Recently my friend Jaime Nubiola posted on this blog a reflection entitled “Time for Friendship”, about the difficulties of maintaining friendships over the years, when distance and simple lack of physical contact can undermine even deep friendships. Time spent together, in person, over a beer or cup of coffee, adventures experienced together, working together, sometimes even suffering together, these are the things that keep a friendship strong and healthy. The reality of our lives, however, is that distance, work and family can prevent us from dedicating this time to every friend, and sometimes the relationship withers for lack of care.
The tremendous value of friendship in our lives means that we must struggle to keep such friendships from suffering this fate whenever we can; letters, emails, phone calls, periodic visits, can all function to keep a friendship alive to some degree, and with those few people who are soul mates, the affectionate relationship will always blossom again when these opportunities for contact arise. However, there are occasions when life simply carries us far from our old friends and the living, vibrant relationship becomes fossilized, living primarily in our memories and in the souvenirs of correspondence and time spent together.
This realization can be a gloomy one, but it need not be, for there are important ways in which a friendship, once developed, can never be lost. In particular, we become who we are as persons partly through the influence of our friends, and as a result even a person whom we may never see again can continue to live on within us, exercising an important influence over our life.
In parts of Spain (especially in the region of Navarra and the Basque Country, which I am most familiar with) there is a tradition called the “cuadrilla”: this is an institution of friendship between a small group of men or women, usually four or five, who make a commitment early in life to become permanently united in a way that they will be with no one else. It is said that it can be harder to leave your cuadrilla than it is to get a divorce, and that you only escape by moving to another country or dying, or both. As a result of this powerful experience of friendship, a person becomes a different man or women than he or she would have been otherwise, as a result of being valued, listened to and helped throughout his or her life.
Not all friendships are as serious and long-lasting as the cuadrilla relationship, but they still have a powerful effect on us precisely because of the fact that in them, especially in the deepest relationships, we have the experience of being valued for ourselves and not for any benefit we might bring or any role we might be playing. It is no accident that those who have the most and best friendships in their lives are those who are usually the most “humanized”, for in friendship we learn many human skills that make our lives much, much better. In particular, we learn that it is possible to love and be loved in a pure, non-utilitarian way, something that we all too often do not experience in our other relationships, especially those of work and community. Even family can treat us more in terms of our being a good son or daughter, or a good husband or father, than in terms of our own value as persons independently of anything we can do or provide.
Friendship is a mirror in which we can see ourselves truly in a way that is very life-giving: when our friend calls us up to have a beer or coffee with us, or invites us to go mountain-climbing with him or her, or asks us to come to a special party with other friends, we are experiencing the warmth of being valued just for ourselves, and if we are wise we will learn to base our opinions of ourselves more on these experiences of friendly love and affection than on our successes or failures in the many roles we must play in life. The person with at least a few good friends will know him or herself as he or she really is for others at a non-superficial level: in friendship we are seen deeply by others and still desired, despite our flaws.
Another of the great gifts of friendship that helps us to become more human is the way in which our friends provide windows onto aspects of reality, of the world, that we could never see by ourselves. Because our friends are different people, their vision on the world will not always align with our own, but we can learn from them to see the world in a way that takes us beyond our own rigid categories. We learn to see beauty in things we would never have noticed otherwise, to value activities or people or books or art or sports, or a multitude of other things, just because we enjoy spending time with our friends doing things they like to do. In this way, we become enriched by new ways of thinking, feeling and experiencing the world.
As Kant points out in the Metaphysics of Morals, one of the things that friendship involves is taking on your friend’s (legitimate) ends and purposes as your own. In this way, as you develop in friendship with another person, you become seeded with deep expressions of that other person’s spirit: his or her goals and dreams and hopes. If you are a true friend, you wish for him or her the best of what that person wishes for him or herself. And in the end, these ends naturally end up becoming ends and goals for you, things that you see as worthy.
All of these gifts of friendship are not lost when you are no longer able to spend as much time with your old friends as you might like. While it is of course best to commit ourselves to spending important amounts of time with those who love us this way, the gifts we receive (mirroring the gifts we give) from friendship do not disappear just because a particular relationship has grown cool.
When we have to leave the context of a given friendship, either because we move away, become too involved in family or work, or simply change as persons, we nonetheless carry within us, like a tattoo that can fade but never disappear, the mark of the people we have allowed into our lives as friends. They remain inside of us as the foundation for whatever we may later come to be, and as a result even “lost” friendships maintain their value: they provide us the ability to make new friends in other, new circumstances, because we now know what it is to love and be loved as a friend, and we remain able to love ourselves in a way we otherwise could not thanks to the experience of being valued just for ourselves.
In this sense, the only way to truly “lose” a friendship is to reject or forget the gifts that it gave us. While being able to spend time in the physical presence of another person is not always within our control, our ability to maintain the vision of who we were/are in that friendship is within our control, and living that out can be the best way to honor a great friend whom we may no longer be able to be with in the flesh.