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Sociability • Friendship

The Purpose of Friendship

Modern society tends to suggest to us that we need three things to sustain us and lend our lives meaning and comfort: a family, a romantic relationship and a good job. It’s an admirable list – but it’s also, in reality, an extremely difficult one to realise and benefit from.

Pablo Picasso, Friendship, 1908

Take family. This should – according to the adverts – be an intense centre of kindness and warmth. It’s around our families that we should best able to be ourselves; here are the people who truly love and understand us, here are the warm-hearted beings who will protect and nurture us. Except of course that rare are the families which we don’t leave – at the end of a holiday or a Monday morning – with an intense sense of relief at an end to the claustrophobia, disguised aggression, jealousy and meanness. Measured against their effect on our minds, most families are closer to agents of disintegration than they are sources of comfort or consolation.

Something similar holds true for love. Despite the promises of the songs and the films, few people disappoint us as vividly as do those we set out to love. The person we come together with will fail to be – as we had fervently aspired – a blend of help-mate, sexual partner, kindergarten teacher, cook, chauffeur, psychologist, counsellor and bank manager. Time will reveal them to be that most disappointing of realities: a human being. 

Then comes work. It is sold to us as a vehicle for growth and self-enhancement. We will, through our labour, become truly ourselves. We’ll find our deepest aspirations mirrored in our status. Our job will tell the world who we really are. Except that – almost always – it won’t do anything other than give others a very distorted, often brutal, snapshot of our intrinsic merits. The best parts of ourselves tends not to make it into our resume.

It is against such bleakness that friendship emerges as not merely ‘nice’, but essential and purposeful too. It is in friendship that we stand to discover what society mischievously suggests we might locate in families, in couples and in the workplace. 

Here we can find the support that our families will not give us; here we can discover the tenderness that our lovers don’t normally make available; here we will find the confirmation and recognition that our professional status is unlikely to lend us across a career. Friendship is critical in defending us against the unwitting meanness of three greatest myths of modern existence. 

Friendship spares us the family’s demented insistence that we must get on brilliantly with certain people simply because of certain strands of shared DNA. It liberates us from a lifetime of blaming ourselves for failing to see eye to eye with characters we should have been allowed to see through in five minutes – if it wasn’t for the arbitrary fact that they put us on the earth. Friendship recognises our hunger for love and closeness but directs our search away from the incoherencies of biological kinship. 

So too with love. Friendship better honours what love aims at than love itself. It is in friendships that people can finally taste the tolerance, the kindness, the gentleness and the warmth that they spend decades attempting fruitlessly to locate in their sexual unions. Partly this can happen because we arrive at friendships with intelligently limited hopes. We don’t try to make our friends everything for us – and therefore they succeed at being at least a few very important things. Friendship ends up delivering the intimacy and security of relationships without the jealousy, control, exclusivity and foul temper.

Friendship knows too that our jobs cannot possibly reflect who we really are – which is why true friends spend little time on what we are up to professionally. That one has just been appointed director or for that matter disgraced in a scandal matters little when we are playing table-tennis in the garage or out on a country walk; these are not the reasons why our friends ever liked us in the first place. 

We need friends for many reasons; one of the most persuasive is that we need them because families, love and careers simply don’t work as we are assured they will. 

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