This is part of a series on Friendship, inspired by Aristotle. The first part is here.
Spring came rather indecisively to Annapolis this year; we started having really warm days in February, warm enough for the trees to bud, only to be shocked with the cold again. Finally, this week has been warm enough to leave the house without our winter coats on just in case. Now Annapolis has truly burst into bloom, and we have been loving it. Our last memories of the town will be of its most luscious self, its flowering trees and beautiful homes in the spring light.
The boys have discovered and been relishing the special delights of spring weather. Anselm loves driving in the van with all of the windows down, and, as icing on the cake, he wants me to blast music as we go. His top request these days is Enya, which I amusedly oblige. I only started listening to Enya once I married Tom, who turns her on every once and a while to remember his Grandma Schickel. He has very strong memories of playing in his grandparents’ house while the music of Enya sifted through the whole place—feeling sort of curious and proud and fascinated by his grandmother and her musical taste. Having now observed the funny effects of her music on Anselm, I can imagine little Tom and his feelings a bit better.
The first time Anselm heard Enya’s “Orinoco Flow,” he suddenly jumped on his rocking horse and rode with such determination and joy, frequently throwing his head back as if in the wind. I didn’t want to make him self-conscious by laughing at him, but it was really quite hilarious so I had to go in the other room to crack up. When he requested the song, which he calls the “Sail Away song,” yesterday as we were driving, he sighed and smiled with such contentment as the song came on. He looked out the window with his face to the springtime air, kicking his legs over one side of his carseat and tapping his hand on his knee to the music.
It is very funny to observe my child’s first experiences of having a particular song that so resonates with how he feels, or so powerfully sparks moods and scenes in his imagination. It’s an effect of music that I have often experienced and wondered at as one of the most mysterious and marvelous things in life.
Another discovery of spring: the joys of jumping off of stone walls.
Anselm has also been very sensitive to the idea of friendship lately. It might be because we have been reading Charlotte’s Web, which is such a good introduction to friendship for a little kid. He has been seeking out other children now as his “friends,” introducing himself and asking for their names, and then addressing them as “my friend, Henry” or “my friend, Charlotte.” He has also chosen a “best friend”: Gavin, the thirteen-year-old neighbor who always lets the little kids play with his gadgets on the playground. A few days ago, Gavin rode past on his bike and Anselm said to me, “there’s Gavin, my best friend!” and now he says that every time we see him. Gavin’s mom has told me that he thinks Anzo is the best little boy in the neighborhood, so the esteem is somewhat mutual.
Friendship has been on my mind a lot lately as well, perhaps because we are getting ready to move again and that always makes me reflect on the quality and status of my friendships, both near and far. It’s also led to some good conversations with friends about friendship: the general feeling is that adult friendships are difficult—perhaps more so than we expected.
Why does friendship seem so hard? For me, there are several main reasons:
- lack of time
- the number of actual friends and potential friends
- moving and managing the distance between friends
- changes in ourselves and in our friends that bring tension to the friendship
- different expectations of what friendship is and what it requires or how important a particular friendship is
- lack of order and discipline
They are all pretty interconnected, but let’s take them one by one.
# 1. Lack of time
This is the main excuse many of us give for not being better friends. “Sorry I am such a bad friend (or never call you back, etc), but I am just so busy with [family, work, school, and so forth].” Now, I am not dismissing this as untrue, because I know it often comes from a feeling of genuine regret and of being overwhelmed. But, I have become convinced that this a very bad thing to say to anyone or even just to yourself, when it comes to friendship.
First of all, none of us are victims to our own schedules. We are busy because of our own choices. If we sincerely feel like we don’t have any time for something that we want to pursue, including friendship, then it’s up to us to evaluate what to say “no” to and what to say “yes” to in order to make the time. I often used to give excuses for not being able to do things but I have been trying not to use the word “busy” and also not to give excuses so much. It’s hard! As an adult, I have to carefully discern how I spend my time, and not apologize or give excuses for it. And, I have to trust that my friends are doing the same thing.
When we blame our failure in friendship on a lack of time, we are just avoiding the reality that we are simply making (or sadly, not making) choices for other things. We might not admit this to ourselves, but when we make these excuses about a lack of time to our friends, they can see the reality behind it: we are choosing other things over them, or we lack control over our own lives and can’t get it together. Either interpretation can make a friend feel pretty bad about the friendship.
