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Sociability • Friendship

Why the Best Kind of Friends Are Lonely

There’s a disconcerting paradox at the centre of our relations with other people. The individual who most values, and is best capable of, deep friendship is highly likely to be a veteran of isolation, and perhaps of loneliness. Those best suited for company will probably have spent a lot of time by themselves.

It sounds bizarre. How could someone truly fitted for friendship not be an easy social mixer? How could the capacity to get on well with other individuals lead to isolation? But in fact there are important contrasts – and even a fundamental opposition – between the characteristics that lead to social success and the attitudes that facilitate true friendship.

Edward Hopper, Soir Bleu, 1914

Let’s conduct a small thought experiment. Imagine it’s a Friday evening and we’ve been invited to a great party. Attractive people are chatting and laughing in large groups and waving to each other across the room; there’s music, there’s plenty of wine and delightful canapes; some people are starting to dance. Imagine too that we’ve come here as true friendship-seekers; we are, in the background, seeking a deep communion of souls. How would we get on? When we’re introduced to someone, we might want to know who they really were. We’d ideally get them to respond to dozens of questions, many of them about their childhoods, their fears, their secret proclivities and their private hesitations. We would want to enter imaginatively into their reality, in all its joys and sorrows. This might sound like an essential ambition of friendship, but in the context of a party, that fulcrum of modern sociability, it threatens to come across as something close to madness. Others are here to cast off the burdens of the day, not sift through the details of their complex selves. They want a pleasant time not an encounter with their emotional challenges and underlying pains. Were we to deliver a succession of probing questions, they might urgently start to scan the room in search of a lighter and more ‘normal’ companion.

Similarly, were we to begin expounding on our own experiences, we might also quickly start to seem eerie or inappropriate. We’d acquire a reputation as an eccentric if we embarked on a prolonged attempt to explain just why a holiday in Languedoc, aged fifteen, was so decisive for our development, or why a recent divorce had left us unmoored and questioning the basis of our being. 

True friendship requires time. But the star of the social world is typically quick: they get their funny remarks in faster than anyone else. They are adept at diffusing awkward silences with witticisms; they ruthlessly scan for pauses in the chat. Yet a sincere cast of mind can mean a person will – and should – struggle and stumble over the most basic questions. ‘How was your day’? someone might ask, and we might fall silent for an age from a sense of the vertiginous gap between what our companions appear able to hear – and our sense of our own convoluted subjective truth (‘For hours, I glanced out of the window and saw the afternoon sky; I felt anxious for reasons I didn’t understand; I kept on thinking about my eighth birthday party, when my aunt who…’). The more authentic an answer is, the longer it is likely to take to assemble itself in the workshop of our minds. We might – as devoted explorers of our psyches – require three minutes at the very least to be able to say how we are or what we do, by which time we will have been ruthlessly abandoned by the peanuts.

That is why those of us who long most intensely for friendship can end up opting to stay at home. What renders us so good at friendship in theory is exactly what renders us singularly so unsuited in practice for a chat about the weekend or the upcoming holidays. It’s not that we’re inherently anti-social, it’s that social life doesn’t facilitate the kind of deeper interactions that would adequately honour the promises of interpersonal communion. We stay by ourselves because we feel less alone in our own company than we would in an average group of lively and cheerful party goers.

Tenderly, it is long acquaintance with feeling socially lost that is precisely what can help us to form our characters in directions that will – eventually – render us excellent friends. Periods alone nudge us towards the sort of sustained self-explorations that busier people lack the incentive to undertake and are what proffer our future friends plentiful original material to engage with. Our solitude will have incubated our social lives. Our views on politics or art, psychology or society will bear the imprint of days and nights spent in our unusual company. Our positions will carry evidence of our independence. Solitude will have lent us a character.

People who already have many friends have many advantages. They are free of the self-doubt and the fear that beset the solitary; but what they may lack is the ability to properly know and be known by another. We may want many things from our future friends. The most fundamental is that they should at one point have felt very lonely indeed.

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