Keeping Me Waiting

Waiting is one of my least favorite (in)activities. I can get very stressed when I’m forced to wait longer than I’ve anticipated. Two reasons for this are that I operate in time blocks, and I wait with my whole body and mind. Mentally, as well as in my physical planner, I schedule my activities within chunks of time, which makes it almost impossible for me to intersperse activities. When I know that something is supposed to happen at a particular time, I feel very uncomfortable starting anything or getting sucked into some alternate activity because it could be interrupted at any point, once whatever I am waiting for actually occurs. For example, it’s hard for me to read anything while I’m seated, waiting for an event that should have started forty minutes ago, to finally kick off. It’s extremely difficult for me to watch a portion of a film or TV show while I’m waiting for someone to show up at my house at any minute. I cannot focus on editing a short story while waiting for my name to be called at the doctor’s office.

Then, there’s the physical toll of waiting. It literally sucks the energy out of me. When I’m expecting something or someone, my mind and body tend to put me on high alert for them. I am unable to relax. From my senses to my muscles, I am taut with expectation as I do things like incessantly check my phone or, if I’m waiting for someone in a public place, involuntarily snapping my head up anytime somebody walks in, in case it’s the person I’m expecting. You might imagine how hard it is to read, write, watch, or do anything productive when you’re that highly strung. Every disappointment—when there’s no text, no doorbell, it wasn’t my name that the nurse came to call, or the person who just walked into the restaurant just wasn’t my person—also requires the conscious effort of calming myself down from the spike of energy that came with my anticipation. A few moments later, I go through the whole thing again, rinse and repeat, until the thing I’m waiting for finally happens, or I get a confirmation that it’s not going to happen, at which point I can finally allow myself to release all the tension and find something else to do—that is, after I’ve recovered all the energy that drained out of me during the waiting period.

I honestly have no idea if life is like this for other people. I don’t even know where to begin trying to explain to my friends or my partner the depth of stress I experience when, for instance, they tell me they are on their way to me, and the ETA, by all accounts, is 20 minutes, yet it somehow takes them more than an hour to reach me. (A substantial part of me thinks it’s an inane thing to get so deeply stressed about, and that this is something I need to train myself out of on my own, if possible, rather than bring it up with them, especially since I don’t seem to know anyone else who experiences waiting similarly.)

But my antagonistic relationship with waiting goes much deeper than the attention/energy issues described above.

When I first started writing this post—which began as a journal entry in December 2022—I was seated alone, in the early afternoon, at a restaurant, waiting hopelessly for a friend who I knew by then wasn’t coming. I was irritated, but it would have been graceless to show it. For various reasons, I was sleep deprived that day. I had gone to bed later than 3:30 a.m. the previous night, but had woken up early in the morning, specifically because of this now-solo brunch date.

Initially, our brunch was scheduled for 11 a.m. But my friend texted me at 9:30 a.m., by which time I was already awake, asking if we could move it to 12 p.m. That was fine with me. I got ready and decided to wait until it was a reasonable time to leave my house. But then she texted me again, asking if we could move it to 1 p.m. I agreed again. About an hour later, I got yet another text, asking if we could push our meal to 2pm. But by this point, I was hungry, and I admitted it. I told my friend I would just go by myself to get some food; if she was able to pass by the restaurant, she could come join me there, later. Otherwise, she could come and meet me back at my place afterwards. That was how I ended up alone at the restaurant, journalling, because the emotions I was feeling were disproportionate, even inappropriate, to the situation, and I wanted to understand why I felt the way I felt.

In this instance, while I ate at the restaurant alone, I felt sad and blown off. I knew that it was not my friend’s intention to make me feel that way, and that it wasn’t even her fault that her day had taken so many unexpected turns. Even so, sadness and the sense of being blown off were feelings I could justify. What I couldn’t justify, and wished I didn’t feel, was the sense of general inadequacy that my morning hadn’t been as disruptive as my friend’s. If you had to read that again because of confusion, rest assured that you are not the problem. What I said—what I felt—simply doesn’t make sense.

