Ruminations on Friendship

Last night I had a wonderfully long conversation with one of–hmm–well, with what seems to be the longest-lasting character friendship of my life. I was going to say one of the longest-lasting, but I realized that the other two friends who compete don’t really compete for the depth prize. R and I were talking about friendships, about how they are give and take, balanced over time, but that sometimes the ball can be in one person’s court for what seems like an unfairly and extremely long time.

In the case of the other two persons I’ve known as long (okay, longer) than I’ve known R, we’ve never been confidants, I’ve never shared my current and deepest fears or worries with them. That counts. So yes, I have longer-lasting friendships, but they’re not like what I find I have with R. (In the case of M, I think it’s utility, in the case of C, pleasure–see my discussion on Aristotle, below.)

I prize my relationships more than anything else in my life–more than education, more than experiences, more than employment status, more than anything. This is clearly the primary reason moving here to the Midwest has been so shredding to my equilibrium. I prize relationships, and because of this, I take great care to foster them. It’s a lot of work to create a friendship from scratch. It takes a lot of time. And I know that the friendships I’m fostering here will be just about ripe when I’ll be moving on to my career phase somewhere else (one hopes, in the Pacific Northwest).

R was the one person there for me from the beginning through to the bizarre twist ending of my freshman year in college–at Whitworth many long years ago. I don’t remember how we met–though maybe it was because she was on the volleyball team, and two other players were roommates and lived down the hall from me. In any case, R and I became good friends, perhaps primarily because we were thrust into a crazy situation wrapped around our relationship issues and our shared passion for integrity and authenticity. Over the 20 years of our friendship, we’ve completely lost touch a couple times. We’ve never lost the ability to contact each other–the first time I had her phone number and she mine, the second time we’ve had each other’s email accounts. But we’ve not been there for each other at all beyond that obscure knowledge that “if I really needed her, I know she would be there if she were able.” But the thing is, in this friendship, we haven’t needed each other since we were around 20.

In the last 20 years, I’ve changed in some ways beyond recognition. R met me when I was in college. So my late return to college is no such change for her, though for many other friendships, it was shocking. She knows why I dropped out in the first place; she was there for the upheaval. R knows all my creativity–she knew me when music was the only thing that kept me alive (truly!), when I would sit in Whitworth practice rooms and play my bass clarinet for 3-4 hours on end. R knows my baggage–she has seen for herself the abusive church circumstances that have shaped me and scarred me, and has encountered her own set of parallel scars. We went through this together.

And we went through it separately. When I was discovering that to value relationships above all entails that you define them carefully, she was learning that to value relationships above all entails also that you choose them wisely. And of course, we discovered these things only by being deeply wounded. And our wounds happened far from each other, in the middle of our first long silence. That was the second phase of our friendship–the time of wounding. But when wounded, we hunted each other down, and found that we needed each other and could be there for the other. And then, when we could both stand upright, we drifted apart again.

The third phase of this friendship was muted. We’d send emails semi-regularly, and promise to call or visit, and so down the list. We never did. Then R went through another heartbreak, and dad developed Alzheimers and broke his neck. Pain overwhelmed both of us. And this time, we didn’t seek each other out. I don’t know why. I was too busy working on my MA, she doing whatever was keeping her mind busy on the other side of the state.

Years pass, and I move to Indiana. Then, we finally exchanged phone numbers, and the friendship exploded into life again. 2000 miles from each other, and for the first time in 15 years, we’re back to the depths. I cherish that.

Now I write all that to consider this concept that R and I discussed last night.

People claim that friendship, true friendship, should be 50-50. This is true. My big mistake in my early 20s was to think it should be “100-100”, that each person should give their all. I learned by so doing, by being in such a friendship, that the total lack of boundaries from such a practice gives neither person any benefit, rather, takes wholeness from each. When you give 100% of yourself to anything, you have nothing of yourself to use for balancing, for standing, for moving forward, for using judgment, for re-energizing in order to give more.

Giving of yourself entails having a yourself to give. A yourself that belongs still to you, a yourself that is a store, that can replenish itself in order to be divided and given again. You can’t do that if you’ve got nothing of yourself for yourself.

So friendship is 50-50, not 100-100. But what does this evenness cash out as?

R and I were discussing this last night, as we processed through other relationships in our lives. I was reminded of the Gambler’s Fallacy:

Consider a fair coin. The probability is that if you toss that coin indefinitely many times, it will land ‘heads’ 50% of the time. Now imagine you’ve tossed this coin 100 times, and every time it has come up tails (like in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”). If you’re one of my run-of-the-mill students taking a true-false test, you’ll likely commit the Gambler’s Fallacy sometime soon.

Say on this test you have 250 questions, and you know that 50% of the answers are true. The first 8 you answer with some certainty, and they all have been false. You aren’t sure about 9, though, so you weigh your probabilities, and figure, well, since the first 8 were false, and since 50% of these will be true, I have a very good chance of getting 9 right if I mark it true.

