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Reclaiming Friendship: A Visual Taxonomy of Platonic Relationships to Counter the Commodification of the Word “Friend”

Exploring the concentric circles of human connection through the lens of our ideal and real selves.

Friendship, C.S. Lewis believed, “like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself … has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” But the poetic beauty of this sentiment crumbles into untruth for anyone who has ever been buoyed from the pit of despair by the unrelenting kindness of a friend, or whose joys have been amplified by a friend’s warm willingness to bear witness.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from a vintage ode to friendship by Janice May Udry

I often puzzle over the nature, structure, and function of friendship in human life — a function I have found to be indispensable to my own spiritual survival and, I suspect, to that of most human beings. But during a recent interview on Think Again, I found myself concerned with the commodification of the word “friend” in our culture. We call “friends” peers we barely know beyond the shallow roots of the professional connection, we mistake mere mutual admiration for friendship, we name-drop as “friends” acquaintances associating with whom we feel reflects favorably on us in the eyes of others, thus rendering true friendship vacant of Emerson’s exacting definition. We have perpetrated a corrosion of meaning by overusing the word and overextending its connotation, compressing into an imperceptible difference the vast existential expanse between mere acquaintanceship and friendship in the proper Aristotelian sense.

In countering this conflation, I was reminded of philosopher Amelie Rorty’s fantastic 1976 taxonomy of the levels of personhood and wondered what a similar taxonomy of interpersonhood might look like. I envisioned a conception of friendship as concentric circles of human connection, intimacy, and emotional truthfulness, each larger circle a necessary but insufficient condition for the smaller circle it embraces. “I live my life in widening circles,” Rilke wrote.

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Within the ether of strangers — all the humans who inhabit the world at the same time as we do, but whom we have not yet met — there exists a large outermost circle of acquaintances. Inside it resides the class of people most frequently conflated with “friend” in our culture, to whom I’ve been referring by the rather inelegant but necessarily descriptive term person I know and like. These are people of whom we have limited impressions, based on shared interests, experiences, or circumstances, on the basis of which we have inferred the rough outlines of a personhood we regard positively.

Even closer to the core is the kindred spirit — a person whose values are closely akin to our own, one who is animated by similar core principles and stands for a sufficient number of the same things we ourselves stand for in the world. These are the magnifiers of spirit to whom we are bound by mutual goodwill, sympathy, and respect, but we infer this resonance from one another’s polished public selves — our ideal selves — rather than from intimate knowledge of one another’s interior lives, personal struggles, inner contradictions, and most vulnerable crevices of character.

Some kindred spirits become friends in the fullest sense — people with whom we are willing to share, not without embarrassment but without fear of judgment, our gravest imperfections and the most anguishing instances of falling short of our own ideals and values. The concentrating and consecrating force that transmutes a kinship of spirit into a friendship is emotional and psychological intimacy. A friend is a person before whom we can strip our ideal self in order to reveal the real self, vulnerable and imperfect, and yet trust that it wouldn’t diminish the friend’s admiration and sincere affection for the whole self, comprising both the ideal and the real.

It is important to clarify here that the ideal self is not a counterpoint to the real self in the sense of being inauthentic. Unlike the seeming self, which springs from our impulse for self-display and which serves as a kind of deliberate mask, the ideal self arises from our authentic values and ideals. Although it represents an aspirational personhood, who we wish to be is invariably part of who we are — even if we aren’t always able to enact those ideals. In this sense, the gap between the ideal self and the real self is not one of insincerity but of human fallibility. The friend is one who embraces both and has generous patience for the rift between the two. A true friend holds us lovingly accountable to our own ideals, but is also able to forgive, over and over, the ways in which we fall short of them and can assure us that we are more than our stumbles, that we are shaped by them but not defined by them, that we will survive them with our personhood and the friendship intact.

For a complementary perspective, see poet and philosopher David Whyte on the true meaning of friendship and John O’Donohue on the ancient Celtic notion of “soul-friend.”

Special thanks to my friend Wendy MacNaughton for the diagrammatic inspiration

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Alain de Botton on What Makes a Good Communicator and the Difficult Art of Listening in Intimate Relationships

“What makes people good communicators is, in essence, an ability not to be fazed by the more problematic or offbeat aspects of their own characters.”

