Monday, 9 November 2009

Friendship - in theory and in practice

The fox's instruction in the art of friendship (see previous entry) is eloquent and touches the heart of the matter: 'taming' is the process of gradually establishing a respectful familiarity. The result is trust. Once we've got this far we are free to become closer - or to withdraw. Without trust we have no foundation for anything other than basic survival which is not a friendly zone at all. And while we may start with liking this is not enough. It can be misleading and until we get to know someone better we won't know if this is going to ripen into friendship or not, or even if we are going to continue to like them at all.

Friendship has been difficult for me and I've had to learn from my mistakes. I've read many books about human relations but found little about friendship, and what I have found has mostly been insubstantial. The passage about the fox and the little prince is certainly memorable but necessarily brief.

A fundamental error I've made time and again has been to do with expecting too much, of imagining, completely without basis, that other people were like me and would invest as much in friendships as I have offered myself. I don't form friendships easily, so when people have drifted away I've often felt deeply disappointed and in some instances betrayed.

This has given me much pause for thought. One guiding principle I've found helpful has been being more observant: what sort of person are they really? How do they live? How do they speak of others? What are they contributing to me? Perhaps most importantly I've attempted to pace my level of contact and commitment to what I find coming the other way, and not to pursue contact with those who don't keep in touch.

I should have learnt this sooner than I did. I know it can be uncomfortable to be be on the receiving end of too much (or any) contact from people I'm really not interested in, and I've had to learn how to disengage - firmly and politely and without feigning the indifference I been so hurt by in the past. I don't always do this well, but I have tried to get better at it over the years - it's awful to be left wondering what went wrong or worse still to wait around for years hoping something more substantial might eventuate, some day...

Many friendships simply don't outlast their context, the place where we have our everyday contact. So when we leave jobs or move house those contacts fade fairly rapidly. I've had to learn that this is to be expected and not to go on expecting the effort of continuation either from myself or others. However, that said, it's easier in some instances than others.

Far and away the most difficult 'friendship' I've had to deal with was an instance in which I was showered with gifts, while simultaneously being pelted with demands which were accompanied, rather weirdly, with offers of 'help'. This really threw me. At first it seemed like the best friendship I'd ever had and I was flattered. However the sense of obligation that came with it became crippling. I can be very generous and loyal, and in the past have tended to offer help more than is healthy or useful to anyone, so what with one thing and another I got into a situation from which it was very difficult to extricate myself. Looking back I see that situation as abusive. I also wonder if there were jealousies at work with regard to my other friendships which were subtly eroded. The only good thing I can say about hindsight is that it gives us the opportunity to learn from our mistakes - hopefully! Certainly that entanglement caused me great harm. I lost track of my ability to say 'No' and didn't restrict my level of reciprocation to what I was properly comfortable with. As things worked out it was when I did begin saying 'No' that I was gradually dropped and then pushed out - I was no longer useful, no longer trusted. Good! If I'd done that sooner I would have saved myself a great deal of grief.

A true friend will accept differences and refusals and you can then mutually decide if you want to continue with the connection. Letting go can in itself be an act of friendship. My advice is this: if you find a friendship has dried up or is harming you, let it go. Be glad for the good times and let it go. Make room for new friends if they are going to come, or in any case occupy yourself in other ways. Continuing with empty or harmful connections doesn't do anyone any good and uses up the substance of our lives which could better be spent on something more worthwhile.

At the point in my life when I was most in need and least trusting I made it my business to seek out and get to know my extended family better. This is really a topic by itself, but it deserves mention here because it does involve friendship - of a certain kind. Spending time with relatives was good for me, stabilizing. I recognised family traits and identified common threads and shared stories - we had something to be friends about - up to a point. And whether they accepted me or not they were still my family. They couldn't simply fade out the way friends can! That knowledge is steadying even if I have little contact with most of them. We know each other even if only slightly, and can pick up the connection another time if we wish.

A robust friendship will naturally include challenges as well as joy, but in my view the good times should occupy more space than the difficulties. If it's the other way round something may be fundamentally faulty or there may be an unrealistic set of expectations.

Friendships should not be based on need or dependency. If they are, they may be friendly, but they are not friendships as such; friendship is essentially a relationship of equals, in which background inequalities such as age and status are simply irrelevant; it is a celebration of affinity rather than circumstance and is marked by the pleasure we find in each others company.

This is a big subject about which I expect to write more another time.

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