As I journalled, I had to come to terms with the fact that I have irrational insecurities about being the one who waits. There is a series of self-deprecating thoughts that occurs to me almost every time I’m forced to wait for people that I have casual, social plans with. My brain tries to tell me that the other person is late because they actually have a life to take care of, and the reason why I’m so available is because I don’t. The ones who are late, are late because they are occupied with Serious Things, and because I am not a serious person, I have no Serious Things to occupy my time. They have jobs that they have to work at because they are adults who have their lives together; I, on the other hand, have all this flexibility that makes my own time waste-able, because I am a writer and a freelancer, neither of which is a Serious Occupation. You don’t have to point out the fallacies in my logic to me. I see them quite clearly. Alas, I still seem to be having a hard time trying to stop the distorted, irrational thoughts from affecting my feelings.

The first time I remember feeling intense shame and inadequacy while waiting for a (different) friend was a couple of years ago. This other friend worked in an office close to my house at the time, and I hadn’t seen him in a while. We decided to meet up at a close-by café right after his working hours and have an evening catch-up. I remember waiting for him for between forty-five minutes to an hour past our agreed time, maybe a little more. As I waited, my thoughts rushed in a damning cascade.

I imagined—correctly—that my friend had been held up by a lot of work that he could not easily get away from. Instead of taking that in stride, or with healthy doses of sympathy that he had to work so late, I allowed it to make me feel inadequate. I concluded that, since I wasn’t as obviously busy as he was, I probably wasn’t working hard enough.

I don’t know exactly what had changed in my life to make me think that it was shameful to have time—to carve out time, to be on time—to hang out with my friends, to do things that aren’t geared towards making money or the development of my career. Perhaps a good portion of it came from anxiety around my decision not to try getting a full-time job straight out of college, so that I could focus on developing a literary portfolio instead. Once I finished college, my days were largely self-governed. My productivity schedule was flexible and designed entirely on my terms. And perhaps, my thoughts were colored heavily by the pressure I had put on myself to “make it” as a writer by a certain time, accompanied by repressed fears that my “plan” wasn’t going to work out and I’d end up book-less and financially destitute.

It seemed to me, as I waited at the café for my friend years ago, that if I truly wanted to make it, professionally and financially, I should be working hours just as long as his, even if my days were self-governed. I shouldn’t have any right to take things easy or prioritize “frivolous” things like catch-up dates with friends. I should, like them, live my life like I didn’t even have the choiceto prioritize catch-up dates with friends, because work needed to get done, and everything simply had to fall secondary to the accomplishment of the work.

Fast forward to a couple of years down the line, while I waited for the friend who never showed up for brunch. The reason why she hadn’t been able to make it had nothing to do with work, and yet, knowing that didn’t make me feel any better. I saw then that my problem with waiting went a little beyond productivity inadequacy. It had extended so far that the idea had entrenched itself in my mind that if my life isn’t some sort of scheduling nightmare, it means my life is lacking something critical. Now, I don’t even, on a logical level, believe this, so it baffles me more than it may baffle you why I still feel it, regardless.

There’s no conclusion to this essay I’m writing. There’s no big lesson that I’ve learned from all my introspection. It’s possible that the only reason I’ve chosen to share this with the public is for the cathartic effect of making myself heard. Maybe I’ve just missed how it feels to just treat my blog as my public trash can. Eventually, whenever I’m able to get the funds together to afford consistent therapy (or any therapy at all, ha-ha), this is one of the admittedly more superficial issues I’m hoping to work through with a mental health professional.



Accra Might Just Have a Sound Problem

When I first interrupted my schedule to write bullet points down for what would become this very blog post, I was sitting in the outdoor space of a very bougie café in Accra. Aesthetically, my surroundings were serene, full of enough vegetation to fill a garden. The little ornamentations from various cultures and eras should have seemed mismatched, but they came together well to form an artsy and antique vibe that ought to have inspired any patron to tap deeply into a sense of peace and calm. But from inside, where the confections display and the coffee machine were situated, employees of this establishment were jamming loudly to aggressively energetic Afrobeats music.

On any other day, this might have been just another personal annoyance. On this day, however, it was a struggle to hold myself back either from breaking down into tears or breaking out into screams. I held myself together and did neither. Instead, I spent a few minutes looking around and wondering if I was insane.

