Friendship Is Not Simple: Socrates’ Word

Last Monday I handed in the new book I’ve been working on. Stay tuned for more on that. Publication will be early June 2019. After breathing a sigh of relief, I played catch up on the accumulation of deferred tasks. Then I spent the weekend and last week taking advantage of a window in my schedule to see friends. That’s why there was no fable last week. I was sharing conversation and celebration and good food and theatre and movies (Colette, Smallfoot, Border and Beautiful Boy) and meditation and charcoal and pearl facemasks with friends from ten-years old to eighty-one.

Spending time with quite a few of the different and wonderful humans who people my life has provoked me to reflect on friendship. If you’ve read any of these fableogs over the last year, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that I looked back to the 17th century to see what Jean de La Fontaine was thinking (WWJDLFD—what would JDLF do?—might be the motto of my last twelve months).

On this subject, JDLF himself cast his own eyes back quite a few years.

 One day Socrates built a house. Everyone criticized his work. One said, he couldn’t lie, that the interior was unfit for such a celebrity. Another blamed the façade. All were of the opinion that the rooms were too small. What a house for the likes of him! A person had barely enough room to turn around.  

Thanks be to heaven, Socrates said. At its size the house can be full of real friends.

The good Socrates was right to think his house would be too big if there was room for these folk. Everyone claims to be a friend. Only the foolish rely on such declarations.

Nothing is more common than the word. Nothing is more rare than the thing.

Ever since I read this fable, I’ve considered whether I agree with this Socrates-via-JDLF point of view. Yes, we are closer with some friends than others. But the friends we call in extremis to bail us out on a dark night of the soul are not our only true friends. This business of trueness is more complicated. Unlike Socrates, I want to welcome more friends, rather than less. Yet, like Socrates, I feel a sense of approach-avoidance, too, beneath the desire for a spacious house.

As I try to sort out what is true in friendship, it is reciprocity that comes to mind. Many a friendship has washed up on the shoals of reciprocity. We all give more than we get with some friends. We all get more than we give with others. Perfect reciprocity is rare indeed.

There are days when resentment bubbles to a head. Then I grumble about draining my resources (time, attention, psychic space) on a friend. What I want from people may shift; and how do they know that if I don’t tell them, which I’m not good at? When my expectations are disappointed I allow the letdown to sting more than it should. There’s a strong likelihood that at the same moment, someone else is resenting me. After all, as the wise writer Anne Lamott says, “Expectations are resentments under construction.”

In addition to the intricacies of reciprocity, I’ve long harbored a deep-seated fear that my friends don’t really like me. Even with my closest friends, I’ll feel shy about asking if they are free to get together. I’ll think to myself, “Oh if they wanted to see me they would have asked already.” Sometimes I give less than I might, because I’m nervous about being intrusive.

When I was a teenager, I often felt friendless. In Grade Seven I lost my best friend over … well, for a reason I’ve never known, even now as I write these words. I never found that group of quirky soul-friends of so many indie films. I remember thinking that friendship must get easier as a person gets older; that there would be fewer psychological complexities. Yes, we may learn (if we’re lucky) to manage our emotional responses better, but that doesn’t mean we won’t feel our friendships keenly. Yet as adults we often think we can’t talk about these tricky feelings, because we’re grown up and therefore should have figured it out.

Well, I haven’t.

I’ve started to wonder if the whole friendship and reciprocity thing needs to be practiced on a wider pay-it-forward basis. I should do things for friends because I enjoy the doing, not because I expect something in return.

Yet, as much as I get joy from giving, part of the reason I enjoy someone’s company is because I feel good under the warm light of their attention. Sigh. Finding the balance between giving freely and reciprocity in true friendship is a thousand-piece puzzle with missing pieces.

Here’s what I know. No one friend can fill every nook and cranny of our needs. There are friends for intense conversation and friends for bowling and laughter. There are old friends who knew us when and there are new friends who make us feel shiny.

We can be generous with less expectation. When resentment seeps in (because it will), then that’s a signal to consciously reevaluate and recalibrate, to ensure that we are not frittering our friendship resources down the black hole of a toxic or hurtful relationship. When we have seen a friend, we should think, “I’m sure glad I saw you.”

I want my heart to house a bigger space than Socrates’. I aspire to spend my frienergy wisely and abundantly.


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