So I’ve got less than six months until I turn thirty and I think I might, for the first time, just be starting to get my head around friendship. Maybe.
I don’t know if friendship as a whole is something that other people think about a lot, above and beyond individual friendships, or whether it is more something that people mainly just get on with doing, having friendships and enjoying them. I know everybody feels alone sometimes, and also that it is possible to feel as lonely, perhaps even more so, when we are surrounded by people, as it is when we are shut away from them.
I tend to spend too much time thinking about most things instead of actually just getting on with doing them but it feels like its time – with regards to friendship – to try and get my thoughts down into something that is a little more coherent.
They say that you don’t really start to come to terms with Death until you have to confront it up close. I was discussing the talk We will not be reborn in neat places with a friend last week. I had recommended it to her because watching it had made an pretty enormous impact on me, and one that has continued to grow over time. Perhaps the most important (but far from the only) thing that I took from the talk was with regards to how we chose to look at the challenges that confront us in life. The talk encouraged me to try and see my illness and the associated challenges that come with it as being a part of the way, rather than as undeserved and unfair obstacles that are blocking the presupposed straight line from wherever I was to wherever I supposed I should be in the future. This shift in thinking, although quite difficult to genuinely embrace at first – I have a natural, and unfortunate tendency to feel hard done by I think – has been pretty damn helpful for me psychologically. I’m hoping that my sunnier outlook may also reap some rewards with regards to my bodies efforts to heal itself too.
At this point I want to make it clear that I have some serious issues with positive psychology or what I like to cheerfully call the ‘cult of happiness’. Similarly I do not interpret the double-slit experiment as signifying the existence of a quantum consciousness operating as the fundamental creator of reality. Therefore I do not think for a second that you can simply think yourself healthy. However, I do think that the division of mind and body is an artificial one – albeit sometimes extremely useful. During my illness I have experienced first hand the way in which issues with the body can directly affect the mind and how you are feeling, and I think it is reasonable to assume that changes in the mind also impact the body and that a positive (but realistic) mindset can’t hurt when you are trying to recover from illness. Enough of this for now though, I’m going to write a whole post about this at some point.
Getting back on topic then, what was interesting about this talk (and do watch, it.. there is a lot of stuff in it and I reckon at least one thing in it will chime with you) for my friend was that it drew her attention to the realisation that she needed to spend some more time getting to know death. She is in the very fortunate position whereby she has yet to lose anybody close to her, and the speaker’s discussion of his own fathers death made her want to begin to prepare herself for the inevitable loss that she will experience, knowing full well that it is going to affect her life – and perhaps the way she thinks about life – when it eventually happens.
I wonder if the same principle applies to other things. Does it require us to become ill before we can really start to apreciate what it means to be healthy, does loneliness teach us things about friendship that no amount of joyful camaraderie can? I’m not about to start advocating suffering on the grounds that it makes us better or even just more informed as people. But it does seem that our own experiences of suffering can sometimes allow us to be more compassionate and more humane towards others, just as it can also encourage us to simply inflict that suffering onto others.
I’m not really suggesting that we simply embrace suffering. After all, I’ve spent a lot of time of late listening to talks by buddhist monks and meditating on a daily basis in an attempt to relieve myself from it to some degree. Suffering, along with death and taxes seems to be an almost ever-present part of existence so I don’t think we need to wallow in it, or that there is anything wrong with wanting to reduce how much suffering we experience. There is, after all, more than enough to go around! What I do think is that given that all but the most completely enlightened of us experience suffering to some degree, we may as well have a relationship with it whereby we learn from it as we experience it, rather than simply trying to deny or suppress it, or inadvertantly amplify it by viewing it as an inevitable consequence of (what we perceive as) our own inadequacies and failings.
One thing is clear about my own recent experience, and that is that my period of illness and the isolation and loneliness that I have felt, perhaps more keenly than ever before in my life, have dramatically altered the way in which I think about friendship.
If I look back at my life it divides itself relatively neatly into four relatively distinctive phases of friendship. The first, which roughly corresponds up until the point at which I finished primary school was largely a happy one, with close friends and memories of exuberant birthday parties. The second, stretched from (and was partly a response to) the death of my best friend in a car accident and lasted all the way up until after I graduated from university. This phase was largely defined by feelings of otherness, separation, and a profound loneliness, the sense of an absence of friendship even where it existed, and only sporadically broken by my first tumultuous and rather intense attempts at romantic relationships. The Third, which corresponds with my return to Bristol after university, represents for the first time in my adult life the proliferation of friendship and eventually of a sense, almost always held in some disbelief even as I relished it, of my own popularity. The final stage, which precedes to a certain degree my illness, represents a certain coming back down to earth, not always smoothly, and of a dramatic reconsideration of what friendship is, and what it means to me… and finally now to the emergence of this idea of ‘slow’ friendship.
An emerging leitmotif of this blog appears to be the way in which contemporary capitalist society influences the way in which we think about ourselves. It was only after I had read Mark Fishers incredible book Capitalist Realism that this really hit home in a very personal way for me. In reading his description of depressive hedonia; of an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure, driven by a sense that ‘something is missing’ but without the appreciation that this mysterious, missing enjoyment can only be accessed beyond the pleasure principle, I suddenly came face to face – to a disconcerting extent – with a reflection of myself.