Somewhere to my left, another patron was deep in concentration, working on what I imagined to be some academic assignment. She alternated studiously between her laptop and a fat textbook with a level of focus I could only aspire to. She didn’t seem to have any qualms with the café’s music, aggravating my anxiety that perhaps my inability to function amidst sonic distraction was a personal deficiency. Then again, she had headphones on—probably serving her with whatever sounds she’d curated to help, rather than hinder, her own productivity. An effective strategy, except for those of us whose generative ability relies often on silence.

Natural preference for silence aside, circumstances within my household had cultivated within me, over the course of maybe a year, a nearly visceral abhorrence for too-loud music. A member of my household—one with admittedly deep psychological issues—had adopted a habit of blasting music on their unfortunately formidable loudspeaker at thought-drowning levels throughout their waking hours.

By the time I found myself at the bougie café, I had already spent at least one year trying to figure out how to do basic things such as sleep at night, nap in the daytime due to lack of sleep in the night-time, wake up at dawn to get writing done before work, and more, while loud music disrupted all my attempts to do these things. In seasons when I wasn’t required to go to an office, I found myself needing places to go every day—a café, a friend’s place—to get work done or otherwise preserve my sanity. And so every time I left my house to escape the noise, only to be met once more with noise, it inspired in a me a violent desire to yell, cry, or strangle someone.

The day I went to the bougie café was one of those days that I started out with no intentions to leave the house (or spend money, for that matter), but I had to do so anyway, due to unbearable frustration with the sonic terrorism in my house. I wanted a quiet space to think and write, and thus decided to place myself in a serene environment.

Only to be met with aesthetically incongruous, louder-than-necessary Afrobeats music.

The bougie café in question has actively marketed itself as somewhere people can go to work and concentrate. Visually, they’ve created a unique, conducive environment to do just that. Sonically, however—particularly on the day I was losing my mind—I feared they had lost the plot somewhat.

I was near tears as I called an employee’s attention and asked for the music to be turned down. Guilt for ruining someone else’s good time warred with the thought that as a paying customer, I had at least some right to say something if the environment wasn’t allowing me to achieve what I came there—and spent money—to do.

My heart rate, which had been building up to anxiety attack levels, slowed back down once the waiter fulfilled my request, and I finally had the presence of mind to write. And instead of working on the fiction piece I’d intended to tackle, I started to write this. Because I am truly concerned that Accra might have a sound problem. Or several.

City vs. Culture

Accra is obviously a city and as such, is plagued with the sounds of one. Since being traumatized by the situation in my household, I’ve become hypersensitive to the fact that Accra is rarely, if ever, quiet. There are bars in the night-time, construction work in the daytime, street preachers in the early morning, traffic in the afternoons and evenings, sounds from a primary school’s assembly at the top of the day, and do not get me started on the seemingly countless churches.

While it may be true that cities are generally louder than villages, suburbs and countrysides, I think there are certain things that are peculiar to Accra because of the culture of its people and what we allow to be considered normal. On an individual and social level, we do not pay critical attention to sound, and we treat sound culture with a nonchalance that gives birth to various types of dissonance and cacophony, both of which we continue not to care about as they are happening.

Sonic Mismatch

One type of dissonance is the case of the visual aesthetic not matching the sonic aesthetic.

In the past year, a new Mexican restaurant opened up in Labone. I have since patronized it once. (I still have not forgiven it for taking the spot of my formerly favorite café in the area, but that is another story.) I had ordered food by phone and was arriving to pick it up. Once I left my car, I was struck by sound much more powerfully than by sight. A DJ had set up station in the outdoor seating area, and was playing some of Afrobeats’ latest, greatest hits. Just like they might be doing in any other regular eatery in Accra.

But as soon as I stepped into the restaurant proper, it was obvious that this wasn’t any other regular eatery in Accra. I was impressed by the striking, distinctive Mexican-themed decor. Vibrant, consistent, and excellent for visual and aesthetic marketing. The playlist immediately struck me as blatantly incongruous. The next thought that followed was: I’m probably the only person in here who even gives a damn about sonic congruity. The waiters who weren’t busy at the moment—and even some who were—were having the time of their lives to the DJ’s set.

