Chapter 4.Sociability: Friendship


On Sofa Jumping

Adult social life labours under an arduous rule: that the better we want to get to know someone, the more serious should be the topics we try to raise with them. It might be acceptable to discuss the weather with a passing acquaintance, but when it comes to a wish to open ourselves up to someone else and to discover their profound selves in turn, then we should head for the graver themes of existence: what we truly want to get out of our careers, what motivates us in relationships, how we assess our families, what politics should aim for. Seriousness of mind is, in this view, the royal road to friendship.

And yet, if self-disclosure and familiarity are really the underlying goals, then we may more closely have to the study the behaviour and wisdom of small children and in particular their insight that one cannot claim to know anyone well until the body has been closely engaged in the process of acquaintanceship.

Young children are, for the most part, daringly uninterested in conversation. When breaking the ice with a new companion, they will skirt politics, they won’t discuss the stockmarket, they will avoid consideration of family history or upcoming holidays. With the lack of respect for precedent that comes more naturally to someone newly arrived on the planet, they will – even before names have been exchanged – at once try to do something physical and, when they are especially inspired, they are likely to head for one of the most legendary bodily exercises of all: sofa jumping.

They will clamber up on to the nearest sofa, perhaps raising it in height by adding a few cushions, and then take a flying leap onto the floor, seeing how far they can land – and in particular, how much further than their new team mates. If the situation is auspicious, there will be a well-polished wooden floor or glossy tiles, which will allow for skids and the clearing of occasionally remarkable distances. 

The notion of being an adult is understandably linked to the idea of being serious. There is so much that we have to be responsible for, so many troubling facts that claim our attention and so many potential difficulties that we must be permanently alert to. 

But seriousness becomes a hidden enemy in getting on properly with other people, for our rational, thoughtful and controlled selves are only a limited part of who we really are. Meeting a person at the grave level is doomed to give us a distorted impression of them – and, equally, to convey a very unrepresentative slice of us. 

A commitment to seriousness limits us too, in terms of who we feel we will be able to get on with. We become restricted to merely the sub-section of the world that shares our intellectual concerns, our aesthetic orientations and our psychological dispositions – as well as our preferred ways of discussing these. We are dramatically prioritising the most erudite contents of our minds as the basis for our social existence – even though in reality, practically  no one else thinks about intellectual issues precisely as we do and yet very many people might remain potentially highly viable friends. We will, in other words, be committing ourselves to loneliness.

Instead of letting our mental prowess guide our friendships, we should – at key points – let the body be the ambassador of intimacy. It is obviously (by all current standards) ridiculous for a group of adults to clamber, one by one, onto a sofa in their socks and to strive with every muscle to take the largest leap of which they are capable; to swing their arms backwards and make themselves into a rocket or a plane and attempt to land with some of the bounce and grace of a kangaroo or gazelle – while in fact collapsing far nearer to their launchpad than they would have wished into an indecorous, giggling and slightly bruised heap.

Nor is there anything especially respectable about growing extremely competitive in the course of such a game, about getting into technical disputes with other participants (‘Were the jumper’s legs properly together as they lept? Were they together when they landed?’) and scouring the kitchen for some tape to mark everyone’s landing spot. But at the same time, seldom could silliness be more important.

We often do things which, later, we judge to have been absurd and ridiculous. We wince at how we could have been such numbskulls and vow never to make an embarrassment of ourselves again. But the true way out of embarrassment isn’t to attempt to expunge it entirely from our routines, it is to orchestrate deliberate occasions when it can have an honoured place in our social lives.

Calculated, on-purpose silliness means willingly abandoning our minds’ overly rigid notions of dignity. We should strive to be adult enough to consent – for a while – to the claims of childhood, a period of our lives when we knew blessedly little about house prices and what Picasso thought of capitalism.

Sofa jumping has a power to transform our relationships with others, because at last, we’ve been idiots together. Instead of our foolishness (which we try so hard to keep secret) being a barrier to connection and the grounds for shame and blushing, it becomes an arena in which we can meet as full equals. We can’t – fortunately – ever take someone entirely seriously again after we have seen them screwing up their eyes before taking a leap or eagerly disputing just how far they’ve jumped across the room as compared to their opponents. In other words, we can’t – after sofa jumping – ever treat them with unimaginative indifference again.

Part of the enormous appeal of sex is its power to change the dynamics of a relationship with another person. After we have seen someone naked, perhaps on all fours, writhing in pleasure, after we have caressed the intimate zones of their body and seen them passionately interested in a few parts of ours, we know them in a wholly new way: there will be a complicity between us, smiles will come more readily, as will forgiveness and tenderness. It won’t matter so much that they might earn far more than we do or have studied a great deal longer, we will in important ways be allies and soulmates.

For practical (though sometimes slightly sad) reasons, we aren’t able to have sex with very many people in the course of our lives. And yet the quest for greater intimacy and connection that to a significant extent powers our sexual appetites is capable of being deployed elsewhere; it would be tragic if all our longings for warmth would forever have to pass simply through the desperately narrow gate of sex. Fortunately, through the game of sofa jumping, we have another, far more available chance to build up the connections we long for. No true encounter should be complete without at least a few rounds.

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