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)

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