While the employees’ joy was entertaining to witness, I considered how much more impressed I would have been if the first sounds I ever heard from this Mexican restaurant were some dangerously sexy Spanish guitar riffs. It wouldn’t have to be Mariachi music. It wouldn’t even have to be strictly Mexican. If I’d walked in to Snow tha Product spitting bars over the speakers, or even the delightful weirdness of Rosalía, my mind would have been blown. I allowed myself to consider that maybe this particular DJ was there by special request for an anomalous event, and that maybe if I came on another day, there would be evidence of equal effort put into the curation of sound as to the visual and culinary themes. Alas, due in part to lack of funds, I haven’t been back since.

On the day I nearly lost my mind in the bougie café, it wasn’t just the volume that got to me. It was also the fact that the music wasn’t making sense according to the visual environment nor to the reasons the patrons were there. A cursory glance around the place would show you people looking intently into laptops or books, or talking to each other. There are places in Accra we go to jam, and this café was never designed to be one of them.

It seems to me that various new and bougie establishments in Accra are throwing a lot of energy into being visually attractive and Instagrammable, and may not be throwing nearly enough energy into sonically aligning with their own chosen brand/vibe, or the needs of their clientele.

Another type of dissonance is the case of sonic interludes actively disrupting the current or appropriate emotional energy.

As a poetry lover and performer, I have personal beef with DJs who do not pay attention to vibe and context when playing for events like poetry shows or album launches. It just doesn’t make sense for me to be regaled with some heartfelt original track about daddy issues and, sandwiched between that and the next emotionally packed performance about re-learning how to breathe post-trauma, the DJ is regaling me with a track about what some guy will do if he catches some girl’s backside. When I hear a devastating poem about sexual exploitation, I want to have the minute before the next poem to just digest and meditate on the content I just consumed. But the DJ will choose that moment to disrupt my emotional processing by playing some dancehall track that the current context simply will not allow me to enjoy.

Imagine what it would be like if we curated the sound accompanying our events—with the informed cooperation of the DJs working that event—to actually fit the event? Imagine a culture in which sound workers found it an exciting challenge to pick the next most appropriate song based on the mood after a performance. Imagine what would happen if it was normal for sound workers to think on their feet and be as creative as they possibly can because they enjoy the work they are (hopefully!) getting paid for and want to dutifully serve the people they are responsible for entertaining.

There are some experiences that would be more immersive and emotionally congruent if we attached greater care and creativity to the music we choose to play, and where, and when.

The Louder, the Litter

A few months ago, I visited my friend in Mamprobi, and on (or around) the same street, there were four different churches, all of which all seemed to be in competition over who could be the most obnoxiously loud on the same night. Perhaps each wanted to show the others that their congregation was the most turnt that night. (I thought of this as a joke, but, you know, I wouldn’t put it past them.) Dreadful cacophony.

In my experience, if any city at all can give Accra a run for its money, it has to be Kumasi, at least on a weekend. Good luck trying to convince me that I won’t find a new funeral after every twenty steps in that city on any given Saturday. But here is the weirder thing: based on my observation, the idea of a loudspeaker system operating at balanced levels is utterly unacceptable. The preacher isn’t spewing the word of God until he’s screeching so hard that the mic is giving feedback, and you can’t pick out a single individual word from the sonic slush besides “Hallelujah!” and “Amen!” The four-person worship team isn’t worshipping well enough until there is literal distortion occurring on an otherwise perfectly good sound system. You will hear the sounds of a stadium-sized megachurch, and upon investigating the source of the sound, discover it to be a single room whose congregation is less than eighty people. There seems to be only one rule for the mixer or DJ (if there is one on duty): make everything louder.

In both Accra and Kumasi, we have very warped ideas of appropriate levels. To some extent, I would imagine it is because many people in charge of sound are not particularly trained to handle sound. Not everyone who knows songs also knows the technicalities of operating a complicated mixer. But beyond that, it’s the culture. We have become used to everything always being loud, and so that has become the accepted, unquestioned way to do sound. If it ain’t loud, it ain’t lit.

Zoning is also a problem. Because even the areas that are meant to be residential aren’t immune from the churches, restaurants and bars. It does not seem to be built into our culture to consider whether people will be trying to unwind or to sleep when we feel like screaming to a deity whom we apparently assume to be hard of hearing. And I am certain the seven people at a certain restaurant on a weeknight do not need the music turned up as though a dance party of hundreds is taking place. I have to wonder if the people running such establishments want to create the illusion that their venues are several times busier than they truly are at a given moment.

