Tuesday, June 05, 2007

On Misanthropy and Friendship

One learns who is a friend in times of trial, but also who is not. Few people are friends and even friends have their own agendas. This is not about heroes and villains, but about how friendship, and the gratitude one feels toward friends, manages to dull the sharp truth that the more one knows humanity, more one loves one's (imaginary) dog.

My paternal grandfather was very fond of the latter saying, which I recall him voicing one morning while walking his dog. He attributed it to a Latin aphorist I have failed to come across. At the time my grandfather said it, I was a child in the quest for an answer to the question, "Are people mostly good or mostly bad?"

My mother pushed aside my grandfather's cynicism, deeming it perhaps a little too early for me to be soured on life and people. Thus steeped in an invincible optimism regarding the ever reformable character of all human beings, I have crashed repeatedly against the shoals of hearts so stone cold as to be chilling. This is so with those individuals who, deep down, are simply too painfully twisted to be able to cry out their own humanity.

To be sure, I myself carry within me my share of glacial cruelty and sorrow turned into pathology -- woe betide those who become exposed to the dark side of my moon, the lunatic I manage to talk into behaving in public ... most of the time. To an extent all of us are a bit like this: if people only knew who we really were!

Thankfully, people don't. Most people don't care enough to find out who we really are; they are busy enough with their own demons.

You learn this when a mishap strikes. You lose your job. Your marriage breaks up. Someone very dear to you dies.

People say trite meaningless things. They avoid you. (Or worse, in breakups some space cadets will call you for your former partner's new number.) You get the merest cold and it feels as if it is cancerous AIDS, because you are without a friend.

Your mailbox is empty of anything but bills and promotions. People want your money. Eventually some people want your sex. Or your humor. Or some quality that's on their shopping list.

Carry these minor toothaches to a grander scale and you have famines and genocides and the general unrelenting injustice of nearly everything in life -- especially that which makes you privileged enough to be within reach of air-conditioning, a computer, running water and enough money to inspire the funniest of Nigerian e-mail scams.

Let's face it: we humans stink. This is why I feel -- at least in the past few days -- as if I have come across a dandelion sticking out of a crack in a sidewalk.

No surprise that no one will ever love the netherman I hide in the innards of my soul. Yet what a delight that some people mildly like the man who clothes his mind in genteel language!

It happened like this. For some time now, I have been sending e-mail notifications of posts to my (mostly low-tech) acquaintances. The first paragraph and the permanent link. Then the blog got so heated that it vexed some people. The only solution was to end the notifications or turn to the opt-in method.

Predictably, I have not heard from the miscreants. Only from some who "live for your posts" or ask to "keep 'em coming."

My friends. The few and hardy ones who asked to be notified by e-mail whenever I post. One I have known since childhood, several I have only cybermet, most are somewhere in between.

For decades now, those who know me know, my guide on friendship has been Aristotle. The summer of my junior year in college I decided to go to take a few philosophy courses at a university near my father's house. I had not taken philosophy for several years, when I had thought I would become a priest.

Nixon was on the verge of impeachment. My girlfriend at the time took a trip to France. I think she was trying to decide how to break up. And none of this mattered in the long and meandering bus ride I had chosen to take, in the spirit of simplicity, from home to the campus and back every day.

Instead, I heard in the voice of Alexander the Great's childhood tutor (Nicomachean Ethics, bk. 8, ch. 3) the following words:
Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good, and alike in virtue; for these wish well alike to each other qua good, and they are good themselves. Now those who wish well to their friends for their sake are most truly friends; for they do this by reason of own nature and not incidentally; therefore their friendship lasts as long as they are good-and goodness is an enduring thing. And each is good without qualification and to his friend, for the good are both good without qualification and useful to each other. So too they are pleasant; for the good are pleasant both without qualification and to each other, since to each his own activities and others like them are pleasurable, and the actions of the good are the same or like. And such a friendship is as might be expected permanent, since there meet in it all the qualities that friends should have. For all friendship is for the sake of good or of pleasure-good or pleasure either in the abstract or such as will be enjoyed by him who has the friendly feeling-and is based on a certain resemblance; and to a friendship of good men all the qualities we have named belong in virtue of the nature of the friends themselves; for in the case of this kind of friendship the other qualities also are alike in both friends, and that which is good without qualification is also without qualification pleasant, and these are the most lovable qualities. Love and friendship therefore are found most and in their best form between such men.
Not to worry. I am old enough now to know not to test friendships. In my heart of hearts, however, this is what I hoped for with that girlfriend who went to France.

These days, any semblance of that, over coffee or sherry, in a cafe, a pub or in someone's home, even a shadow of it in an e-mail, a phone call, a letter, is icing on the cake.


Anne said...

I think most friendships are ephemeral, here today and gone tomorrow simply because our society is so mobile. And usually, where ordinary friendship leaves off a coupling or marriage more than fills the void.

In my twenty-six years at one place of employment the face of personnel changed in fifteen minute increments and every few months would bring a new set of interactive circumstances for employees. Those friendships filled a niche and as such they were perfect. Personal agendas or whatever self-serving purposes that may have been encountered are long forgotten, the hundreds met and known are an old treasure. That was just one part of my life.

As much as we associate with friends, the real friendships so many of us long for are rare. My father had a 70+ year friendship with one man, something I can’t imagine for myself. Then there are the friendships among family wherein even there “innards” are unknown as we all have our own edens.

Perhaps friendship is recognition of seeing something of ourselves in another so when the counterpart does live and act independently or contrary to that particular self, it is just a matter of acceptance of the whole person.

Joan said...

As anne says, such friendships, although rare, can exist; my mother remained close frinds with an old schoolfriend through adolescence, emigration, professional advancement and even entry into a religious order (the friend, that is!).
I have one friend from college days, and although we live in different cities and have many different aspects we do not share, on such times as we do meet it is as if the time apart was as nothing. The friendship does not depend on sharing a belief, but on accepting that something *is* the belief of the other. It is a total acceptance without conditions.
I do not know whether people are capable of forming such friendships after some critical age or stage of development; as we age, it becomes easier to "write people off" without seeking relationship - they may be decent people, but we cannot imagine a close friendship! Perhaps we raise our standards, and are more able to accept life without friends if need be!

thailandchani said...

I hate to keep pounding on American culture... (But I do anyway). Most people are good. I also believe people get too caught up in "stuff" to remember how important friends really are. Friendship, like anything else, takes time, effort and energy. When you put the aacquisition of friends in the same category as market activity, all those things go out the window. Again it's expedience, the concern that one might give more than take, score-keeping and a linear concept of reciprocity.

I've spent much time exactly where you are describing. Barren. I know the reason why that occurred and had to make a lot of adjustments.

My belief is that life itself is an uneven flow. Getting through it is much easier with friends who understand that.



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