I’ve been thinking about friendship, particularly since Jack and Gregg commented about the desire to call a group of friends together after this COVID isolation. Friendship — The ancient Greeks had a name for it: Philia – and they held it separate from affection of other sorts: Storge: nurturing love given to children and those dependent upon you; Eros: erotic, sensual love; and Agape: transcendent, spiritual love.
Taken to a deeper dive, Aristotle declared there were three types of friendship: a) utilitarian friendship based on mutual help, b) friendships that involve activity around mutual pleasure or interests – Birds of a Feather friends, and c) friendships built on mutual respect and admiration: shared principles and goals. I wonder if such strict separation is necessary – doesn’t friendship include some or all of those aspects at different times? Maybe Aristotle was off the mark — he also believed that women had less teeth than men. So who is a reliable authority on friendship?
Well, it may be anthropologist Robin Dunbar. His research indicates that the average human has an upper limit on the number of friends that can be maintained. This number tends to be around 150 individuals – and only includes those folks who you know, and in return, know you. This number is widely known as the Dunbar Number. For the purposes of his research, ‘friends’ are defined as “… people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.” I suppose that would corral everyone in Aristotle’s a, b, and c – and for some individuals it could substantially increase that upper limit.
Now Dunbar went a bit further. He hypothesized that the energy needed to maintain a friend network of 150 must necessarily cause a person to do some ‘social layering’, that is, to group certain players according to the level of intimacy. The research generally supported the conclusion that one individual usually has an inner circle of five buddies, followed by a grouping of ten mates, then thirty-five old faithful’s, and lastly, the centurion pack of 100 friendly relationships.
Hmm… how many friends were in the Rat Pack? I recall it was Peter Lawford, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop. There are other notable quintets: the Jackson Five, the Dave Clark Five, the Spice Girls, the Scooby doo gang, and the Cincinnati Gang of Five. Maybe Dunbar is right? But wait, I guess that if you have five people in your BFF chain, then it is really a sextet, counting yourself. Then Dunbar has to be right, because the cast of Friends included Rachel, Monica, Ross, Chandler, Phoebe, and Joey. Now this is all very difficult to square with the Four Musketeers and Ocean’s Eleven (or twelve, or eight). And what is Rocky VII all about? Very confusing.
Now, I’ve maintained that friends are like asteroids (as opposed to hemorrhoids). There might be 150 of us that kinda fly in the same orbit, tumbling through space/time; sometimes together; sometimes at distance. But more importantly, friends are asymmetric. Each has striking features, majestic promontories and smooth plains. But there are parts of an asteroid that are generally not observed, aspects that are inhospitable, perhaps icy or rough terrain. However, we find some mutually attractive gravity which helps pulls us closer; we celebrate the beauty and help each other maintain stable flight. After all, we are only small entities flying around in a large cosmos. Together we have greater mass … and there is shared laughter in the universe.
And of course, laughter is the key – at our foibles and misadventures; at enjoyment of successes; and mutual discovery of hope after disconsolation. C. S. Lewis wrote this about the joy of friendship and it still rings true:
“He is lucky… to be in such company [of friends]. Especially, when the whole group is together, each bringing out all that is best, wisest, or funniest in all the others. Those are the golden sessions; when four or five of us [or six?] after a hard day’s walking have come to our inn; when our slippers are on, our feet spread out towards the blaze and our drinks at our elbows; when the whole world, and something beyond the world, opens up itself to our minds as we talk; and no one has any claim on or any responsibility for another, but all are freemen and equals as if we had met an hour ago, while at the same time an Affection mellowed by the years enfolds us. Life – natural life – has no better gift to give. Who could have deserved it?”
Friendship, Friendship, Just the Perfect Blendship…
Friend- the Miriam Webster Abridged dictionary defines friend as “a person one likes.” I don’t buy it, well I did cause it is on my shelf, but what if that person doesn’t like you back? Is that person your friend because you like him/her even if it isn’t reciprocal? I think the definition of friend is flexible and evolutionary and varies as one ages (or should I say matures?)
As little kids your friends were whoever was out in the street playing ball, especially the kid who owned the ball! Now he was your friend… there were always kids playing in the street when I was growing up. Our block had probably 20 or so kids of all ages. You knew them all as well as their parents because you would go ring the doorbell and ask Mrs. Jones politely and respectively if Johnny could come out and play. Occasionally there was a kid from the next block who ambled in to join us which was good cause it evened up the sides.