Public/Personal Border Erosion

I go swimming semi-regularly at a sports complex in Accra. The outdoor pool area is fitted with loudspeakers, which are always on when I go swimming. The playlist is never updated, and I suspect it is one single USB that is never removed from its port because nobody cares enough. You can hear the music as soon as you walk into the complex. You can hear it when you are lounging in the pool chairs, and even when you are underwater.

One day, I was training as usual, and a young man showed up with his own portable loudspeaker. Music was already playing on the complex’s sound system, but even so, this young man saw fit to turn up his own music over it. He placed his portable speaker at the pool’s edge when he was in the water, and beside his pool chair when he was out of it. For as long as I remained at the complex, I was forced to listen to hip-hop that did not appeal to me, and which clashed on multiple levels with the Afrobeats blaring from the complex’s speakers.

I was struck with true, genuine wonder, that anyone of sound mind could go out in public, into a facility that other people were also paying to use, and take it for granted that a) everyone else wouldn’t mind listening to whatever it was he liked to listen to, and b) that even if there was already loud music playing in this communal area, there was nothing wrong with playing more loud music, simply because he felt like it. The sheer bafflement was so great that it stopped me from walking over to have a conversation about sonic etiquette and common sense. I simply could not believe it was happening.

A couple of months ago, on a flight back to Ghana after a writing workshop, I sat, among several other returning Ghanaians, at the boarding gate in Ethiopia’s Bole International Airport. My flights were red-eyes, and having had very little sleep on my first flight—which had taken off at midnight—I was looking forward to dozing off during my layover at Addis Ababa. Despite the gross discomfort of boarding gate seating, my efforts were proving almost successful, until a middle-aged Ghanaian gentleman seated at the same gate decided that he was in the mood for throwback pop music. This meant that for the remainder of my layover, I—and everyone else at this section of the boarding gate—was subjected to a soundtrack consisting of Destiny’s Child, Sean Paul, Mariah Carey, Nelly and the like, from this gentleman’s oddly loud smartphone. Mind you, this occurred between the hours of five and seven-thirty in the morning, when the airport itself hadn’t fully decided to be awake.

Even on a personal level, consideration of other people’s volume/sound preferences just isn’t embedded into our culture. People play their personal sounds on speaker mode, without particular concern about disturbing anybody else. You do what you want with your volume first, and then if there’s anybody who has a problem with it, the onus is apparently on them to tell you to adjust your volume, whereas good etiquette would have things the other way round. I haven’t been able to figure out why Accra’s culture is like this.

A friend was recently telling me that their South African friend, faced with the country’s load-shedding challenges, had resolved to get a generator. In order to do so, this person was required to write to the manager of the property/estate to inform the neighbors and ensure that they were comfortable with the level of noise that the new generator would surely produce. I heard that and thought to myself, “Wow. What a concept!”


A Few Things About Suicide

This post has been sitting in my WordPress drafts for maybe 2 years now. Something must have triggered me to want to address certain misconceptions on this issue. However, since I composed most of these notes so long ago, I can no longer remember what the trigger was.

I’m drawing from personal experience here, so it should go without saying that I do not speak definitively for everyone who’s ever had a suicidal thought.

Here are my observations:

Suicide makes sense in the mind of the depressed-suicidal.

In my experience, it is quite a grave mistake to think that a depressed-suicidal brain is operating on the very same logic/reasoning that the same person’s healthy (i.e. not-depressed) brain operates on. The reality is, they may be on completely different poles. The healthy version of me thinks back to the depressed-suicidal version of me and simply cannot understand why she was so close to voluntarily leaving this world. On the other hand, the depressed-suicidal version of me could not remember at all what it was like when she was healthy; when the thought of suicide would have seemed completely uncalled-for. It is like my healthy and mentally ill selves are two different people.

If someone’s suicidal tendencies don’t make sense to you, I think it would be wise to consider that healthy and mentally ill minds work very differently, before you pass judgment or try to use logic to change a suicidal person’s thoughts (that is, when you aren’t a mental health professional yourself).

I know, from experience also, that suicide, to the depressed-suicidal brain, can continue to make sense and look like a viable option even if a person has experienced first-hand grief from someone else’s suicide. In the middle of the deepest grief, when depression is also playing a role, you can be as stricken and as horrified as ever by a loved one’s death and still think, “Yes, I understand why they did what they did. I’d have done it too.”

Suicide is often a lot more selfless than it is selfish, at least to the depressed-suicidal brain.

One of the most popular arguments against suicide is that it’s such a selfish move on the part of the committer. But in the mind of the depressed-suicidal, getting rid of themselves is literally the best thing they can imagine themselves doing for their loved ones and, perhaps, for themselves. It may seem, to them, better for their loved ones if they weren’t there at all than to be there and be a constant source of disappointment; or a drain on money and resources; or a person who simply cannot find it in them ever to do what their loved ones expect of them.

There’s another way suicide may not be selfish: when the self-centered problems may not be the only problems driving an individual to feel the way they do. One may be driven towards suicide by a hopelessness about the world in general.

I often hear people argue along the lines of, “Other people have it worse than you.” While that would almost certainly be true, it only reinforces the ugliness of the world that someone else would even have to live in so many worse conditions than the suicidal person does. So the knowledge that others have it worse does not necessarily decrease a suicidal person’s willingness to die; in fact, it may do just the opposite.

(Just as an aside, I think it’s its own type of sickness to expect demand that someone be grateful because of someone else’s suffering. I can see where it comes from, but to me, it reflects a profound lack of human empathy.)

Suicide isn’t quite always an attempt to solve any problems. Instead, it may be what happens when one feels that there aren’t any solutions.

Another anti-suicide cliché goes along the lines of “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Well. Sometimes, in the mind of the depressed-suicidal, the problem isn’t quite temporary at all. Or at least, it’s only as temporary as the span of their own life. But the thing is, many suicidal people aren’t actually looking to use killing themselves as a solution to a problem. Resorting to suicide may be an acknowledgement that there aren’t any solutions to their problems. And if there aren’t solutions, it can make all the sense in a world to a depressed-suicidal brain that they might as well not keep dealing with the problems at all.



Thoughts on Friendship, Crisis, Trauma, and Need

Note #1: No matter how many times I have tried to rewrite this piece, it always comes out sounding theoretical and abstract, and I think I have to accept that I may not have enough skill to express my thoughts on this topic in any simpler form.

Note #2: I’ve found myself unable to speak on this theme without heavy reference to The Four Loves, by C.S. Lewis. It’s one of the best books I have ever read and what I’ve found inside it, I’ve never found anywhere else. I quote and reference it so much not because it gave me my ideas, but because I was the first time I found my ideas on this theme reflected back at me in extraordinarily coherent form.

There’s a popular narrative about Friendship that is centred on the idea of “being there for” someone/each other. Often, the connotation is that one’s availability during someone else’s crisis is not only the ultimate test of their friendship, but the essential reason for that friendship in the first place. It makes me uncomfortable. It’s like we’ve reduced the concept of a friend to “the person I can go to when (something in) my world is falling apart,” and if any other benefits come with that fundamental service, that’s just a happy accident. A logical conclusion from this would be that the fundamental pillars of friendship are directly related to crisis, or trauma, or usefulness. (Here, I mean “usefulness” in the sense that is closest to “utilitarian”— the idea that you must be able to provide some practical service to someone for your friendship to be valuable.)

I can definitely see how the “friend = someone who’s there for you” narrative is useful—but more often lately, I have been preoccupied with the ways it is not. It’s not that I see no truth in it. My issue is that this should not be considered the fundamental aspect of Friendship.

I think the key tenet of a healthy friendship is something I’ve chosen to call “That Which is Shared,” a thing I find even harder to properly define than C.S. Lewis did. It’s that thing (or several things) that friends share which makes them “kindred.” A thing that is largely external to the personhood of those friends, but which, nevertheless, becomes the bonding factor between them. I don’t think friendship should fundamentally be about service, or need to/for each other, but instead, about that connection. And I think, at least based on personal experience, that the over-emphasis on service/need is what makes many friendships fail.

