Saturday, August 15, 2009

What Friendship is About

A recent article in the Boston Globe reports on a “growing” body of evident that we know less about our friends and even spouses than we think we do. According the Globe reporter Drake Bennett, the most common mistake we make is to “assume our friends agree with us on particular issues when they actually don’t.”

The data upon which this report is based may well be solid, but it merely reiterates a truth that is already well-known, and has served as an underpinning of game shows for decades. Meanwhile, I’m afraid the researchers missed two other findings of far greater interest. A more comprehensive study would undoubtedly have shown that we know less, not only about our friends, but about everything, than we think we do. We are all masters of reiterating theories and discoveries (like the one in the Globe) that we half-remember from newspaper reports and radio interviews. Pressed for details or elaboration, we’re likely to stammer a bit and then say, “Why not tune in to the podcast and hear the whole thing?”

But this isn’t really news either. Didn’t Socrates, the Athenian gadfly, engage in dialogues twenty-five hundred years ago expressly designed to demonstrate that no one really knew what they were talking about?

A more interesting notion brought to light by the study, and one that’s worthy of serious reflection, is that friendship is not really based on agreement or “solidarity.” We love our friends, not because of how they vote or where the food they eat was grown, but because of who they are. We love and admire them less for their specific views and habits than for their quirks of personality, their enthusiasms, their root values and their “heart.” Our friends in time become indelible features of our emotional landscape, which help us sustain the notion that the world is a sane and sacred place, though one of the things we may come to love about them best is the food for discussion and dispute they provide as we gather around the cafe or conference table.

By the same token, our depth of mutual affection makes it important that we proceed cautiously when delicate or controversial issues arise, lest we offend one another’s sensibilities. This is less a matter of evasion than of courtesy and tact.

The thrust of the article in the Globe seems to be that we know less about our friends than we think we do—therefore, we ought to be wary, if not genuinely afraid. This is a dumb and dreadful attitude to espouse, which reflects an utter lack of familiarity with what friendship feels like. It isn’t a matter of hanging around with people who signed the same petitions we did.

In his pithy study, Civilization and Violence, Amartya Sen remarks that “a solidarist approach can be a good way of misunderstanding nearly everyone in the world.”

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