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Sociability • Friendship

Why Losers Make the Best Friends

All things being equal, we would – of course – want the very best for our friends: that they have highly successful careers, enjoy happy marriages, a rich social life, great kids, no significant illnesses, kind parents and an unblemished reputation.

The only problem is that if even only a portion of this list came true, they would almost certainly not be capable of something else that we tend to consider of primordial importance: being a good friend – or just a tolerable human being.

Ferdinand Hodler, Portrait of Emma Schmidt-Müller, 1915

Though the equation is awkward to contemplate, the bedrock of friendship – as well as imagination, sympathy, humour and insight – tends to be a close-up repeated acquaintance with suffering. It’s through reversals, humiliation and errors that we are made. We would – if we were only ever happy and strong – be monsters.

We depend – in order to open our hearts and stretch our imaginations – on a long list of things going wrong. It is only once life starts to show us it ugliest sides that we can be ready to lay aside our presumptions and our pride. It takes a catastrophe or two before we wind down the drawbridges, give up the tense sentimental competitive relation to others that unfairly passes for friendship and discover companionship true and proper.

It takes a succession of disasters to prompt us to look under the official ideology; to question the popular position on money and success, respectability and honour, status and virtue. It’s pain that teaches us how properly to laugh. We rely – to be tolerable – on some departure from the standard narrative. We may be amazed at the transformation in the most insipid types after the divorce, the diagnosis or the scandal. The price may be horribly high; yet a human being has been forged.

We might almost go so far as to wish a disaster on certain characters. It’s of course not the disaster we are wishing for them, it’s what it might bring about. Of course it is theoretically possible to be one of life’s winners, to be utterly content and robustly joyful, riding high in television or at the very top in financial services, and also be reflexive, tragic, humble and attuned to the tender frequencies of existence. It’s just not – in practice – very likely. 

Then again, to say that we might want someone to be a ‘loser’ is never accurate either, for however much someone may not have performed according to the metrics of the ordinary world, if they have a talent for friendship, if they know how to comfort, interpret, console, amuse and cheer, if they know how to find solace in the darkness, whatever financial or status setbacks they might have suffered, the word loser can never justly be applied to them – for they will have triumphantly have won in the only area that in the end ever really counts.

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