“Of all the things which wisdom has contrived which contribute to a blessed life, none is more important, more fruitful, than friendship.” Epicurus
The author of this quote on friendship became, undeservedly, best known as a leading proponent for living a sensual life… a life in the pursuit of pleasure. Given this label, it is somewhat ironic that what he held most dear is a thing more spiritual than material. After all, friendship is one of the most intangible, ethereal aspects of our experience. And, perhaps, as Epicurus himself said, one of the most precious things to have and hold.
It’s interesting to note that in most societies people have a partner (some for life, others serial). It is probably because we all need someone ‘in our corner’, one true friend. Speaking from my own experience, my marriage is the friendship I enjoy the most. It is, I’d argue, the most enduring part of a good relationship and the key, the foundation, for successful marriages. My main concern when I was contemplating marriage with my wife Sue, was whether I could see myself living with her in 30 or 40 years. Of course the first experiences of that close relationship, the overwhelming and exciting dawn of love… with all its carnal and erotic undertones… were also on my mind. New love, an infatuation-like occurrence, is like a locomotive barreling along a track… nothing can stand in its way. The power of the emotion is intoxicating…but its tenure, ultimately, is short lived. When the dust clears, that first love dissolves into a warm memory (which rears its head sporadically, and thankfully, during the rest of a good relationship). Soon our rational mind and cooler emotions force us to really look at our partner and to analyze them on a scale of ‘liking’. It’s the make or break moment in any relationship.
In this later friendship phase, and true measure of a relationship, is what actually determines the longevity of that relationship. Take away the money, club memberships, the house, the kids and all the past, and ask yourself, “Do I like this person?” If you are honest with yourself, not just wishing it were so, and your answer is “yes” then you’re in a lovely space. If that “other” has stayed with you freely and says you are their best friend, then you’ve really got something magical.
The same litmus test can be applied to all your “friends.” I mean the people who you interact with regularly, not the virtual kind of friends found on social networks. Strip down all the material, cultural and political aspects of our association and ask the same question: “Do I like this person?” And go on to analyze whether they have the same opinion of you – this is an equally important part of the equation. If you like someone and you see or intuit a reciprocal feeling from them, which in most cases is evident, cherish that friendship. Nurture it! If you meet someone new, and like them, then stay open to getting to know them more and, let them get to know you. One can never have enough friends within reason, I mean how many people can you truly be close to?
One of the best parts of good friendships is knowing someone cares for and about you. That realization often comes when someone does you a favour for no other reason than to help you in some way…there is no gain or advantage for them in doing so. In a strange way that sort of kindness helps to validate your path in life and enrich your feeling of peacefulness. Everyone wants to be more than accepted – they want to be appreciated and liked. That is human nature. And that is precisely what Epicurus recognized.
In today’s world of electronic communication media there are avenues for ‘finding’ friends that were not available a generation ago. Out of a primal desire to be liked people sometimes take disparate steps to find friends…this happens especially with those folks that don’t have a close network of friends or are alienated from their family. As a result, we see the profusion of “on-line friends” that sometimes become a real relationship… other times there can be tragic consequences. The majority of on-line “relationships” are at best mere (superficial) associations and their true nature impossible to gage until there’s personal, one-on-one, contact. The Internet is not the best way to build relationships – it may begin some and, minimally, maintain others. However, to truly sustain and build a friendship you need to feel for and empathize with a person, and this really only happens when you’re physically together.
I believe the best way to find, and ultimately make friends, is to get out among people. Volunteer, socialize, work for a cause, whatever gets you out into the world and actually meet people. They don’t always have to be like-minded either. That does not always make for an interesting relationship anyway. It is a common saying that “opposites attract”! The important criteria for me is whether the person is a compassionate human being. Emotional intelligence is essential. I can accept lots of viewpoints and beliefs but cold, dispassionate people are best left alone… or sent to therapy.
Friendship is valuable in many ways. It makes your life richer for one. Being able to share experiences honestly with other people is as fascinating as it is interesting. Among other things, it also gives you, and the friend, a sounding board for working out problems. Close friendships also make celebrating a small, or large, triumph or milestone in your life more joyful and, sometimes, more meaningful. The very effort involved in spending a lot of time with others helps one to avoid the traps of narcissism, morose feelings or a myopic worldview. With and through friends we expand experiences and hear stories of adventure beyond our own history. Together our journey becomes more of a parade… a pageant for all to enjoy.
One can also see the value of friendships through the lens of celebrity culture. The phenomenon of a person gaining widespread popularity provides an interesting laboratory for the value of friendship. My observation, mostly anecdotal, is that those who have kept close to their original set of friends after achieving their celebrity status, the ones who go to their hometown a lot and avoid the temptation to “hang” with other stars, seem the happiest. There is a lot to be said for long term friendships because they can keep you grounded. They know what made you in the first place… not a picture painted by the media and adoring fans. It’s the old friends who care about you deeply and keep you on a saner course, realistic and human. Of course, new friends will eventually do the same but look to the best and oldest to keep your priorities in line.
Obviously, I believe in the value of making friends. It has many rewards… even the process is interesting to observe and then reminisce about years later (and together). Recently I read an article about another reason for having friends, a reason that might even convince a hermit to get out into the world. The reason is long life. It seems that people who have a sincere and loving group of friends, their own tribe… will actually live longer! In his book “The Blue Zone Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People” writer Dan Buettiner describes the results of his decade long research into some of the oldest populations on earth. He notes, “Who you hang with trumps just about everything else when it comes to health”. Buettiner cites findings by psychologists at Brigham Young University who reviewed 148 studies on social relationships. They found that those with stronger connections in their lives were half as likely to have passed away as those with few and weaker ties. That’s quite a benefit of having friends! Perhaps Epicurus knew this. The reason for this bonus of longevity among those people with rich connections and is open for debate. However, there might be a clue: “Health habits – both good and bad – can spread like a contagion”, wrote Dr. Noah Webster a researcher at University of Michigan’s “Life Course Development Institute of Social Research”. Personally, I think this is something we all knew… friends influence our behaviour… but knowing how they are affecting our prospects for a long and happy life is worth emphasizing. So, choose your friends carefully. Engender healthy lifestyles for yourself and them – it’s symbiotic. “Live long and prosper”, said Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame.