Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes.
― Henry David Thoreau
Whenever we head outside, whenever we step foot outside the the social world, we are immediately exposed to the external forces of otherness. In this, we find ourselves living a social life that for some reason or another, requires us to act differently than who we inherently are. Which is to say, in classical psychological terms, put on a mask to be agreeable with everyone else. This act usually makes the interpersonal skills come out in an agreeable manner, a place for common formalities to be exchanged but nothing more. We use this at the work place, with neighbors, at the supermarket, gas stations, etc. Yet, we do not use these skills as much when it comes to friendship. The gloves come out, and the hidden self that desperately wants to be heard and seen is unleashed. With a good friend or spouse (many times the same thing), the acceptable lengths of character are forgotten, as the mutual understanding of the other’s many personality habits are not only welcomed, but loved.
But what is a good friendship? What does it mean to be in accord with the personality of another? Where do those clichéd moments of finishing other’s sentence and thinking the same things come from? What allows for some great friendships to wither away and die while others never stop flourishing? The human, in its constant need for communication and understanding, not only needs friendship, but requires it. Let us now meditate on this notion; man’s need for companionship.
A concept often mentioned about the study of early man was the hunter and gatherer. A group of hunters would leave the tribe, venture out into the untamed wilderness and hunt game to bring back to the tribe. Once back, part of the tribe would clean and cook the meal, and then be shared within the rest of the community. One does not have to look very far in how important the role food and social interaction is with the ritual of communication, courtship, and community. Man has changed very little since then. New science on the need for touch in infancy has only corroborated on man’s requirements for extrasensory stimuli and affection. In fact, studies show that when a infant is not given enough physical contact, long term and often irreversible psychological effects take place and a life of difficult adaptation ensues. To make matters worse, a stressed mother while pregnant, can have a lasting effect of the child in utero, also scarring the adjustment when born. More and more of this is also seen when mothers are heavy drug users, and the child is born already with an addiction with the substances.
All these are a small fraction into what makes man into a social creature. The need for communication and affection is the source for the other aspect of being: meaning and understanding. We all want to be understood. The life of a human is one of the most intriguing and often tragic stories known, since we are the ones writing it. Yet the idea is that a friendship is an external phenomena, that it requires two to make it happen. Philosophy begs to differ. The case can be made that the only person that you will ever know fully, be with you 24/7, 365 days a year, up to the day you give your final breath, is yourself. This is the person you must first comes to grip with, the one you must fully first love and respect, the one that makes all your decisions, your reasoning, your very ideal, your superhero, your one and only first love. While this may sound like a narcissist in the making, this is not to suggest that you should. This simply implies a knowledge of who you are is the closest thing to absolute knowledge one can go for, and as to paraphrase Nietzsche, become who you are.
Self companionship may be the only true companionship there is. This often sounds terrifying. The idea that one lives in one owns head is enough to make a story of true horrors. But why must this be so? Why so many impure thoughts? And where do those thoughts come from? As Erich Fromm mentions in Man for Himself:
Man’s main task in life is to give birth to himself, to become what he potentially is. The most important product of his effort is his own personality.
But we rarely do this soul crushing task alone. We seek for answers in otherness, with the need for companionship to get out of our heads. As difficult as finding out who you are is, and what important task it is! Nowhere is it said that this will go on in solitude, unless you want neurosis. It is a contradiction in that man’s answers of finding who he is also requires the need for others to judge and critique; that is to say that to give feedback in improvements to his character and conduct. That’s what friends are for right? All is well when the intent is correct and the one receiving the critique is able to handle it. Friendship ads the dimension of honest appreciation when the mutual trust and interests are there, as having the same interests is the most common link to a lasting friendship. It is a breath of fresh air when you meet someone with the same interests, as the commonality of your own person intertwining with another makes for a synergistic effect on psyche, one that encompasses a further longevity to who you are. But is this what we truly want? When we talk about others and their need, are we actually looking for a different person other than us or just want mirrors? To meet someone with the same interests is to further confirm our own sanity.
The danger here lurks on how much is missing from your own development and what the other ads to it. Many a broken relationship lies within the spectrum of one party obsessing over the other, as the answer to life lies on the other’s well being other than your own. This is very common, and also one the most destructive tendencies that end friendships. Bitter jealousies, controlling and authoritative friends, a sadistic sense of belonging, are but a few of the tragic ends friendships can lead to. Major insecurities in self is more often than not the culprit, where one wants to be the friends of others without first being a great friend to oneself. Another aspect to this is what in sociological terms in called social modeling. This is when we observe the actions of others then do the same actions. This is common in everyday life, and one can argue that is one the principles of growing up. Yet, when it comes friendship, in order to be agreeable or to fit into the social circle, this modeling can lead to extremes. As when a person is obsessed with the other in a relationship, the modeling can lead to a very unhealthy level of loosing oneself completely to the partner, and the true self is washed away for convenience and no true responsibility for who you are.
Unhealthy coping mechanisms then arise and destructiveness ensues. It is a fascinating and tragic observation to make, as this is so particular to the human in the damaging behaviors it creates. The psychological effects here are immense, and cannot be overstated on how easy things can turn south. In human development, relationships and friendships lurk into our lives often unprepared, a trial by fire type of deal where one can sink or swim. But with help of some basic philosophy and psychology, the basis for this can be understood fairly well and even overcome with some mental exercises.
Up to a certain point anxiety is good, for it promotes action. Beyond that point we freeze any fixed attitudes or rush about without thinking deeply from one decision to another.
When one eventually makes it out of the development of self, to the point that sufficient is learned (Which it never does), then one can then leap out to the world ready. This is supposed to be the process of say, graduating from the university. With diploma in hand and all that learning behind you, the time is now! But then, reality sinks in and the process begins anew. Why is this so? Every new door requires change and new tolerances must be implemented. But has it? Why is this so complicated? Picture and remember how long it took for you to develop, now picture that same process being done by another, and we have literally two universes. It is said that one day our very own Milky Way galaxy will collide with the neighboring Andromeda galaxy, in what will very likely be the end of our little existence. While not as dramatic as two galaxies encompassing billions upon billions of stars, two people meeting and finding common ground might as well be just as momentous an occasion. It is no wonder that the idiosyncrasies of two meeting is enough to warrant a sense of the unknown. Popularized by pop culture in music, movies, books and the news media, constant fear of finding out who the other person is has not made it easier. Social media and dating apps, and maybe even worse, other friends introducing someone to you may be adding to the confusion. It’s so complicated! Why the rituals?
Maybe the best things often come up by accident. There have been many instances of this, and often end up being the best thing to ever happen. The unknown has its many perks, and is often the case, makes for lasting friendships. True friendship springs from a very special place of mutual understanding, a rarity by today’s standards of conduct. When we look out and see the other, we can ask ourselves, how can this complex creature be our friend? And if we are so different, what can I learn from him to not follow the same path? This too, has its dangers. Some, do not want to be helped. This is important to recognize early on. Some are in such a difficult place that anyone reaching out will be lashed out with violence. They are in the developmental phase and moving at their own pace. Again, difficult to figure out. Others, undoubtedly, will think they know everything or are never wrong. Some, are always trying to please others, while others are only out for confirming their own biases. What friends can be made out them? It’s hard to say, as everyone is trying to make their own sense of their world. It is important to give space to those we care about, and during this time it is imperative that we continue to grow as individuals. We can learn new skills or hobbies with or without the need for companionship, where the latter is more rewarding for most.
Of course the winding road of friendship is a muddled mess of twists, turns, u-turns, backtracking, dirt service roads and sights that make a dizzying ride to take. There is never a straight path, and we all want the sun, moon and stars to guide us, and it’s always welcome when we can find someone to go along with. Yet, when we also find out that the ride has always been within ourselves, perhaps maybe we can be the best friend there can be. For as Sartre said, if you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company.
Christina S. @ruststardust
Kathy Hopkins @cheesyg
Photography: Federico Mata @zlp_photography