There is a whole host of Friendship-adjacent phenomena that are often confused for Friendship itself. Among them are Affection, Companionship, and Alliance. Every single one of these either can or ought to be part of the “matrix of Friendship,” but if a friendship is to be built or maintained on a healthy foundation, I believe that none of them must overshadow That Which is Shared.

Take Affection. Loosely speaking, Affection is a feeling of fondness towards another. Emphasis on the word “feeling.” Another type of love that is reliant on feeling is Eros (erotic love). Loosely speaking, Eros is a feeling of intense romantic/sexual attraction towards another. Friendship, however, is not a type of love that is defined by one’s feelings for a person. Certainly, friends may naturally feel affection for each other, but this is not the same thing as Friendship itself. And while friends can love each other erotically and erotic partners can be friends, Eros, Affection and Friendship are still different types of love. For anyone who wants to better understand why I say so, even while I acknowledge that it’s rare for the individual types of love to exist in isolation, I strongly suggest reading The Four Loves. For now, though, here’s my clarification: A feeling of affection towards a person does not automatically make them your friend. Conversely, in the absence of any particular feeling of affection, a friend does not suddenly cease to be a friend. The reason: Friendship is based on That Which is Shared, not on feelings. (And That Which is Shared is generally external to the individuals’ own personhood.)

Deep down, we know this. We know that friendship requires something more than, or other than, “I like you.” That is how come we know to put emphasis on the importance of finding things to “bond” over. Affection, Eros, and other types of personal attractions operate on the basis of “I like you” or “We like each other.” Friendship, however, operates on the basis of “We both like this thing.”

Say, for instance, that someone is kind. That quality is integral to who they are—part of their person—and may attract you towards them. It may make you like them. But it’s not a bonding factor. It’s great as an attracting factor, but attracting factors are not necessarily the things that make one think, “My God. This person and I are kindred spirits.”

An illustration of “I like you” love vs. “We both like this thing” love.

For Companionship, think along the lines of people whom you share space with, usually because you engage in the same activity. For instance, imagine I keep meeting a certain person in a particular dining hall at 7:30 a.m. because we both have 8 a.m. classes. We see each other so much that it becomes established routine that we eat breakfast together at 7:30 a.m. We keep each other company, maybe even walk to our respective classes together afterwards, until the point where our routes diverge. We are companions, which does not necessarily make us friends. Here’s what my man Lewis has to say about Companionship and Friendship:

“Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden).”

(Lewis, 1960, p. 83)

So imagine, one day during breakfast, that Doctor Who comes up in conversation, and it turns out that, not only are we both fans of the show, but we like it for the same reasons, are biased towards the same incarnation of the Doctor, and are superficially confused as to why our favorite Doctor isn’t everyone’s favorite Doctor. You see, the more we have in common (i.e., That Which is Shared), the more material there is on which to base our friendship.

The Doctor Who example is fairly shallow, which I think makes the illustration a bit easier to understand. But That Which is Shared can also be several layers more abstract than one’s disposition towards a TV show. The thing that makes people feel like kindred spirits may be the fact that they have common ideas of what justice entails; or who/what God is; or their specific interests in the ways race intersects with class. That Which is Shared is fundamentally a question about how the Friends relate to “truths” that are individually important to them. To reference Lewis again, the thing that binds is more internal, more intangible, than outwardly obvious. It’s not even a “Do you see the same truth?” as much as a “Do you care about the same truth?” And that interest in the same questions is a binding factor, regardless of whether the friends in question agree about the answers (Lewis, 1960, p. 84).

Now, on to Alliance, the most important for me to disentangle, because my frustration at the conflation between this and Friendship is what motivated me to write this in the first place. “Alliance,” here, is the word I am using to refer to the type of service we might expect from those who are important to us in times of trauma, crisis, or times of need. For this one, I’m going straight to quotation:

