The purpose of friendship

In the previous post, we looked at the joys and benefits of friendships. It can be one of the high points of our existence.

Yet, in reality it can sometimes be routinely disappointing. We might be at dinner at someone’s house. The host has evidently gone to a lot of trouble, with an impressive spread of food and drink. But the conversation might be meandering. Devoid of any real interest. Maybe the discussion flits from an over-long description of the failings of a local restaurant to a strangely heated discussion about crypto currency (again). We might go home, incredibly touched by the intentions and efforts of the host, but we may still wonder what the whole performance was about.

Let’s consider if we didn’t engage in such performances. What might happen if we avoided human contact?

Alone in an unchanging environment, the sensory information available to us, and the ways in which we process it, can change in unpredictable ways. For example, we normally spend most of our time attending to and processing external stimuli from the physical world around us. However, monotonous stimulation from our surroundings may cause us to turn our attention inward, which most of us have much less experience handling all that well.

No, or limited, human contact can lead to a profoundly altered state of consciousness. We may begin to question what’s going on in our surroundings: Is that creaking sound upstairs just your old house pushing back against the wind, or something more sinister? This ambivalence leaves us frozen in place and wallowing in unease—especially if we’re alone. When we’re uncertain, the first thing we usually do is to look to the reactions of others to figure out what is going on. Without others with whom to share information and reactions, ambiguity becomes very hard to resolve. When this happens, our mind can quickly race to the darkest possible conclusions.

Unpleasant things can also happen when small groups of people experience isolation together. Much of what we know about this phenomenon has been gathered from observing the experiences of volunteers at research stations in Antarctica, especially during the “wintering-over” period. Antarctica's extreme temperatures, long periods of darkness, alien landscapes, and severely reduced sensory input create a perfect natural laboratory for studying the effects of isolation and confinement. Volunteers in these studies experience changes in appetite and sleep patterns. Some stop being able to accurately track the passage of time and lose the ability to concentrate. The boredom that results from being around the same people, with limited sources of entertainment, causes a lot of stress—and everyone else’s mannerisms become a grating, annoying, and inescapable source of torment.

What does this say about the way we’re wired? It’s clear that meaningful connection to other people is as essential to our health as the air we breathe. Given that prolonged periods of social isolation can crack even the hardiest of individuals, it’s probably best we continue to engage in our performances with our friends.

It's been proposed that one of the issues with friendship is that these relationships lack a sense of purpose. Our attempts at friendship tend to go adrift, because we collectively resist the task of developing a clear picture of what friendship is really for. The problem is that we are unfairly uncomfortable with the idea of friendship having any declared purpose, because we associate purpose with the least attractive and most cynical motives. Yet purpose doesn’t have to ruin friendship and in fact, the more we define what a friendship might be for, the more we can focus in on what we should be doing with every person in our lives – or indeed the more we can helpfully conclude that we shouldn’t be with them at all.

It's been suggested that there are at least five things we might be trying to do with the people we meet:

  1. Networking. Before you sigh a collective sigh, consider this, we are all pretty small, fragile creatures in a vast world. Our individual capacities are entirely insufficient to realise the demands of our imaginations. So, of course, we need collaborators: accomplices who can align their abilities and energies with ours.
  2. Reassurance. The human condition can be full of terror. At times we can be on the verge of disgrace, danger and disappointment. And yet such are the rules of polite conduct that we are permanently in danger of imagining that we are the only ones to be as crazy as we know we are. We badly need friends because, with the people we know only superficially, there are few confessions of regret, rage and confusion. The reassuring friend gives us access to a very necessary and accurate sense of their own humiliations and follies; an insight with which we can begin to judge ourselves and our sad and compulsive sides more compassionately.
  3. Fun. Despite talk of hedonism and immediate gratification, life gives us constant lessons in the need to be serious. We have to guard our dignity, avoid looking like a fool and pass as a mature adult. The pressure becomes onerous, and in the end even dangerous. That is why we constantly need access to people we can trust enough to be silly with them. They might most of the time be training to be a neurosurgeon or advising middle sized companies about their tax liabilities but when we are together, we can be therapeutically daft. We can put on accents, dance our hearts out or share our weird fantasies. The fun friend solves the problem of shame around important but unprestigious sides of ourselves.
  4. Clarifying our Minds. To a surprising degree, it can be pretty hard to think on our own. The mind is a bit skittish and squeamish. As a result, many issues lie confused within us. We feel angry but are not sure why. Something is wrong with our job but we can’t pin it down. The thinking friend holds us to the task. They ask gentle but probing questions which act as a mirror that assists us with the task of knowing ourselves.
  5. Holding on to the past. A number of friends have little to do with who we are now, but we keep seeing them. Perhaps we knew them from school or university, or we once spent a very significant holiday with them twenty years ago or we became friendly when our children were at kindergarten together. They embody a past version of ourselves from which we’re now distant and yet remain loyal. They help us to understand where we have come from and what once mattered. They may not be totally relevant to whom we are today, but not all of our identity is ever contemporary, as our continued commitment to them attests.

Even Aristotle attempted to figure out the purpose of these social relationships we keep. He postulated that there were three types of friendship:

1. A friendship of utility: Similar to networking, where we derive a relationship based on the benefit we receive from each other. We may share certain interests, hobbies or work.
2. A friendship of pleasure: Normally built between young people and based on our pleasures and passions. We might be seeking something that is pleasant to us presently, and as a result these friendships can be fleeting and easily change.
3. A friendship of goodness: The pinnacle of the friendship chain. When we only wish the best for each other. We love each other for who we are. And I'd agree with Aristotle, that as humans, it may be near impossible for us to maintain a really large number of these friendships. 

If we’re a bit more precise about what we’re trying to do with our social lives, we can bring a greater awareness and understanding to the process of friendship. Bringing more meaning and celebration to the experiences that both enrich our lives and keep us emotionally healthy.



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