-less real feelings of “What if this person that has disappeared thinks less of me for not re-engaging?” and simply wanting a friendship back, and it becomes advice that’s hard to put into practice.

Applying bell’s definition of love to these disappearances violates every required action: Care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect, and trust. It is a disengagement from the “intimate interior lives” Maria speaks on. It moves the relationship from “Friend” to one of the lesser circles.

Friendships are rare and important. These situations are no longer friendships. Friendship is action and not solely a feeling.

Is an acquaintance owed intense emotional labor?

When we look at relationships in this informed and heartfelt way we create an opportunity to release ourselves from the exhausting back-and-forth of masquerading friendships. Freeing up energy to discover and focus on folks who value the work required to grow together.

(At least that's how I see things at this moment - Further reading is always appreciated)

People have found the solution of everything in ease and the easiest side of ease;

but it is clear that we must hold to the difficult; everything living holds to it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself according to its own character and is an individual in its own right, strives to be so at any cost and against all opposition. We know little, but that we must hold to the difficult is a certainty that will not leave us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; the fact that a things is difficult must be one more reason for our doing it.


[I]f we think of this existence of the individual as a larger or smaller room, it becomes clear that most people get to know only one corner of their room, a window seat, a strip of floor which they pace up and down. In that way they have a certain security. And yet how much more human is that insecurity, so fraught with danger, which compels the prisoners in Poe's Tales to grope for the shapes of their ghastly prisons and not to remain unaware of the unspeakable horrors of the dwelling. But we are not prisoners. No snares and springs are laid for us, and there is nothing that should alarm or torment us. We are set in life as in the element with which we are most in keeping, and we have moreover, through thousands of years of adaptation, become so similar to this life that when we stay still we are, by a happy mimicry, hardly to be distinguished from our surroundings. We have no cause to be mistrustful of our world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors they are our terrors; if it has abysses those abysses belong to us, if dangers are there we must strive to love them. And if only regulate our life according the that principle which advises us always to hold to the difficult, what even now appears most alien to us will become most familiar and loyal. How could we forget those old myths which are to be found in the beginnings of every people; the myths of the dragons which are transformed, at the last moment, into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our life are princesses, who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrifying is at bottom the helplessness that seeks our help.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

❱❱ Is a reliance on private property the best way to structure society?

How to Make this Moment the Turning Point for Real Change

On the other hand, the small minority of folks who’ve resorted to violence in various forms, whether out of genuine anger or mere opportunism, are putting innocent people at risk, compounding the destruction of neighborhoods that are often already short on services and investment and detracting from the larger cause. I saw an elderly black woman being interviewed today in tears because the only grocery store in her neighborhood had been trashed. If history is any guide, that store may take years to come back. So let’s not excuse violence, or rationalize it, or participate in it. If we want our criminal justice system, and American society at large, to operate on a higher ethical code, then we have to model that code ourselves.

Barack Obama on Medium

In Defense of Looting

The mystifying ideological claim that looting is violent and non-political is one that has been carefully produced by the ruling class because it is precisely the violent maintenance of property which is both the basis and end of their power. Looting is extremely dangerous to the rich (and most white people) because it reveals, with an immediacy that has to be moralized away, that the idea of private property is just that: an idea, a tenuous and contingent structure of consent, backed up by the lethal force of the state. When rioters take territory and loot, they are revealing precisely how, in a space without cops, property relations can be destroyed and things can be had for free.

Vicky Osterweil in The Nation

Values drive actions

“A man divided against himself, by definition, lacks integrity.” -Alan Watts

Unwillingness to be honest with ourselves about ourselves leads to an unrealistic assessment of our actions.

Values and actions become disconnected. Creating a life that veers away from integrity.

How do you discovery identity within oppression?

People of privilege (middle class / white / college educated / male / etc) don't see themselves as vital cogs in the wheels of oppression.

They do not see the oppressed.

They do not see themselves.

They can't see themselves. The disconnect between their values and their lived lives is too great.

Reconciling that disconnect, in a world that has only ever told them their comfort is divine, is extremely painful.

The privileged push this pain / fear / guilt away by establishing relationships that nurture complex, largely unspoken, social norms which justify and excuse oppression. That hide behind the ego by way of fictional internal and external heroic narratives.

This traps them in a cycle:

  • Feel: pain / guilt / fear
  • Double down on consumer comfort - Elevate the supposed life in the perks of privilege (‘finer things’)
  • Achieve some degree of those comforts - by real or unrealistic methods (IE: credit) and by profiting from disconnected oppression
  • Feel “relief” - Which is really “newness”
  • Feel: pain / guilt / fear
  • Double down on comfort
  • Repeat forever

Compromising integrity is a slippery slope. The refusal to try and see oneself as one truly is makes meaningful change feel impossible.

What starts as a collection of bad habits becomes a system of values.

Values drive actions.