Tuesday, February 26, 2019

On Friendship

I've just finished reading (or browsing) The Oxford Book of Friendship for the second time in a few months. I came across it on the book exchange shelf outside the library.

I love themed anthologies of this kind, and I plan to read more of them. I love to survey life from some particular angle, under the companionable guidance of the anthologist.

Unsurprisingly, the book has got me thinking about friendship-- a vast and many-sided subject. The various authors quoted in the anthology make many claims and observations about friendship. I'd imagine most readers would have the same response as me to most of these claims: "Well, I wouldn't say that...." "But what about such-and-such?". "True, but..." 

Is there any subject more impervious to generalisation than friendship? It's ambiguous and elusive by its very nature.

Friendship is especially interesting to me because I don't take it for granted. I didn't really have any friends until I was in my mid-twenties. I was so shy and withdrawn as a child that I barely spoke to anyone. My only friends were my siblings and my cousins.

In my teens, I started playing street soccer and "hanging out" with some neighbourhood kids. I suppose I did become friends with some of them, but it was a distant kind of friendship. Still, it left me with some magical memories, such as swapping jokes and ghost stories on a darkened field, after it had become too dark to kick a football around.

It's funny how friendships progress. I can remember myself and my younger brother asking a group of boys around my age (my brother was younger) if we could join their kick-about. They told us (in a not unkindly manner) that it was too "crowded"-- three boys kicking a ball in a large field! Eventually, we did become friendly with them, and I can remember them trying to persuade me to come with them to see True Lies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. I actually rebuffed many overtures of friendship, through shyness, over the years. This didn't make me feel any less friendless by necessity, strangely enough.

That was the closest thing I had to friends until well into my twenties. In college, I declined all the invitations to join my classmates in the pub-- again, through shyness. I got on with them well enough, but didn't make any friends per se. One girl told me, years later, that she found me confusing because I was outspoken in class but very quiet otherwise.

It was only when I got a permanent job (the one I have now) that I began to make friends. Indeed, I'd say that about half of my friends are friends I made at work.

I find it difficult (almost impossible, in fact) to initiate a conversation with a stranger, unless there is some solid pretext for doing so. I'm envious of people who can simply chat to the person next to them in a pub, or in the supermarket queue, or in some other place. So, if I'm going to make friends at all, it will usually be people with whom I am thrown together for some extended period of time.

I'm very slow to call someone my friend-- not out of reluctance, but out of shyness. It's generally other people who take the initiative in this regard.

What is a friend? I pondered this a lot in my friendless years. It seemed to me that invitations were the key. If somebody invited you to their home, they were your friend. If someone invited you to a party, they were your friend. If somebody invited you to a wedding or to go on holiday with them, they were your friend. Since I never got any invitations, it followed that I had no friends. Friendship became something exotic and coveted in my mind-- like a private jacuzzi. I wondered what it must feel like, to blithely refer to somebody as your friend.

People would sometimes ask me if I was lonely. I wasn't particularly lonely, but I was horribly ashamed. Not having friends seemed like a terrible failure, an indictment of my very self. I wondered what friends spoke about to each other. Looking back, it's obvious that my painful shyness was the reason I had no friends, but I didn't accept this at the time. I simply assumed I had nothing interesting to say, or that I didn't understand humour, or something like that.

I didn't mean to dwell on my personal experience, and I don't mean to be self-pitying or embarrassingly confessional. It may be that those years of friendlessness had some good effects. I believe they did. 

Well, I have made friends since-- good friends. For this, I am very grateful. I don't take them for granted. At the same time, if I somehow ended up friendless again, I don't believe I would be as desolate as I was the first time around, or take it to heart in the same way.

I've also lost friends. I was looking through my wedding album the other day.  Many of the guests are people I would no longer consider friends, either through drifting away from them or through alienation. One wedding guest had been a fairly close friend, but she grew increasingly shrill in her feminism and her anger against men and white people (though she was white herself). Every now and again I would check out her latest screed on Facebook and I eventually unfriended her there, hoping I would never run into her again in real life, either.

It was her anger that alienated me from her, not her political views. I would not debar someone from friendship on account of their political and religious views-- as long as they did not let those views consume them with hatred and anger.

So what about the criterion I had come up with for friendship-- that the measure of friendship is invitations? I think this is a fairly good measure, but not an infallible one. For one thing, I've often been in houses or at social events with people who I wouldn't consider friends.

The Oxford Book of Friendship was published in 1991, when the internet had barely taken off. It's reassuring that it finds a place for epistolary friendship, something that has a long and rather prestigious tradition. So it's not so ridiculous to have "friends" you've never actually met, which is rather common today. Still, it seems reasonable to say that face-to-face friendship is preferable to friendship via some medium or other, everything being equal.

Some friends are good at keeping in touch when they move away, or when they go on holiday. Some are not. I have one good friend who is very stimulating and funny in conversation, but whose emails don't reflect his personality at all, and would even seem curt and cold except I realize this is how he expresses himself in writing.

When I think about friendship, and what differentiates it from other relationships, I keep thinking about calm. Friends are people we can be calm around. We don't have to constantly fret about them taking offence, or misunderstanding us, or being bored by us. We don't feel the need to perform. Having said I don't take friends for granted, it occurs to me that, in a certain sense, the very essence of friendship is that you can take a friend for granted, in a certain way.

I remember reading a novel in which the protagonist, sharing a drink with a friend, reflected that the man bored him but that it was a pleasant kind of boredom. I've had similar experiences-- sometimes I've found myself listening to a friend, reflected that nothing they were saying particularly interested me, but that there was nothing irksome about this. Similarly, we can sometimes suspect we are boring our friends, but feel confident this is not going to turn them against us.

There's something about friendship which resists, or even resents, too much analysis. The Oxford Book of Friendship reproduces several letters in which friends write about their friendship to each other. I admit this makes me squirm a little. Perhaps this is reaction is distinctive to me. Perhaps the lack of friendships in my past makes me unwilling to analyse friendship too closely in case it withers under examination. Or perhaps is it is that so much of friendship consists of that which is unspoken that putting it into words might damage it-- like explaining a joke.

I've always thought of authorship as a sort of friendship between the author and the reader. Indeed, few things are quite as companionable as the private, unique encounter between any given writer and any given reader-- though they may be separated by centuries and the most disparate circumstances. So I will finish this blog post, dear reader, by saying that I very much consider you a friend, whoever you are, wherever you are, and whenever you are reading this.


  1. I like your point about being calm with someone, there aren't too many people I feel relaxed with, not that I necessarily think less of the peoples that I feel the need to mind Ps and Qs with

    1. No, there aren't many people I feel calm around, and that's why I value it!