The Mechanics and Importance of Friendship

The Westside of Grand Rapids is an odd place.

This makes it, along with the sidewalks that run near every street, one of the best places to amble in the city. You’ll always see something over there that will jar your thoughts to their furthest corners. Last time I was there, I was walking with a friend of mine. We saw, in order:

1.) A bowling ball, in the grass on a street corner

2.) A cardboard cutout of a pop starlet we could not identify, just standing in front of a garage

3.) A garage that was clearly once a horse stable

4.) Six gallon buckets that once held soy sauce holding down a tarp on a roof

These things make for a weird walking adventure. They give us ample things to discuss, not that we ever need them. I’d think that we could probably talk each others ears off given the chance.

Oddly, we are very different people: he smokes cigarettes and I’ll smoke a pipe or a cigar once in awhile; he can kill me in a sprint, but I can crush him over any significant distance; he lives life by the seat of his pants and I try to plan my out as carefully as I can.

So naturally, this begs the question: why are we good friends? And further, why is this question worth asking?

It’s definitely worth asking because friendship is wholly underrated in our lives. The bulk of research that you see about relationships usually talks about marriage, families, their failures or successes. Relatively few books and studies have been written about friendship.

One study that does speak to friendship is entitled Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks Over Two Decades.

This is a sad study if there ever was one.

When researchers first asked the study’s questions in 1985, about 10% of the people surveyed had no one in whom they could confide. Now that seems like a high number, but in 2004, that number rose to almost a quarter. Almost half of the people surveyed had only one or fewer people with whom they could have a serious conversation.

That one person was usually a spouse or a family member. These people usually share background, race, education, and all sorts of different demographics with the respondent. So not only are we talking to fewer people, but they are more or less like us.

It gets even worse when you actually read what people thought of as an important conversation. Researchers did ask what people thought constituted a serious conversation, and one answered ‘getting a haircut.’

Maybe they interviewed Samson for this study, but I doubt it.

Worst of all is the mode of the different responses. In under two decades, the number of confidants of modal survey respondent had gone from three to none.

We know that human beings are social animals. We know that in isolation, people break down physically and mentally. Social connection is so important to our well being that if you want to extend your lifespan, quitting smoking or joining a social club will actually have a similar effect. Friendship can combat depression, make you more resilient, and even decrease your risk of cancer.

Though the stakes are so high, the sad thing about friendship is that we become worse and worse at maintaining them as time goes on. People often talk about how easy it was to make friends in school, or in college. The majority of these friendships fall apart, but as we navigate life, we need friendships as we make the big decisions that effect the course of our lives.

Further, our friends shape us. They can make you sharper, or duller. That’s why it’s not good to be friends with just anyone; you have to be careful in picking. But you can pick. By and large, you can’t pick your coworkers or neighbors or family. You can always pick your friends.

But how do we pick our friends?

There are two very important aspects of friendship we need consider. The first is values.

Values get a bad reputation in our culture because when people use this word, they’re usually using it to beat people over the head with a moral system, or deny people rights that are rightfully theirs. It is, nonetheless, a useful term. A value is simply an idea you have about life. It’s something that you hold dear. It’s a foundation of what you do everyday.

If values do not click, then you need to think long and hard about how this person will fit into your life, because, like it or not, that person will affect who you become in the future.

Usually, if the values click, the little things take care of themselves. But there are times when they don’t. You might meet a person who shares all the values you have. They might be great people, run in your circle of friends, but you two never really hit it off. It’s almost strange, because it’s not always easy to find someone that shares the same values as you do.

This is a problem of timing.

If you ever watch Fred Astaire dance, you understand what impeccable timing looks like. Just look at this scene. There’s something really satisfying about all those damn clicks he makes with his feet. It’s delightful. So it goes with friends; both people can move to the right rhythm, or step on each others toes. Stepping on toes is a forgivable offense, but it still does not make for good friendship.

You don’t have to be Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers, however; the more you practice friendship, the better you get at it. But you only get better the more conscious of your own values you are. This will ensure that you are not wasting time with friends who don’t share the same values you do, that don’t sharpen you, that don’t make you to be a better person.

In 1959, a researcher named Frieda Fromm-Reichmann commented that little work was being done on loneliness because it is ‘such a painful, frightening experience that people will do practically everything to avoid it.’

The opposite is also true. There is a real joy with finding other people with whom you can really connect. Ones who share your values, but are not like you. This only grows in importance as we go out into the world, and it’s something of which we need to be conscious. You never know what you’ll learn from people.

I never did know, for instance, that ambling was a value I had. I always like to walk with friends and talk about things. Some of my best memories are just us walking me and my friends around, doing nothing, and filling the air with natter.

It turns out that old philosophers would never sit when they were teaching or arguing; they would simply keep walking around the same field over and over again, talking endlessly. Even though they had no goal, they were always going somewhere. Now I am not a philosopher, but such walks lead somewhere with the right company, even if you’re going nowhere in particular.

If anything, they’ll lead you to a bowling ball on the Westside: a particularly interesting object, situated in a particularly interesting place.

There’s a metaphor in there somewhere, I think.

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