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.”
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.