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Sunday, 21 March 2010

On Friendship

I’ve just come back from spending a few days in Ireland where, among other things, I had the opportunity to meet up with a number of very old friends. It was a marvellous series of encounters, one which left me with a feeling I can only described as blessed; blessed by the luck I had to encounter such people in my life and even more, blessed by the fact of their friendship.

I have lived a life which, for many complex reasons I’m not going to go into here, has been characterised by quite a number of pretty radical discontinuities. One of the major factors which has given me the courage to make major changes or to cope with them when they have occurred, apart from the continuing dynamic stability of that basic, continually changing, evolving and growing anchor known as family, is the support and (often unquestioned and unreflected) presence of friends. There have been phases in my life where I have just accepted such things as a given but, as I have grown older (and hopefully wiser), I have come to realise just what an amazing grace friendship is and how important it is to cherish it and, when the opportunity presents itself, to invest a bit of effort in it – just to make or re-establish contact, to mutually give one another that gift where the giving is so far less than that which we get from it; a little time.

“Friendship” is a word which has suffered under a strange kind of inflation in recent years. Facebook has a lot to answer for in this regard, with every occasional contact you make automatically gaining the sobriquet “friend” (although that’s still better than Twitter’s “followers”). This is not at all to knock the hugely positive effect the internet has had in the whole area of building up and sustaining friendships – I find it marvellous in many ways and it has helped me track down quite a number of old friends and revivify our relationships. It has also been a platform for me to forge a number of new friendships, which are developing and deepening all the time, with people I have not yet seen “in real life” (and doesn’t that open some more exciting vistas for the future? J).

Sartre once commented, “L’enfer, c’est les autres.” Although I would regard myself in many ways as an existentialist, I see this as too pessimistic, or perhaps just incomplete. Anyone who has gone through an acrimonious break-up of a relationship will immediately confirm that hell can be other people, but they can be heaven too – perhaps no more so than in that suspension of time and sense of the limits of one’s own self which happens in the delight of meeting with real friends. Thinking about this post, my magpie-like memory threw up a hint about something I vaguely remembered reading once and, thanks once more to the internet, I was able to track it down. More than two thousand years ago, Cicero wrote a treatise on friendship, de Amicitia. Dealing with a view that “our affection to [friends] should exactly correspond and equal theirs to us…” he responds, “such a view reduces friendship to a question of figures in a spirit far too narrow and illiberal, as though the object were to have an exact balance in a debtor and creditor account. True friendship appears to me to be something richer and more generous than that comes to; and not to be so narrowly on its guard against giving more than it receives. In such a matter we must not be always afraid of something being wasted or running over in our measure, or of more than is justly due being devoted to our friendship.” (De Amicitia, 16)

Thank you, Marcus Tullius, I couldn’t have put it better myself! And thank you too, my friends, just for being there. I’ll be seeing you …

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