Then came junior high and we stopped playing in the streets and started listening to music and going to dances and instead of friends you were part of a clique, and playing in the street was replaced by going to parties in people’s basement on the weekends and hanging out on the phone. High school brought changes too. You were part of a group now- there were the preppies and the hippies and the hoods. But it was the first time I had a friend who I would confide in and tell serious stuff to. Things were maturing as we were! You’d tell these people about your secrets, girls you liked, things you were mad at your parents about—and relationships were becoming more precisely defined and specific. You had friends who shared your interests, and friends who you shared your fears with.
College was when deep friendships developed for me. Feeling things I never felt before toward people developed. Long talks, and confidential sharing of who we were, cemented these connections. And then graduation and a whole new world comes at you. Previous relationships became a little distant as we geographically separated and the focus changed to professional pursuits knowing that if the connections were strong enough those relationships would last through the expansion of locations and interests and ideas.
All the while you never took the time to appreciate what these relationships provided you. But as the years pile up you begin to value the connections you made and continue to make in a way you never appreciated before. Through your professional lives you accumulate people into your circle, and then they start to retire and once again you are re evaluating, encircling those people who have contributed to your life. You re-connect with people who were important to you, kids from the street all grown up, teenagers from junior and senior high school, who are in the same boat as you and also reaching out. And as a senior citizen, all of a sudden you finally realize what you have been working toward your whole life. The people who you still call friends know so much about you, share your secrets and your desires and are willing to be there for you!
I am a lucky man. My high school friend is still my dear friend. She knows a lot about me and my family that no one else knows. The painful secrets we shared are still confidential but the burden is gone cause it was shared. The college friends who reconnect at a reunion 50 years later and decide to write a blog reconnect with ease and grow more connected than before. The new friends you met after retirement with common interests brought you together add to your wealth. Finally you realize the real value of friendship. The importance knowing there are people out there who care and have your back if needed, is the currency that friends trade in. It means so much more than anything measured in dollars! A wise old man once said that a friend is someone who will listen when you need to talk! That wise old man was not Aristotle, nor Galileo nor Zorba the Greek—— it was me!
On Being a Friend
Wal returns to the subject of friendship. And while we have written about it before, it is indeed, a topic with multiple facets and ever-changing impacts. I agree with Wal that even though Aristotle categorizes several types of friends, when we’re in a relationship with them, it’s not clear-cut and, I might add, the overlap often enhances the original interest in the friendship.
George challenges the notion that friendship can be a one-way street and talks about the benefits gained by both parties. This concept is grounded in most of my experiences and makes perfect sense. Yet, I was in a very close friendship with someone for over thirty years and even though he ended the relationship, I still refer to him as friend. He was and always will be my friend, even though I am no longer his. Semantics, perhaps, but friendship often elicits strong emotions and, for me, emotions often determine the status of a relationship. George also ends with his definition of a friend that reminds me of both sides of friendship.
While we often give much thought to what we look for, desire, and expect in a friend I suspect it’s not as much as we give to being a friend. I’m reminded of a book written by Dr. Gary Chapman (author, speaker, counselor, and pastor) entitled, The Five Love Languages – (Quality time, Gifts, Words of Affirmation, Physical Touch, and Acts of service.) The notion he puts forth is that of the five ways people often show their love for another, (I will substitute the word caring for the purpose of this post) we typically have one or two that we consider primary. In my case, I know which are most meaningful to me and I tend to give the same ones to those who I care about.
Of course that behavior makes the assumption that what matters to me, must matter to you. What if, I really like someone and consider us to be friends. Of course, I’ll want to be there for that person and to let them know that they matter to me. And what if gifts and words of affirmation are what I need to know someone really cares about me and I give those selfless offerings to my friend who really wants quality time with me more than gifts or kind words? Over my lifetime I can remember being confused by the lack of response and connection I was feeling from someone to whom I was being extremely caring. And, the less they were moved by my generosity, the more I increased my efforts. Duh! Of course matters only got worse. All of this is to say, that being a good friend means understanding what the other person wants, not what I would want or even what I think they want, or worse, what I think they should want! Sometimes, I even think to ask what they need from me during times of need or stress. This is easy to write about but difficult for me to regularly remember when I’m with my friends. I intuitively offer what I think is helpful, important, or supportive without stopping to think about what they need. George talks about the importance of listening in a friendship. I agree completely. And, even though I might enter into a zoom meeting or a personal interaction with the intention of deeply listening and understanding before I speak, I find it hard not to jump in and even interrupt when I’m reminded of a related story or anecdote. It’s easy to blame the reduced contact I’ve had with others throughout this pandemic but it still begs the question of how well am I listening and am I being a good friend?