“A Friend will, to be sure, prove himself to be also an ally when alliance becomes necessary; will lend or give when we are in need, nurse us in sickness, stand up for us among our enemies, do what he can for our widows and orphans. But such good offices are not the stuff of Friendship. The occasions for them are almost interruptions. They are in one way relevant to it, in another not. Relevant, because you would be a false friend if you would not do them when the need arose; irrelevant, because the role of benefactor always remains accidental, even a little alien, to that of Friend. It is almost embarrassing. For Friendship is utterly free from Affection’s need to be needed. We are sorry that any gift or loan or night-watching should have been necessary — and now, for heaven’s sake, let us forget all about it and go back to the things we really want to do or talk of together. Even gratitude is no enrichment to this love. The stereotyped ‘Don’t mention it’ here expresses what we really feel. The mark of perfect Friendship is not that help will be given when the pinch comes (of course it will), but that, having been given, it makes no difference at all. It was a distraction, an anomaly. It was a horrible waste of the time, always too short, that we had together. Perhaps we had only a couple of hours in which to talk and, God bless us, twenty minutes of it has had to be devoted to affairs!”

(Lewis, 1960, p. 89)

I think it could change a lot about how we relate to each other if popular discourse chose to emphasize That Which is Shared as the definition of Friendship, as opposed to “who is there for whom.”

I’ve been worried lately that I’ve accidentally developed some sort of saviour complex. For nearly a decade now, nearly all of my relationships with individuals I have referred to as my best friends have felt like rescue missions, where, more often than not, I feel like I’ve been placed in the role of the rescuer. (Don’t get me wrong—sometimes, my primary expectations of my friends have put them in inappropriate rescuer roles as well.)

The thing that defined these relationships is, I think, what happens when the function of Alliance is allowed to overshadow everything else—the kinship, the shared things, the regular old joy of platonic connection. The result is often a type of co-dependency. In these relationships, I was not playing—or feeling—the role of a friend often enough. Instead, closer role descriptions would fall in the park range of therapist, parent, babysitter, medical professional, or Christ himself. In retrospect, it’s no wonder at all that these “friendships” failed.

This year, I have been forced, by circumstances in my life, to consider that maybe my consecutive rescue mission friendships have created a pattern that I had started to follow without thinking, like muscle memory. That maybe I had begun to unconsciously gravitate towards people I felt “needed” me, for reasons beyond the basic, yet beautiful, tenet of Friendship. I have been forced to ask myself why I feel such a strong sense of responsibility to solve problems that are not mine to solve, but rather those of a professional, a guardian, or the troubled individuals themselves. And then, even when I act on this sense of responsibility, I have had to ask myself why it leaves me feeling so exhausted, so unbalanced, and so unfulfilled in the thing I am calling a friendship.

But this—the point of this whole essay—is why: Because when it comes to my idea of Friendship, I have been focused on the wrong fundamental things, attached to a misconception.

When a friendship becomes centred on crisis, need and trauma, what happens to the friendship in the absence of those things? If the friendship is based on That Which is Shared, the friendship ought to get healthier in the absence of crisis and trauma. If the relationship was, in fact, based on those dependencies, however, in the absence of them, the relationship fizzles out and disappears, perhaps forever, or perhaps until the next dependency arises. And that, my dears, is not Friendship. It is something else entirely. (And this, by the way, is not a value judgement. I’m not saying that being someone’s helper is either better or worse than being their friend; I’m just saying that being someone’s helper is a different sort of relationship from friendship.)

To be very clear, at the expense of repetitiveness: It’s not like friends have no responsibility whatsoever to each other in times of trauma, crisis, and need. However, this ought not to be their primary function as friends.

The process of realizing this, even cognitively, has been like therapy for myself. But, thanks to the power of habit, it feels like it’s going to take a little longer for me to deep it enough that it transforms my very actions, and helps me to gravitate towards healthy friendships, rather than co-dependent ones. Learning real-life lessons can be painful, and applying them can be extremely difficult—but we move, regardless.

Conclusion: Human beings are flawed, and moments of dependency will always arise. But they ought to be regarded, to paraphrase Lewis, as “interruptions” to Friendship, not the definition of it. May he who has a mental health diagnosis gain access to mental health resources, and may they spare those who ought to be their Friends from taking on the role of therapist. May she who requires financial assistance find gainful means of income so that her status as a debtor to her friends does not overshadow her importance as a friend to them. May they who have attachment issues be granted the means and resources to work through that trauma and not subject those who would be their friends to unhealthy demands borne of their own insecurity.

Selah. 🕸