Monday, January 24, 2005

I'm terrified that what I feel for my friends is more than what they feel for me. I'm worried that I'm not as witty and interesting and as good company as what they're looking for and that one day, they'll look at me for who I really am and choose to break off their relationship with me and move on. It may sound incredibly silly for someone like me to think like that, but I really do worry about this.

Excerpts from What are friends for?
The Guardian
January 24 2005
Jenni Russell

You choose your friends, not your family - and for many today, the former have become the most important people in their lives. But are you sure your friends really like you as much as you like them? And how do you know they will still be around in five years' time?

"Friendship has been given a special status in our society. It is contrasted with all those relationships over which we have so little control; the families we can't change, the neighbours who irritate us, the colleagues we have to put up with. Friends are thought of as the joyous, freely chosen part of our lives, and it's assumed that those relationships are always pleasurable. If asked how you're spending the weekend and you say staying in or seeing your family or your colleagues, people may think you're a little sad. Say you're seeing friends and there's an assumption that you too are desirable, connected.

"On one level, friendships are very simple. They are the bonds between people who enjoy one another's company. But probe deeper and it's evident that there is no consensus about what it means. Start talking to people about friendship and it becomes clear that while people value it and seek it, there is also much confusion, hesitancy and disappointment about friends in many people's lives. Friendship is one of those areas full of hidden assumptions and unspoken rules. We only discover that our friendship doesn't mean what we think it does when those assumptions clash."

"Most of us feel a certain pride about our friends, pleased that they have chosen us, and that we have chosen them. We tend to believe that they reflect some important truths about who we are. Yet making friends isn't an exercise in free choice, any more than buying a house is. We buy houses according to what we can afford, what happens to be on the market when we're looking, and whether a capricious owner decides to accept our offer. Friendship is rather similar. We can only choose our friends from among the people we meet, in circumstances where making a friendly overture would be appropriate, and who show a reciprocal interest in knowing us."

"Often, we don't know where we fit into friends' lives. We may like them enormously, but not know whether they'd like us to get any closer. Are we in the first dozen, or the remotest 90 in their circle? If they ask us to dinner once a year, is that an honour because they only entertain twice, or a sign of our unimportance, because they hold dinners every week?

"This degree of uncertainty exists partly because many of us now lead lives in which we are the only connecting thread. It is perfectly possible for much of our lives to be opaque to anyone who knows us. They may only ever encounter one particular facet of our existence, because we can, if we choose, keep parents, past acquaintances, old partners, colleagues, friends, and neighbours in totally separate boxes. Many people value the anonymity and freedom that gives them. The flip side is that just as we are not known, so we cannot really know others."

"Does it matter that we can distinguish between deep friendships and transient or superficial ones? Talking to a wide range of people, it was clear that few of them are really happy with the friendships they have. Many of them feel privately wistful about the lack of depth, or in tensity, or number of their relationships. People with consuming jobs are sad that they haven't had the time to build stronger bonds, and wonder whether it's too late to develop them; mothers with time to spare want to find new friends but don't know how. Many people would like to have more friends, or deeper, warmer, more reliable relationships than the ones they have now, but don't know how to go about it."

"It isn't easy, because friendship is a subtle dance, and no one wants to be explicitly pursued when it's unwelcome, or explicitly dropped when they are not wanted. Nor does it come with any guarantees. People are unpredictable. But we need to play the game of friendship. Evidence shows that people with close friends live longer and are happier than those without. And friendship defines what it means to be human. As the Greek philosopher Epicurus observed: 'Of all the things that wisdom provides to help one live one's life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship. Eating or drinking without a friend is the life of a lion or a wolf.'"

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