Alain de Botton on What Makes a Good Communicator and the Difficult Art of Listening in Intimate Relationships

“Words are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her masterful meditation on the magic of real human conversation. “They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.” But in moments of pain or anger, when words spring from the rawest recesses of the heart, they can amplify our deepest insecurities and emotional vulnerabilities, in turn fueling a maelstrom of mutual misunderstanding.

How to avoid that is what Alain de Botton explores in a portion of The Course of Love (public library) — the immeasurably insightful psychological novel that gave us De Botton on vulnerability and the paradox of why we sulk.

Alain De Botton
Alain de Botton

De Botton writes:

What makes people good communicators is, in essence, an ability not to be fazed by the more problematic or offbeat aspects of their own characters. They can contemplate their anger, their sexuality, and their unpopular, awkward, or unfashionable opinions without losing confidence or collapsing into self-disgust. They can speak clearly because they have managed to develop a priceless sense of their own acceptability. They like themselves well enough to believe that they are worthy of, and can win, the goodwill of others if only they have the wherewithal to present themselves with the right degree of patience and imagination.

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from Waterloo and Trafalgar

Fertile communication, in other words, is largely a matter of what Anna Deavere Smith called refusing to “use language as a mask” — refusing to hide from both the other person and from oneself in the act of communication. This skill is no different from the vast majority of our psychoemotional arsenal, which is shaped by our early caretakers, and is contingent upon the degree to which our parents have managed to unconditionally accept us and nurture our inner wholeness. De Botton writes:

As children, these good communicators must have been blessed with caregivers who knew how to love their charges without demanding that every last thing about them be agreeable and perfect. Such parents would have been able to live with the idea that their offspring might sometimes — for a while, at least — be odd, violent, angry, mean, peculiar, or sad, and yet still deserve a place within the circle of familial love. The parents would thus have created an invaluable wellspring of courage from which those children would eventually be able to draw to sustain the confessions and direct conversations of adult life.

Echoing Hemingway’s assertion that “most people never listen,” De Botton adds:

Good listeners are no less rare or important than good communicators. Here, too, an unusual degree of confidence is the key — a capacity not to be thrown off course by, or buckle under the weight of, information that may deeply challenge certain settled assumptions. Good listeners are unfussy about the chaos which others may for a time create in their minds; they’ve been there before and know that everything can eventually be set back in its place.

Paradoxically, De Botton argues, being frequently unsettled by communication with our loved ones is precisely what attests to the fullness and strength of those bonds, and to their orientation toward mutual growth:

It is precisely when we hear little from our partner which frightens, shocks, or sickens us that we should begin to be concerned, for this may be the surest sign that we are being gently lied to or shielded from the other’s imagination, whether out of kindness or from a touching fear of losing our love. It may mean that we have, despite ourselves, shut our ears to information that fails to conform to our hopes — hopes which will thereby be endangered all the more.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly fantastic The Course of Love with Rebecca Solnit on how our modern noncommunication is changing our experience of communion, then revisit De Botton on the seven psychological functions of art and what philosophy is for, and treat yourself to his wildly insightful Design Matters conversation with Debbie Millman:

My view of human nature is that all of us are just holding it together in various ways — and that’s okay, and we just need to go easy with one another, knowing that we’re all these incredibly fragile beings.

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Colette on Writing, the Blissful Obsessive-Compulsiveness of Creative Work, and Withstanding Naysayers

“A lack of money, if it be relative, and a lack of comfort can be endured if one is sustained by pride. But not the need to be astounded.”

Colette on Writing, the Blissful Obsessive-Compulsiveness of Creative Work, and Withstanding Naysayers

“In rare moments of deep play, we can lay aside our sense of self, shed time’s continuum, ignore pain, and sit quietly in the absolute present,” Diane Ackerman wrote in her magnificent inquiry into the human impulse for deep play. This transcendent state, closely related to what psychologists call flow and yet not entirely the same, is fondly familiar to all who endeavor in the creative life and have devoted themselves to the type of work that calls to mind psychotherapist Janna Malamud Smith’s poetic term, “an absorbing errand.”

In fact, much of what we celebrate as genius has a certain obsessive-compulsive quality, nowhere more discernible than in the lives of writers, who possess the rare gift of being able to articulate these forces of creative compulsion with electrifying clarity.

