I love being in the Bay Area. Because I went to school here, I know a lot of people around here. There’s always something to do; always someone to see. And when you know people, it’s also easy to meet new people. Seeing people is important. I have done no research into this, but I think there’s just something in the human brain that really likes the sight and sound of other people.
However, I think there’s also a danger of fetishizing friendship. For instance, a Facebook acquaintance recently linked me to this blog post, about slowing down and taking things easy and building up community networks. And I believe in all those things.
But it’s also important to realize that friendship–at least within the upper-middle-class American context within which I and most of my readers operate–is a very weak thing. I don’t mean it’s weak in that it’s valueless or ugly. I mean that it’s weak like a crystal sculpture: it’s a wonderful, graceful thing to have around…but if you put even a little bit of weight upon it then it will break.
My life has been very short, but from what I’ve seen, it seems obvious to me that your friends will not be there for you when you are poor or ill or suffering. If you are unemployed, they’ll forward your resume to someone, but they won’t let you live in their home, rent-free, for months or years. If you are ill, they might visit you in the hospital, but they will not nurse you back to health. If you are depressed, they will commiserate with you for a few hours, but if you keep being depressed–if all you can talk about, for months, is your depression–then they will stop talking to you.
Every time I write something like this on my blog, I feel like people see it as an indictment of them. It’s not. First of all, this is not based on personal experience. I’ve never had a major catastrophe in my life that necessitated help in this way. Second of all, I don’t see any particular need for the structure of friendship to be changed. This is what friendship is in our society. Saying that friendship should be stronger is like saying that motorcycles should have four wheels. It’s meaningless. A four-wheeled motorcycle is no longer a motorcycle.
Nor do I exclude myself from this summary. I like to think of myself as a person who’d go to the mat for his friends, but the truth is that I have already failed to do many of the above things for people who I was close to. If you are in dire trouble, I will probably not help you. Honestly, it won’t even occur to me that I should help you.
That’s why I am always a bit confused by people who put down and ignore their family. It’s fine to not be close to your family. And it’s fine to not like them. And it’s fine to not want to spend time with them. But there should at least be some kind of recognition that your family is all you have. I don’t know why this is, but I am fairly certain that even a weak and distant cousin would do more for me if I was in need than a fairly close friend would.
I’ve also found that the Indian-American community is close in a way that friends are not. I’ve seen examples of people who went through tremendous effort to help people with whom they had a very tenuous relationship, simply because they were both within the same part of the Indian-American community.
Which is just another example of how friendship is different from a relationship of mutual aid. Friendship is based on pleasure: you’re friends with a person because being around them makes you happy. The other relationships in our life aren’t necessarily like that: you don’t necessarily like your cousins or parents or children or wife or fellow churchgoers or the guys who sit in your section of the stands at the stadium. You don’t need to like them. You’re bound together by something that transcends pleasure. And I think it’s that connection–a kind of connection that, no matter how weak, cannot be severed at your convenience–that leads people to help each other.
I often ask people whether they have any enemies, because I am fascinated by the concept of the enemy. I don’t have any. And most people I know don’t have any either (outside of, perhaps, their work). And that’s nice, but it also means that we live in a context where we can sever relationships very casually, simply because we no longer like a person. And when people stop being fun for us, that’s what we–either consciously or unconsciously–choose to do.
Okay, so, right, this is all a bit of a downer, I guess, but it doesn’t need to be. I think most people already know this, more or less instinctively. But some people don’t. Some people put a lot of their emotional energy into their friends. They expend all this time and effort with the feeling that somehow, in some way, this will be rewarded. And it’s more than time. It’s getting emotionally wrapped up in other people: thinking about them, feeling their emotions, kindling a sort of platonic love for them. All of that can be very intense and sometimes even very pleasurable. But don’t make the mistake of thinking it imposes an obligation on either you or them. And don’t let it prevent you from maintaining or pursuing the kinds of relationships that will sustain you when you are in need.