Too much analysis of friendship can only leave one without much trust for the friends they have. Once we begin to question who our friends are, what their intentions are and why they are our friends, the mind is filled with doubt and suspicion. Though, let’s do it anyway.
While it may be in our best interest to just consider our friends as people with a mutual compassion, understanding and liking, what is the flip side? What lies beneath a slight scratch of the surface in this idea of friendship? Such questions may seem pessimistic, but somewhat necessary to balance the often gushing testaments to the joys of friendship.
Take for instance what the French philosopher, Blaise Pascal had to say about friends; “Few friendships would survive if each one knew what his friend says of him behind his back.” We may defend, in the presence of others, that our true friends are not the people we speak bad of, or that speak negatively of us, yet is this entirely true? Even the people we consider to be our closest friends are our greatest critics when we are not in ear shot. Perhaps a truly good friend will openly criticize us, to be helpful or constructive, yet as Pascal said, too much criticism is contrary to an amicable survival.
Think of a time when you’ve said of your best friend something like, “Yea, she is a good person at heart, but….” There is always a “but…” when it comes to defining our friends and even ourselves, as we are imperfect beings filled with flaws. So perhaps those we consider our closest friends are those we perceive to think highly of us, or rather those who hide their negative views of us well.
This seems to be a natural state of human behavior, as other philosophers have pointed out. The philosophical novelist, Albert Camus once wrote, “Don’t believe your friends when they ask you to be honest with them. All they really want is to be maintained in the good opinion they have of themselves.” So our friends say nice things about us to our face, in the hopes that we will return the gesture. Most friends do not want a truthful opinion, they want an opinion that makes them feel good, and one that will keep the friendship strong.
What Camus gets at is something his compatriot Jean-Paul Sartre often philosophized about. That our friends, and even more-so our significant others, are people who make us feel good about ourselves. Simply put, Sartre believed that our identity, or existence as an individual, is only made up of, or recognized by the “other.” Meaning, it is other people’s opinions that make us who we are. We may have some influence in how we present ourselves to others, but in the end it is their opinions that create the identity we grasp.
If this is the case, then how do our friends shape our own identity and existence? One common saying that comes to mind is, “we are only as good as our friends.” Meaning, we are influenced by the company we keep, but with Sartre and Camus we can take this a step further; ‘We are only as good as our friends make us out to be.’ What are friends say about us, creates the identity that we try to uphold.
Naturally, we can not have a distrust of those we consider friends. Friends must be cherished and given the respect and compassion that we equally demand from them. Yet, for those of us cursed with a more contemplative angle on existence, friendship deserves some scrutiny.
Think of this on a much simpler level: something we’ll call the “pick-up truck friend.” Many of us know of people, or are even shamefully guilty of, using someone as a means to our own gainful end. This is accomplished by befriending that person, who will then do favors for you because it is for the sake of friendship. Hence, we stay friends with people who own pick-up trucks, because they can help us move sofas and such. It’s not uncommon for people with pick-up trucks, or expensive tools, to say that their possessions attract friends. Or they may complain that once they lose their useful possessions, they find out who their true friends are.
There are many dynamics to friendships and it is not entirely distasteful if friends can mutually use each other for a gainful purpose. Whether it is to gain status in social circles, to borrow utility, or as someone who makes us feel good about ourselves, it is a mutual means to a selfish end. Rarely, if ever, do we have friends that are just our friends for the sake of being friends.
Hopefully these thoughts just open up the question of who your friends are, and why you chose to be their friend. Remember that it is always a choice, as much as it may seem that we fall into or stumble upon friendships; we must choose to continue the relationship. Most of all question yourself, to see what is behind that choice, and as the saying goes, “choose your friends wisely.”