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A Reflection on Friendship and Its Vicissitudes
Bill Olmsted

Trust is the basis for friendship. Trust increases through mutual self-­disclosures. As friends get to know each other better, their mutual understanding increases along with their self-understanding. “Until I said those things to you, I hadn’t realized just how I had felt about the whole subject.” In a perfect world, the growth of trust and understanding would continue indefinitely, but the world is not perfect and neither are we. So misunderstandings occur and, with them, trust is broken or reduced or at least altered in some important way. “I hadn’t known how much you loathed Picasso or I wouldn’t have sent you the poster.” The nature of trust, however, is that it implies a certain resilience. Otherwise, the friendship is simply a coincidence of shared and probably temporary interests. “Thanks for the help. I can do it on my own now.” Deeper and more durable friendship rests on a different foundation, one that might be called a shared view of something really significant, be it a profession, calling, faith, or commitment. Here the risk of friendship becomes apparent, because a loss of trust in these circumstances is experienced like a threat to what one finds most valuable, most worth living for. When my musical composition is rejected by the National Endowment for the Arts, I may feel outraged or depressed, but at some level I won’t take it personally. When my friend finds it obnoxious and silly, however, it is hard not to feel betrayed or ashamed. The friend, unlike the NEA judges, will know or guess how much toil and tears went into the composition; accordingly, her dismissal feels like a rejection of my core being.

Clearly, friendship involves such risks and often calls for great discretion when it comes to truth-telling. “Should I just blurt it out? Won’t it be easier in the long run if I just tell her this piece is garbage instead of pussyfooting around the truth?” Friends sometimes unwittingly put each other on the horns of such dilemmas and, seeking reassurance, seem to be inviting the friend to pass a judgment that might better be withheld. Pressures like this can build up in a friendship and lead to angry outbursts. “Your habit of ending every letter with ‘wish you were here’ drives me crazy. It’s an annoying cliché that sounds like a secret rebuke.” This is a trivial example, but more profound ones are easy to come by. The more we know about each other, the more likely we are to see not only the lovely but the ugly sides of our personalities, the weaknesses as well as the strengths of our characters. How ought a friend respond to our imperfections as they manifest themselves in our words or actions?

Current wisdom tells us that such communications must be done in a non-judgmental way. “I felt uncomfortable when you called the waiter an idiot” is softer than “You really threw your weight around when you bullied the waiter, but you embarrassed me and made a fool of yourself.” The friend should focus on his own feelings instead of our bad behavior. Such is the doxa, but living up to it is more challenging when the friend has offended us directly, has mocked or rebuked us while claiming a higher moral ground for himself. His anger is wholly justified; our bad attitudes are wholly blameworthy. And yet it is just this kind of one-sided confrontation that occurs when feelings run deepest, when some closely held value or belief or dream has been challenged, intentionally or not, by the friend. Obviously there has been a good deal of ignorance or blindness on my part, because I would not have told a joke about Polish ­cleaning ladies if I had known your granny was from Warsaw. And you would be right to insist that it was not just the ethnic humor that offended but the sudden realization that I, your friend, liked to mock those who don’t share my class and ethnicity. End of the line or a chance to reorient and redefine the friendship?

Experience tells us that breaches of trust in friendship are not always repaired. When I discover that you have been pilfering money from my house, that you have tried to seduce my wife, that you lied to me about the recommendation I asked for, such matters are hard to accommodate to friendship. But smaller offenses can be fatal as well, provided that they somehow manage to put serious cracks in the idealized images and self-images that are often a part of friendship. “I thought you would at least call me if you happened to be in town; I thought you would at least talk to me for a few minutes after the meeting; I thought you would send me a Christmas card, etc.” As the wisdom of Al-Anon and other twelve-step programs reminds us, however, expectations lead to resentment. And not just when we are dealing with alcoholics, because we do expect that friends, unlike alcoholics, will have some love to give us, that they will be there for us, that they will make themselves available to us. Accordingly, we can accept correction from our friends because we trust them; we can endure their anger because we know they love us; we can wait a long time to hear from them; we can believe that they will accept our apologies and help us to be better. Why? Because in order to become friends in the first place, we needed to establish trust by risking the loss of self-esteem and the security of secrecy through a series of self-disclosures, a gamble that the friend also took.

Consequently, the death of a friendship involves a loss as great or even greater than an actual death. Some part of our being has gone. And while we can say of the dead, “May his memory be a blessing,” the death of a friendship challenges the very foundations of our good, trusting outlook on other persons. When friendship dies, it becomes harder to believe in the benefits of trust and the whole project of community with others. “He wasn’t really interested in my research on Hispano-Arabic poetry; he only wanted to have sex.” Such an end to friendship can have catastrophic effects that go beyond the injury to self-esteem and the radical depreciation of trust to include a loss of interest in poetry, a discounting of intellectual companionship, suspicion of positive initial impressions, and so on. Are such potential costs worth the risk of friendship? Friends must answer such questions themselves. No one else can speak authoritatively to such important matters.

Again, the deepest friendships are those where there is an intersection of core values, no matter how sharp other dissimilarities may be. Your passion for volleyball or squash has no echo in my stamp collecting, but our love of poetry has brought us together every Tuesday night for years. And in these discussions of Yeats, Donne, Dickinson, and others, we have not merely shared our literary opinions but have struggled together to understand poetry’s capacity to touch and elevate the soul. Yet for all that I realize that you are a Republican! How can this difference not destroy the pleasure we share in reading poetry together? Obviously, one needs a sense of boundaries, a recognition that friendship and the strong connection it affords are not unlimited: don’t go there, Bill, if you want to stay friends. When we are young, such advice sounds contradictory to the very notion of friendship and its Three Musketeers’ motto, all for one and one for all. But we are older now, so we are more likely to accept the fact that friendship thrives in certain rooms, so to speak, but does well to stay out of others. And when we blunder into one of these rooms that ought to have been off-limits, we can only apologize for our tactlessness and ask the friend’s forgiveness. Should he withhold it, we are indeed facing a terrible prospect in which trust gives way to shaming and blaming, warmth and affection replaced by fury and disgust.

Sometimes it takes all of our strength not to yield to the anger that an apparent betrayal of friendship calls up in us. We want to annihilate the source of pain, to restore our self-esteem at any cost by striking back and “getting even.” But even a friendship that has imploded was, in its day, a friendship, and so revenge must seem like a retroactive cancellation of that past, the injured party’s misguided effort to make the whole thing go away. And then there is the inextinguishable spark of hope. No matter how deeply we have been injured by a friend’s anger or disgust or silence, the last remnant of friendship is the hope that, sometime and somehow and God willing, the friend will be restored to us.

 

Bill Olmsted is Senior Professor in Humanities in Christ College, Valparaiso University’s Honor College.

 

Author’s Note: I found much to inspire this reflection in the following:

Story of Jonathan and David, in 1 Samuel 17: 55–8, 18: 1–11, 19: 1–10, 20: 1–42.

Story of Ruth and Naomi, in Ruth 1: 15–17.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Friendship,” in Essays: First Series (1841).

Martin E. Marty, Friendship. Allen, Texas: Argus, 1980: 191–212.

Michel de Montaigne, “Of Friendship.” In Essays (1580).

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