That’s what the great French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (January 28, 1873–August 3, 1954), better known as the commanding Colette, does in the posthumously published, out-of-print treasure Earthly Paradise: An Autobiography of Colette Drawn from Her Lifetime Writings (public library).

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In her early thirties, shortly after separating from her first husband and a good decade before her literary career took off, Colette felt like “a woman of letters who has turned out badly.” Dejected, she denied herself “the pleasure, the luxury of writing.” And yet what she stifled outwardly remained fully ablaze inside.

She captures that inner fire in a passage both beautiful and bittersweet, for it speaks not only to the eternal psychological machinery of composition but to the long-endangered, if not almost entirely extinct, creaturely joy of writing by hand:

To write, to be able to write, what does it mean? It means spending long hours dreaming before a white page, scribbling unconsciously, letting your pen play around a blot of ink and nibble at a half-formed word, scratching it, making it bristle with darts, and adorning it with antennae and paws until it loses all resemblance to a legible word and turns into a fantastic insect or a fluttering creature half butterfly, half fairy.

To write is to sit and stare, hypnotized, at the reflection of the window in the silver inkstand, to feel the divine fever mounting to one’s cheeks and forehead while the hand that writes grows blissfully numb upon the paper. It also means idle hours curled up in the hollow of the divan, and then the orgy of inspiration from which one emerges stupefied and aching all over, but already recompensed and laden with treasures that one unloads slowly on to the virgin page in the little round pool of light under the lamp.

To write is to pour one’s innermost self passionately upon the tempting paper, at such frantic speed that sometimes one’s hand struggles and rebels, overdriven by the impatient god who guides it — and to find, next day, in place of the golden bough that boomed miraculously in that dazzling hour, a withered bramble and a stunted flower.

Using “idleness” in the Kierkegaardian sense, Colette adds:

To write is the joy and the torment of the idle.

Over the decade that followed, Colette surrendered to that irrepressible impulse. By the end of the 1920s, she was regularly celebrated as France’s greatest living female writer. A queer woman amid the conservative and bigoted culture of the early twentieth century, she tirelessly championed women’s sexual liberation through her art. At the age of 75, she was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. (She lost to T.S. Eliot. By that point, only five women had received the prestigious accolade since its inception half a century earlier.)

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In the final years of her life, looking back from the fortunate platform of a great longevity and a thriving literary career, Colette addresses one of the most perennial struggles that bedevil the creative life — the question of how to withstand naysayers:

I grow less and less afraid of the presence of skeptics and of their opinions. Little by little, I am escaping from their grasp, on the understanding that they provide me with food for my ohs! and ahs!, which don’t make a great noise but come from a long way down, and on condition also that they furnish me with my daily subject of amazement. A lack of money, if it be relative, and a lack of comfort can be endured if one is sustained by pride. But not the need to be astounded. Astound me, try your hardest. These last flashes of astonishment are what I cannot do without.

With an admiring eye to her compatriot George Sand — a writer whose formidable talent inspired Dostoyevsky to write a most effusive eulogy upon learning of her death — Colette marvels:

It has taken me a great deal of time to scratch out forty or so books. So many hours that could have been used for travel, for idle strolls, for reading, even for indulging a feminine and healthy coquetry. How the devil did George Sand manage? Robust laborer of letters that she was, she was able to finish off one novel and begin another within the hour. She never lost either a lover or a puff of her hookah by it… and I am completely staggered when I think of it. Pell-mell, and with ferocious energy she piled up her work, her passing griefs, her limited felicities.

And yet Colette herself was no idler — even through her final years, she remained animated by the same creative restlessness, the same uncontainable compulsion to write, that filled her youth. Shortly before her death at the age of eighty-one, she writes:

My goal has not been reached; but I am practicing. I don’t yet know when I shall succeed in learning not to write; the obsession, the obligation are half a century old. My right little finger is slightly bent; that is because the weight of my hand always rested on it as I wrote, like a kangaroo leaning back on its tail. There is a tired spirit deep inside of me that still continues its gourmet’s quest for a better word, and then for a better one still.

Complement this particular portion of the thoroughly inspired and inspiring Earthly Paradise with this excellent advice on how to handle criticism from some of the greatest writers of the past century and this growing library of great writers’ advice on the craft, including wisdom from Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Susan Sontag, W.H. Auden, James Baldwin, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, and other beloved authors.

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