If we sit down and ask ourselves why we don’t invest time in a particular friendship and we discover that the things we are putting before the friendship are more important, then we shouldn’t apologize. We just have to own up to that fact and deal with awkwardness and disappointing other people and even ourselves. I would love to be able to follow up on every friendly promise of “getting together again” or “keeping in touch” that I make to new or old acquaintances, partly because I do genuinely like the person and partly because I think it’s important to keep my word. Lesson is, I should be more careful about saving my enthusiasm for those friendships that I will actually follow up on.
If, on the other hand, we look over our priorities and realize that we really could fit more time in with a friend or friends in general, and that we would love to do so, then we have to get to work changing our habits in order to make that happen (we’ll talk about this in #6).
#2. The number of actual friends and potential friends
Most of us have a good number of people we consider to be already friends and still more who could be friends if we spent more time with them. “Facebook friends” attest to the fact that a person can have many people towards whom she feels good and about whom she has a basic interest (or simply knows…).
It can be difficult to pursue friendship when you have so many options and you are trying to give attention to and keep in touch with many people. This is part of why people like Facebook: it gives the impression that we can connect with all sorts of friends simultaneously or with little effort, which seems to resolve the tension of having to prioritize one person over the other.
In my experience, if we don’t actually choose our friends and intentionally invest time with some more than others, we won’t be able to have deep and intimate friendships, since those require a lot of tender love and care
So, what is a good friend and how do we even have one? If we go back to Aristotle’s ideas of friendship which I quickly summarized a few months ago, there are three kinds of friendship: friendship of utility, friendship of pleasure, and complete friendship.The first two are not bad, since they still imply good will towards other people, but they are not friendship in its fullness. Moreover, friendships of utility and pleasure last as long as the usefulness or pleasure lasts.
Complete friendships are pretty rare, having certain requirements that are hard to meet. You must both be virtuous people and love the other for the other’s sake. You need time to really know each other and build up confidence. You have to enjoy and love similar things, seeing yourselves in one another and wishing for your friend what you would wish for yourself. The enjoyment of such a friendship is more in loving the other than in feeling loved. Aristotle’s evidence for this is the love of a mother for her children— he identifies the parent-child relationship as a kind of friendship—and how much she enjoys loving them without having her love matched.
One of my classmates, when we were discussing Aristotle on friendship, responded to this ideal by saying, more or less, “It sounds like looking in the mirror; I don’t want a friend who is just like me, and thinks everything that I think.” That’s an over-simplification. These days we like having “diverse” friends, since that makes us feel good about ourselves. I do think it is important to have friends with different beliefs and interests. But, for a deep friendship, where you really know the other person and make yourself known, you have to be able to understand each other.
Fundamentally, we are not complete in ourselves; the thoughts, feelings, insights, experiences, talents, virtues and interests of other people fill out and expand our own. When you and a friend have the most sacred things of the heart and mind in common, you help each other plunge deeper into those things, contemplating them and living them out better than you could on your own. This is why Aristotle says that the happiest people, who already have everything they need for a good life (most importantly, virtue), desire friendship most of all. In other words, they who are most able to delight in things for their own sakes appreciate them all the more with a good friend.
To build and maintain this kind of friendship, you must be striving to be virtuous. Then, you must have many—daily even—opportunities to connect with the friend. Aristotle describes the activity of the complete friendship as a kind of “living together,” which I think means a daily companionship and shared activity. But this does not mean simply doing things side by side: good conversation is a must.
For those of us who are married, our spouses are likely the first person with whom we are really striving to have a complete friendship. And it’s easier, in a sense, because we spend our daily lives with them. What a sadly missed opportunity if we aren’t trying to cultivate deep friendship with them! The same goes for our family members, especially siblings. Friendship with them is very possible, but not guaranteed. It requires a lot of effort.
Still, it is important to seek deep friendship outside of your marriage and family. But, as such an intimate and focused kind of love, complete friendship is exclusive. You cannot seek it with many people at the same time. Thus, we have to be selective and exclusive—not everyone is potentially this kind of friend. That doesn’t mean that we ditch every other friend, but that we have more realistic expectations of our relationships with them (more to come with # 5).
And, it will take a long time to develop this kind of friendship, so we have to be patient. In my youthful naivety I have often jumped to attribute “deep friendship” to a relationship a little too soon. It takes many years for a friendship to be tried and true.
In the meantime, it’s helpful to have this ideal in mind for our own sense of what it means to be a good friend to other people: to love them for their own sakes, to be striving to be a virtuous person ourselves, to make time for good, intimate conversation about the things we value most, and to seek daily ways of connecting with them.
That’s all for today. In the next few weeks, I will try to cover the last three points on my list.
Happy Easter to all!