Tuesday, January 19, 2010
My earliest recollection of friendship was my mother's advice - "View today's friends like tomorrow's enemies." She tended to be a bit skeptical of all my friendships and, much to my chagrin, more often than not was frustratingly right. Much like Confucian writers, she clearly viewed my every friendship as potentially dangerous. And she would point out each friend's flaws before stressing that "birds of a feather flock together".
Confucian writers coined it more poetically - "He who touches vermilion will be reddened, while he who touches ink will be blackened" or "enter a room fragrant with orchids. After some time one does not smell them but smells of orchids oneself". In contrast, to befriend a small man is to "enter a place where fish is smelt. After some time one does not smell the foul odors, but is emitting them."
In high school I was something of a loner and that is when I discovered the most fulfilling friends of all - books. In this way, I was allowed to vicariously experience a whole spectrum of emotions without suffering harmful physical consequences. Books not only took away the loneliness but also made me more multi-faceted, allowing me observe friendship for what it could be.
Aristotle opened my mind to the three forms of friendship -
1) Friends must enjoy each other’s company. (Pleasure)
2) Friends must be useful to each other. (Usefulness)
3) They must share a common commitment to the good. (Genuine)
Cicero said the same… adding that genuine friendship can only take place between good men.
“Let this, then, be laid down as the first law of friendship, that we should ask from friends, and do for friends', only what is good. But do not let us wait to be asked either: let there be ever an eager readiness, and an absence of hesitation. Let us have the courage to give advice with candour. In friendship, let the influence of friends who give good advice be paramount; and let this influence be used to enforce advice not only in plain-spoken terms, but sometimes, if the case demands it, with sharpness; and when so used, let it be obeyed.”
I longed for the idealistic romanticism of friendship but was always sabotaged by Nietzche who considered that to see a friend as someone ‘who wants the best for you’ is too shallow a notion. A true friend for Nietzsche is someone who by wishing you the ‘best’ wishes you ‘the worst,’ – struggle, strife, obstacles, fear, and ‘many good enemies.’ A friend for Nietzsche is not someone who accepts your every word and blindly follows in your steps or even someone who tries to ‘offer you a helping hand’ – this only promotes laziness, acceptance of one’s status, weakness and decadence. To wish truly one best also means to be in opposition, to propose contra-arguments, to go one’s own way and even destroy and fight against a friend’s plans. In the Nietzschean sense, the friend is the one ‘who wishes you to be strong.’ In contrast to a Christian who wishes you ‘heaven,’ that is meekness and decadence in otherworldly piety.
Perhaps there is no difference between a friend and an enemy or love and hate. Both friend and enemy is someone who you consider your equal. It is someone who you think is worth fighting against. From the fight, you both learn and ultimately strengthen your resolve. In fact, it might be said that ‘your best friend is also your best enemy, and your best enemy is your best friend.’ It gives a new term to the "frenemy" label that the "Sex and the City" TV series helped popularise.
With all this philosophical fluster it really is hard to believe that I have any friends at all! Nietzche didn’t. The two friends I acquired in recent years died last year, causing me to seek the meaning of this and to wonder if perhaps it was the act of death that made them genuine friends. And there is one friend that has stood the test of time – perhaps only because distance and a 24-hour flight separate us.
My daughter's own questions enhance the confusion. The wheel has come full circle and now it is time to help my children resolve issues that I have yet to conclude upon. Thankfully I have the good sense to avoid statements like “View today’s friends like tomorrow’s enemies.” But I can’t help being Confucian and confused and all knotted up like Nietzche – worried that her every friendship may potentially harm her and make her stink of fish.