Actually, in the case of coin tosses or true-false questions, the probability of each individual event is wholly independent–the others don’t affect it. So the 9th question still has a 50-50 chance of being true. And the 101st coin toss still has a 50% chance only of coming up heads. The fallacy is to think that earlier states of affairs (the number of previous tails tosses, the number of previous false answers) will affect the probability of the current event.

So friendships are 50-50. But this is over the lifetime of that relationship. To think that because one person has been doing all the giving for a season, a season that seems unfairly long, to think that because this is the case, the friendship is imbalanced, and that it’s about darn time the other started pulling her weight because it’s her turn already! To think this, is to think along the lines of a deontological version of the Gambler’s Fallacy.

What I mean here is that first off, the analogy holds only so far, since certainly the gives and takes of friendship do rely on previous events in the friendship. They aren’t wholly independent states of affairs like coin tosses. But the analogy, if tweaked to include the sense of ‘ought’ (hence deontology) then transcends situations. ‘Ought’ is a moral standard that, to my mind, isn’t determined from situation to situation. It is a standard whereby we evaluate situations, hence must stand outside them. So when we say friendships ought to be 50-50, we are claiming something that then looks down on the whole scope of a friendship, taking each situation as independent from the others, and weighs them accordingly.

So this means that if one person bears all the hard work, does all the supporting, carries the load (“bears the burden”, Gal. 6:2) for what seems to that person to be an unfairly long time–that person is thinking fallaciously if she determines the friendship has gone sour simply from this. It also means that, since friendships have many facets, the balancing happens across the spectrum. Maybe one person does 90% of the telephoning, and feels resentful that the other never calls. But the other might do 80% of the emotional support during those calls. Each facet of each friendship won’t be 50-50. But take them all together, take them over time, and balance will be found.

The Gambler’s Fallacy in friendship is committed when one person expects 50% of each facet–50% precisely–or expects the other to “pick up the slack” after the first has shown how great a faithful friend she is through all these troubled times.

Of course, if resentment builds by supporting that person so long, then you have to wonder whether you were truly being a friend at all, or simply making loans.

Friendships are gifts, and they don’t demand repayment with interest. Sure, it’s an investment, and dividends are earned, but only if you willingly keep the money in the bank, and don’t keep demanding it be repaid.

Aristotle wrote about friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics. He noted that friendships come in three flavors: useful, hedonistic, and eudaimonistic.

What defines any relationship as a friendship is that each person sees the other as intrinsically valuable, that each person gives to the other as an equal on equal terms.

What defines each of these as different is the tone of the friendship. The first is a friendship on terms of usefulness. Both parties want the best for the other, yet the friendship is founded and maintained on mutual usefulness. There isn’t any sense of feeling used, since both are aware of the mutual utility. It’s like that neighbor who checks your mail and feeds your cat whenever you’re out of town, and you do the same when they are. The second is a friendship on terms of pleasure. Both parties again want the best for the other, yet the friendship is founded and maintained on terms of mutual pleasure. They hang out only because they enjoy each other’s company. Now it seems to me that although both of these friendships are friendships only because they see the other as intrinsically valuable, there is still some selfishness to this. And that’s not bad, but it’s what makes these friendships less valuable to me.

The third kind of friendship is based on character. These people are there to encourage each other, to build each other up, to spur each other to greatness. And certainly along the way there is utility and pleasure to be found. But the measure of a friendship–even of what kind one has–is only accurately made at its end. So it seems then, that one doesn’t know with apodictic certainty what kind of friendship one has until that friendship is over, or maybe never at all if the relationship lasts a lifetime. (I note here that Aristotle’s account has some fatal flaws here, but I will omit them, since I’m not doing philosophical analysis but personal rumination.)

I think (aside from my parenthetical hand waving, above) Aristotle’s right. But then this makes things very difficult. First, how does one come to see that a given relationship is a friendship in the truest sense? Second, once one realizes one has such a treasure, how does one maintain it? That’s why it takes such hard work, and that’s why it takes so much time. Looking back on the many relationships in my life, I thought that the one with R had died, that it was most assuredly a eudaimonistic friendship, though short lived. And here it is, resurrected. Looking back on other relationships, relationships that have died that I was certain were friendships, I find that really, one or both of us weren’t seeing the other as intrinsically valuable, were only seeing that person as a need-meeter for ourselves.

Looking back on other relationships, relationships that I think may have died, I find that they were friendships, but not the sort I had hoped them to be. I find that moving from Wshington State to Indiana has shown me that friendships I thought were eudaimonistic were only utilitarian, and now that I’m no longer useful, they’re ended. It’s very painful to discover that. But I’ve also discovered that some rare gems, like that with R, endure, balanced in a complicated design over time and distance.

And in fact, I’ve discovered that spending too much time evaluating friendships to see whether they’re balanced the way I think they ought to be is to spend way to little time actually being a friend.


One thought on “Ruminations on Friendship

  1. Bon, you always have the most interesting and thought-provoking ruminations. This one was no exception. I’m glad to hear you and R have gotten back in touch.

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