Sunday, April 27, 2008

Friendship needs no words...

FRIENDSHIP is a delicate matter we all seek and as it was once said :

Friends are like melons; shall I tell you why? To find one good you must one hundred try.

Friendship has been given a special status . It is contrasted with all those relationships over which we have so little control; the families we can't change, the neighbours who irritate us, the colleagues we have to put up with. Friends are thought of as the joyous, freely chosen part of our lives, and it's assumed that those relationships are always pleasurable. If asked how you're spending the weekend and you say staying in or seeing your family or your colleagues, people may think you're a little sad. Say you're seeing friends and there's an assumption that you too are desirable, connected.

On one level, friendships are very simple. They are the bonds between people who enjoy one another's company. But probe deeper and it's evident that there is no consensus about what it means. Start talking to people about friendship and it becomes clear that while people value it and seek it, there is also much confusion, hesitancy and disappointment about friends in many people's lives. Friendship is one of those areas full of hidden assumptions and unspoken rules. We only discover that our friendship doesn't mean what we think it does when those assumptions clash.

There is no agreement about what friendship involves, or what to do if it goes sour. No one would dream of suggesting to a friend that they start seeing a friends' guidance counsellor to talk about the dynamics of their failing relationship. When things go wrong, we very rarely challenge our friends. That's because friendship is often a delicate affair and we don't want to tax it with too many demands. It's more common to absorb the hurt, and retreat. After all, there is no contract. The terms are unwritten, and nobody ever makes them explicit.

Ask people about friendship and what's startling is that they hold such a wide range of views, often accompanied by an absolute conviction that they are expressing an obvious truth. Some think it demands total loyalty; others that it carries no obligations at all. One man says long friendships have transformed his life, and been in some ways more important than his marriage; another thinks the great thing about friends is that you can always drop the old ones, because there are new ones around every corner. One woman says she would die for her friends; a younger woman says that all her friendships are ruthlessly practical, and designed to make her life easier in the here and now.

And what's intriguing about those attitudes is that they aren't obvious from the way people lead their lives. Everyone I talked to above has a large number of acquaintances and a social life. All but one assumes that most people think as they do.

Most of us feel a certain pride about our friends, pleased that they have chosen us, and that we have chosen them. We tend to believe that they reflect some important truths about who we are. Yet making friends isn't an exercise in free choice, any more than buying a house is. We buy houses according to what we can afford, what happens to be on the market when we're looking, and whether a capricious owner decides to accept our offer. Friendship is rather similar. We can only choose our friends from among the people we meet, in circumstances where making a friendly overture would be appropriate, and who show a reciprocal interest in knowing us.

Recent research concluded that at any time we have around 30 friends, six of whom we think of as close. Over a lifetime we will make almost 400 friends, but we will keep in touch with fewer than 10% of them. Almost 60% of us claim that our friendships are more important to us than career, money or family. Other studies show that men have, on average, one fewer close friends than women do, that middle-class men have more friends than working-class men, and that both men and women find their friendships with women more emotionally satisfying than those with men. Those findings are fascinating, but they mask huge variations. When I asked people how many close friends they had, the answers ranged from none to almost 100.

Often, we don't know where we fit into friends' lives. We may like them enormously, but not know whether they'd like us to get any closer. Are we in the first dozen, or the remotest 90 in their circle? If they ask us to dinner once a year, is that an honour because they only entertain twice, or a sign of our unimportance, because they hold dinners every week?

This degree of uncertainty exists partly because many of us now lead lives in which we are the only connecting thread. It is perfectly possible for much of our lives to be opaque to anyone who knows us. They may only ever encounter one particular facet of our existence, because we can, if we choose, keep parents, past acquaintances, old partners, colleagues, friends, and neighbours in totally separate boxes. Many people value the anonymity and freedom that gives them. The flip side is that just as we are not known, so we cannot really know others.

Many of us are childish in our expectations of friendship. Even though we may only present our most sparkling, desirable selves to our friends, and even though there may be nothing more to the relationship than five years of occasional lively evenings together, we still nurture the illusion that the friends who enjoy our wine or our wit are somehow very attached to the real us, the vulnerable or dull or anxious one they may never have seen. Which is why we are so astonished when friends melt away at a time of trouble.

some looks upon friendships very differently . they are much more cynical. they don't think most people are really prepared to make an effort for anyone else. They're prepared to enjoy your company, and that's all. It is funny, but the people we almost admired in some situation were the ones who were just honest about the fact that they couldn't help.

It's noticeable that the people who are least disappointed with their friendships are either those who have never tested them, or those with the clearest understanding of what they are about. Sometimes that's because the friendships are rooted in the realities of their lives.

Others who are contented are those who expect nothing more of friends than that they share pleasurable activities.

What do these experiences, as disparate as they are connected, tell us about the notion that has gained currency in the past few years that friends are the new family? In one sense it's clearly true. Each generation is spending more and more time as independent adults before committing themselves to having dependents of their own. But we are so enamoured of the idea that we can be part of a freely chosen community that we haven't stopped to consider what it really involves. We celebrate the idea that people are no longer restricted to the bonds of kinship and obligation, and replace it with an idealised vision of people brought together by genuine affection and respect.

But just how realistic is that vision? What can we expect from our friends? Families exist because their members accept that a degree of selflessness is necessary to sustain them, and to ensure the survival of the next generation. There is no similar drive behind friendship .

Perhaps we need to think a little harder, and be rather more perceptive, about what sustains our relationships. We could start by being more honest with ourselves about what we like about our friends, what needs they fulfil, and what we would be prepared to do for them. We may feel truly generous to some of our friends, and resentful of others. Some we love, some flatter us, some we tolerate while they serve a purpose, and some we might despise. One woman, a charming, hospitable, gentle person, said to me: "It's very important to have some friends you dislike. It's so lovely afterwards, tearing them apart." Another man, generous in his behaviour, says nevertheless that he has few pleasures greater than watching the setbacks and disasters of his friends.

This would help us to be more realistic about which friends we might expect to see by our hospital beds, and which ones we think we would visit. It doesn't mean we can't value the ones who won't be there. Often we can be drawn to others for exactly the characteristics that would make them unlikely to be helpful in a crisis. One man says that he values his friends just because they are iconoclastic, reckless, exciting, arrogant and clever. And a woman who has endured two bereavements and a serious illness in the past few years says she is grateful that her friends remain distant from her grief: "When I'm with them, I always feel slightly as if I'm on stage - and I feel much better for it." We can recognise people's charm as entertainers and companions without expecting emotional support from them as well.

There are powerful reasons why we should create these bonds, even if we only start when we are older. We all want to feel needed and valued by others. It is possible for friends to fill that need, but only if we work at it.

It isn't easy, because friendship is a subtle dance, and no one wants to be explicitly pursued when it's unwelcome or explicitly dropped when they are not wanted. Nor does it come with any guarantees. People are unpredictable. But we need to play the game of friendship. Evidence shows that people with close friends live longer and are happier than those without. And friendship defines what it means to be human. As the Greek philosopher Epicurus observed: "Of all the things that wisdom provides to help one live one's life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship. Eating or drinking without a friend is the life of a lion or a wolf."

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