C.S. Lewis once said of friendship, that it is, “like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself …has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” But the poetic beauty of this sentiment crumbles into untruth for anyone who has ever been encouraged out of despair by the persistent kindness of a friend, or whose happiness has been bolstered and protected by a friend’s warm willingness to stand firm at your side.
Illustration by Maurice Sendak
I often puzzle over the nature and structure of friendship. — its function indispensable to our survival. Over the last few years of texting and the subsequent subtle estrangement of friends in general, I find that everyone is redefining communication and the definition of labels for those people who currently take up space-time in out lives ...or our imaginations. I found myself concerned with the desire and overt willingness to commodify the noncommodifiable “friend” in our culture. We often define “friends” as peers we barely know beyond the shallow pools of professional connection or people we see at bars civic events or with whom we share a class or the occasional coffee. Often we, especially young people make the mistake mistaking/mislabeling admiration for friendship taking friendship down yet another notch that would have Emerson's exact definition pitching fits for the fraud that is being perpetrated across a large swath of our culture in America today.
American culture has betrayed and perpetrated a nasty little fraud upon the canonized and enduring meaning of friendship by overusing the word if not completely redefining the word by overextending its definition between the boundaries of acquaintanceship and friendship in the proper Aristotelian sense. Google it for your damn self.
To envision a conception of friendship as concentric circles of human connection, intimacy, and emotional truthfulness, each larger circle a necessary but insufficient condition for the smaller circle it embraces. We are living our lives in widening circles. Some of us imagining an artificial circle beyond acquaintance into a kind of nothingness where we assign a value to virtually nothing.
Within the endless mix of strangers, humans have historically identified and strictly categorized people they know and like in layers of emotional, spiritual and intellectual values that branch out into many complex branches of familiarity that give us a true and real impression of a person. When we assign a value to others with limited or no contact time the potential for meaningful impressions or settled sense of verified personhood is impossible. When we give value to this new definition of "friendship" to those with whom we have not spent much time we are firmly grounded in delusion and the fantasy of friendship. Indeed "being in love with love" as a parallel metaphor, the person is not our friend. Some cast this imagining around people with whom they have spent no time at all. In essence, we have a new cultural psychological epidemic, a mass delusion of social media.
Even closer to the core is the kindred spirit — a person whose values are closely akin to our own, one who is animated by similar core principles and stands for a sufficient number of the same things we ourselves stand for in the world. These are the magnifiers of spirit to whom we are bound by mutual goodwill, sympathy, and respect, but we infer this resonance from one another’s polished public selves — our ideal selves — rather than from intimate knowledge of one another’s interior lives, personal struggles, inner contradictions, and most vulnerable crevices of character.
Some kindred spirits become friends in the fullest sense — people with whom we are willing to share, not without embarrassment but without fear of judgment, our gravest imperfections and the most anguishing instances of falling short of our own ideals and values. The concentrating and consecrating force that transmutes a kinship of spirit into a friendship is emotional and psychological intimacy. A friend is a person before whom we can strip our ideal self in order to reveal the real self, vulnerable and imperfect, and yet trust that it wouldn’t diminish the friend’s admiration and sincere affection for the whole self, comprising both the ideal and the real.
It is important to clarify here that the ideal self is not a counterpoint to the real self in the sense of being inauthentic. Unlike the seeming self, which springs from our impulse for self-display and which serves as a kind of deliberate mask, the ideal self-arises from our authentic values and ideals. Although it represents an aspirational personhood, who we wish to be is invariably part of who we are — even if we aren’t always able to enact those ideals. In this sense, the gap between the ideal self and the real self is not one of insincerity but of human fallibility. The friend is one who embraces both and has a generous patience for the rift between the two. A true friend holds us lovingly accountable to our own ideals, but is also able to forgive, over and over, the ways in which we fall short of them and can assure us that we are more than our stumbles, that we are shaped by them but not defined by them, that we will survive them with our personhood and the friendship intact.