Posted Monday, February 14th, 2005
The Philosophy of Friendship
A happy life, observed Epicurus many many years ago, is one in which you are surrounded by true friends.
I remembered this ancient adage soon after I broke up with my long-term boyfriend. During our relationship my boyfriend had served two roles, lover and friend. When we broke up, I was left with everything I needed for a good life a good job, a good apartment, a good car, a good selection comforts but not a happy one. I was left with no friends.
My mother was quick to advise: "You need a girlfriend," she urged. "You need to get up, get dressed, go out and make friends." She understood what Aristotle, another ancient philosopher, had known: "Without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all the other goods."
"I don't need a friend," I said. What I needed was to somehow ease the pain my boyfriend's absence had caused. "I think I'll go see a therapist."
"Why don't you just talk to me, then?" But my mother was too emotionally involved. She hated seeing me so lost, and I hated worrying her.
I'd met Rita, a 46-year-old therapist who practised in my neighborhood, at a work function a month earlier, so I had her card. I called her. She was free to see me.
Once inside her office I sat directly opposite her and, between us, in the middle of her desk she placed an ashtray. We smoked. To my 23-year-old eyes, she was amazing: Wild blonde curls, lips coated in a vivid red, and if I allowed my gaze to slip, I could see the flesh of her bosom above the line of her V-neck.
Rita talked as much as I talked. I imagined this must be the knew style of therapy modelling the pattern of friendship, the mutual sharing of experience, so the client would feel it was all like talking to a friend instead of an analyst.
But Rita booked me in for a meeting every day and never took my money. I'd walk into her office and she'd squeal my name and hug me. She'd close the door and make coffee and we'd talk.
In the twenty years that Rita had over me, she'd gained a vast range of practical knowledge and skill about life that created a significant experiential gap between us. She'd gotten married (the year my parents fell in love), given birth to a boy (the year my parents married), then a girl (the year that I was born), gotten divorced (the year I went to high school), met the love of her life (the year I graduated from school), and, finally, where our lives converged, became single when her partner left her to travel to Europe (just a month before mine left me).
But despite the years that separated us, we were truly of the same mind. Aristotle had said that friendship was a meeting of equals and with Rita I quickly began to feel as if I'd pulled out my alter-ego and placed her opposite me in her chair.
We both rated happiness above all things and we both wanted to have a memorable love affair. And through this devastating affair we wanted to discover our ideal partners, something that would transform us into being part of a couple again. To that end, we built a force of two, meeting regularly to analyze our predicament and strategize on our courses of action.
Our meetings moved out of Rita's office to a coffee shop. At a table by the window, we'd sip frothy cappuccino and exchange dynamic, suspense-filled narratives, part truth, part exaggeration. I'd tell her about my new reluctant lover, Victor, a singer at a local bar who sung, I imagined, just for me. Rita would tell me about her new reluctant lover, Paul, a restaurant owner who was married, she imagined, to the wrong woman.
But in our hurry to put our lives back together, we misjudged the situations around us. Behind Victor's reluctance, his forgetfulness when it came to returning my calls, I saw a shy man, with an amazing emotional depth that only I could reach. Behind Paul's inaccessibility, Rita saw a torn man, truly in love with her but so virtuous that the act of breaking his wedding vows had to be seriously contemplated.
We were both wrong. But it didn't matter in the end, because when we met at our table by the window we were safe again. A friendship had been forged and despite the disappointment in our romantic lives the friendship itself made us happy.
For Aristotle, there were three types of friendships: the first was based on mutual usefulness and the second on mutual pleasure. The third type was both useful and pleasurable but had its roots in a mutual desire for the good of the other, that is, friendship for the sake of friendship. Aristotle called this a "true" friendship.
Our friendship kept bringing us together to talk about our lives and seek solutions. Through our conversations, we were able to build up a strange sort of strength again, feeling better that we'd tried and failed, instead of never having tried at all. The world was a happier place because of Rita.
My mother was curious, and confused, about my friendship with Rita.
"She's older than you."
"She's your age," I confirmed.
"If you wanted an older friend, why didn't you choose me?"
In a dialogue written by Aristotle's teacher, Plato, Socrates discusses friendship with Lysis, an Athenian boy. The pair explore the idea of parental love and observe that while the boy's mother and father love him very much, they do not allow him to act freely. There are some things that they just don't allow him to do. The boy, possessing less knowledge because of his limited life experience, is deemed less wise. The parents believe it is better to restrict his freedom until he learns more about how to live a good life, rather than to see him hurt by making mistakes.
While being loved is essential to ones happiness, being allowed to be free is just as important. My mother would have preferred never to see me cry, would have preferred that I refrain from falling for the wrong men. My mother would have done anything to save me from the pain of my mistakes. But Rita was able to maintain a sense of emotional control, of indifference to my fate, knowing that she'd be there for me in the end. And that that would be enough.
It isn't our friends' help that helps us, observed Epicurus many many years ago, it's the confident knowledge that they will help us.
Comments [post a comment]
Posted by Myfanwy Collins on Tuesday, February 15th, 2005 at 10:28 AM
This is fantastic, Kathryn.
Posted by dinah douglas [ firstname.lastname@example.org
] on Tuesday, February 15th, 2005 at 4:04 PM
a nice story, but i hope it isn't true; if so, rita has practiced in a totally unehtical manner.
Posted by Aristea Talantis - Skinner [ email@example.com
] on Tuesday, February 15th, 2005 at 4:59 PM
I disagree Rita did not act unethically. The narrator met her at a work function. Rita wasn't referred to her by a doctor, so under the circumstances it's kosher.
Great essay Kathryn. Food for thought.
Posted by Patricia Moed on Wednesday, February 16th, 2005 at 11:05 AM
A lovely essay with some wonderful observations. I had never thought about the limits of a parent's friendship with an adult "child." It gives me a lot to think about! Thanks.
Posted by Katrina Denza on Wednesday, February 16th, 2005 at 1:13 PM
This is beautifully written and an interesting comment on friendship.
Posted by Usha Sethumadavan [ firstname.lastname@example.org
] on Friday, April 22nd, 2005 at 4:24 AM
Sounds like a dream friendship. Its so true that friendship is high up in the needs hierarchy that it gives quality to our lives. I wud love to have a friendship like this. I am so drawn to the title song from cheers, where it says 'sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name and they are always glad you came, you want to be where you can see that troubles are all the same'. Its just a rejuvenating feeling to be liked and accepted and needed intellectually.
Thank god for friends like that.