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Thoughts on Friendship: Loss and Value

Posted by Philip Burchill on
Thoughts on Friendship: Loss and Value

“I thought to lose my own life and instead I have lost half my existence with him." – Goethe

All who have lost a friend understand the weight of feeling expressed in these words by Germany’s literary genius Johannes Wolfgang von Goethe over 200 years ago after he lost his best friend. I myself know this feeling too well after having lost nine friends since childhood, three of whom were my closest friends, and one who died only last week is my friend Justin (on the right in this picture). My hope here is, by way of expressing this whirlpool of grief, I may convey the gravity of feeling loss and create solidarity with anyone who has undergone or currently experiencing a loss. My aim is to discover and share consolation in the wake of tragedy we experience as individuals and collectively in our human experience and see the importance of true friendship.

It seems this is a pressing subject having undergone a year pandemic with quarantine restrictions, the loss of jobs, change of careers or location, the separation and isolation from others in our human family. I take the view from a lineage of thinkers that human subjective experience is not to be discounted as ‘relative’ individual and particular only to the specific person’s experience. Rather subjective human experience shares a commonness, a ‘family resemblance’ a simultaneous likeness and difference. Everyone understands at one point or another what it’s like to laugh with a friend, the negative of heartbreak and a relationship not working out, or the hopes and expectations of reaching a dream job or school not attained and the death of a friend or family member. We all experience these events and emotions at various junctures on this human journey. Humanist Philosopher Montaigne put it succinctly ‘Each human being bears the stamp of the whole human condition’. In more recent psychological terms Carl Rogers says it this way, ‘What is most personal is most universal’. These existential human experiences of meaning, freedom, and friendship are universal and transcend barriers of race, politic, socioeconomic class, and religion. For purposes here I would like to focus on friendship.

Several years ago I visited a monastery where I took a week vow of silence attended services and read only speaking with a monk once a day and would attend a scripture reading with a lesson to meditate on. This topic was humor, the monk made the insightful point joy and humor requires communion with others. Laughter is experienced in the presence of others and activities are richer experienced when shared with another. Consider how much greater it is to watch your favorite movie with your best friend at the cinema than binge watch Netflix on a laptop? To share a meal with your partner versus a t.v. dinner alone? We all know the deep social need of our species is to overcome the alienation of an I to become a ‘We’. Friendship is the greatest of gifts is ‘one before whom I may think aloud’, share secrets, to halve the weight of a burden, to lift you up when you are down, a partnership, rational beings mutually bound around a common object of love, to laugh, joke, encourage, speak the truth about ourselves we miss when wrapped in isolation and one who wishes us well for our own sake. These are only a few of the virtues friendship bestows on human existence.

In a later talk I would like to develop the ancient understanding of friendship outlined by Aristotle as friendship types distinguished as utility, pleasure & goodness. For now, I am going to focus on contrasting friendship of utility and goodness. Aristotle famously stated, ‘Without friends no one would want to live even if he had all other goods’. Even with Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Netflix, Youtube, Podcasts and social media, all mediums of communication and connection. Yet these modalities fall short of the qualitative experience of  communion in the living presence of a friend. A medium will not live up to the consolation in being listened to, seen and understood in real time and space with a friend. Nor will the pixelated screen match a walk with a friend, coffees in hand in a pleasant scenery of nature while one engages in a stimulating dialogue on a topic of common interest. This kind of friendship is the higher type Immanuel Kant says, ‘A human being is always an end, never a means.’

A true friend values the other for the particular character and person they are without an agenda. The common poverty of modern friendship is it often assesses friendship's value in 'utility', its ability to attain material ends (friends with business contacts) or an escape of boredom (someone to kill time with). Philosopher Sir Roger Scruton writes of the consequences of this lower type of friendship. ‘The person that treats another as a means to their own goals, however greatly with whatever the compunction, is not treating the other as a friend, he ceases to be one. From this we can derive a striking conclusion. Friends are useful so long as you don’t use them. Treat someone as a friend value him for what he is and he will repay your friendship a thousand-fold. Treat him as useful, however and he will cease to be so.’ ‘Interest has many faces including disinterest’. An interest has many faces with interest being in benefits that flow from disinterest as an interest that must not be rewritten as a goal’. For true friendship is an gift, a bond of harmony and consolation as an end.

One week ago exactly from when I have written this I had a call from my friend Justin who I had been close friends with since teenagers and would catch up every few months. Growing up he was a star athlete, big muscles, and a loyal friend who had your back. After high school we went our separate ways with education and careers but I kept in touch with him for he had battled an addiction he developed after a devastating accident in football. In a conversation only a week ago I expressed my own difficulty of isolation and despair but he called out my destiny talents I could not see in myself with resolute conviction and confidence. We exchanged an hour conversation about our future dreams, we reminisced of the more blissful moments of childhood, talked of the need to be conscious of technology’s negative effects upon relating to one another and the importance to ensure a better future for the next generation. We spoke of the difference of true from false friends and a death of chivalry in society. Toward the end of our call, we made plans to head to the coast in our hometown to grab coffee and plot the dreams of our future. He told me I was his best friend and knew he wanted me to be in his wedding. The following night I discovered the agonizing news of his death due to an overdose.

I come back to where we started you see friendship the pain of loss. For Aristotle accurately defines ‘a single soul in two bodies.’ And when one loses a friend it’s the equivalent to an amputation of a limb of the soul and well explains Goethe’s sentiment. I am eternally grateful for the last hour and a half conversation with my friend as it was some type of seal. I can’t imagine how it would of felt if I decided not to pick up that night. It is so easy to get consumed in the isolated sphere of self interest and individual modern life. Thankfully, I had the rich conversation with one of my greatest and truest of friends. In this process and the events of the past year, and the general tendency of the modern individual’s gaze is glued to the smart phone and split attention to the other I have come to see Simone Weil’s reflection ‘Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity’ is sadly more true now, than her own era.

In closing, I would like to propose a different way of being in the world. A task I challenge myself and you is to give that rare generosity of attention to the one in front of us, to be there for a friend for his or her own sake and seek first to understand. ‘For no life is useless that lightens the burden of another’ Dickens reminds us. It’s so easy to get swept away by the tide of modern distractions, busy schedules, priorities of success, insular perspective and forget those around us. We can begin by being the type of friend who is available and present with an unconditional positive regard for the other’s well-being. 

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