Up until this point I had probably conceptualised my lifestyle in an extremely hazy way as being in some way counter-cultural and as somehow running contrary to the dominant consumerist discourse. I was able to convince myself that in keeping an open door policy with regards to my house whilst maintaining a near permanent run on local buck-fast supplies I was doing things differently. I was, I felt, joining a community of creative and like-minded free-thinking folk for whom the 9-5 slog was not the priority in life, but for whom staying up all night partying with friends and strangers alike was an act of liberation, an expression of ones freedom and of disdain for the usual dull rhythms of life, dominated by the need to adequately perform the requirements of regular paid work and its associated demands on ones spare time. Instead this life-style represented an attempt to move away from – or at least to reinterpret – the narrative of oneself and of others that is so often defined largely by that one little question ‘so what do you do?’, as understood in the narrowest, career orientated sense.
Obviously I conveniently chose to ignore the fact that partying still involves consumption (in the form of vast quantities of alcohol and other substances whose production is far more unethical than even the nastiest of cheese-burgers or the cheapest of top-shop items). I also chose to ignore the fact that while some of these activities may have been rather illegal, I was not really being any more counter-cultural than all of the people who go to Weatherspoons on a friday night to drown their misery; the main differences being a different – and in my opinion, much more interesting group of people who tend not to punch each other so much – almost never in fact, different locations, and much, much better music.
Now, while I studied critical global politics and was encouraged to theorise on the national, international and global scale, I was also able, really for the first time in my life, to begin to theorise my own individual existence. Despite the numerous moments of euphoric joy, of intense connection, even of community that came with this lifestyle and that would sometimes obscure the nagging feeling that something was missing, these feelings would always reappear, often with a brutal and savage intensity in the aftermath of another heavy weekend. Despite my (relative) newfound popularity, the feelings of loneliness that I felt as a teenager were often not far from the surface, despite my being surrounded by friends, acquaintances and lovers; the accumulation of whom I pursued almost as if my life depended on it. And to a certain degree, it really felt like it did. After all, if you chose not to define yourself by your job, by how much money you earn or by the possessions you own, it is very easy to fall instead into the trap of defining yourself by the quantity of connections that you have with other people, and for your self worth to become increasingly dependent on the accumulation not of financial capital but of some loosely defined form of social capital.
I have wilfully charged through these first three friendship phases, partly because they are now in the past, but mainly because it is the one that I find myself in now that I wish to talk about the most, and from which the fledgling concept of ‘slow’ friendship is emerging. Probably at this point I should plug another book which has made a massive contribution to my thinking about all of this stuff and also say a big thank you to my friend Ruth (Thankyou!) for encouraging me to read it in the first place. This is a book that is so good that is following in the esteemed footsteps of a few others (Capitalist Realism being one, The Spirit Level, and 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism being two others) whereby I have had to buy two copies; one for me to continue to refer back to, and one for lending to as many friends as possible. The book is called Rewriting The Rules, and is written by the wonderful Meg Barker. My mind was blown in multiple and spectacular ways as I read it to the extent that it would take a whole series of posts to even begin to cover all of the goodness in it. That being the case, the link I’ve attached above is to a Ted talk which gives you a good sense of what it (and she) is all about.
With regards to this post though, I want to draw on just one of many ideas that she discusses in her book, the idea that a romantic relationship is at the end of a day, a friendship like any other and yet when we talk about being ‘just’ or ‘more than’ friends, we place our romantic / sexual relationships on a pedestal far above our other relationships. In Rewriting the Rules, Barker argues that this places a great deal of pressure on our relationships and that we might benefit by treating our relationships more like friendships and our friendships more like relationships. After all, we tend to reserve a whole range of behaviours for our romantic / sexual relationships, behaviours which if incorporated into our friendships (state of relationship discussions, making the time to celebrate significant anniversaries, caring for each other when we are sick, being there during times of crisis, even a degree of physical intimacy like cuddling) might not only benefit these friendships but also in turn allow us to get more from our romantic / sexual relationships. Perhaps by privileging one form of relationship we are more likely to overlook others, which may then suffer as a consequence.
One thing that I became painfully aware of when I got ill was that because I was no longer able to physically attend events, my contact with much of my social circle very quickly shrank to zero. This would not be such a problem if I was ill for a few weeks and then recovered and was able to resume my normal lifestyle, but when illness lasts for months and even years it starts to feel like a very big problem. I received a letter recently from a very good friend of mine who had experienced this phenomenon for herself. Stuck in bed with a tooth infection, and feeling the emotional vulnerability that often accompanies being physically unwell, she was surprised to find that not a single one of her friends asked if she needed anything. They sent her nice wishes and said they were looking forward to seeing her when she was well again and that was it, leaving her in the meantime feeling miserable and alone. She asked me how it felt, being ill for such a long period of time, and although I didn’t say this at the time, the answer really is this: I felt as if I had been cut adrift from my life, and that a lot of people who I thought cared about me, at least to some degree, simply did not. And this I think raises a really important question. What do we want our friendships to be like? Are our friends the people that we can have fun with when things are going well? Are they the people who are there for us and who we are there for when things are not? Or can they be a combination of the two, people with whom we share our lives throughout both the ups and the downs?
Since I got ill I’ve spent more time alone than I’ve ever spent before in my entire life. I’ve now reached a point where I feel like this has allowed me to become friends with myself in a way that previously I might not have thought possible, and to develop a sense of self-reliance that I had long craved but been unable to achieve when my life was bursting with other people. However there have been (and may still be further) long periods where I have felt horribly isolated, paranoid, and bitter… unsure as to why people who I had tried to be there for during difficult times in the past (and yes, sometimes failed to be there for too) suddenly seemed to have completely forgotten about me. And then I thought back to my own previous phase of friendship, in which I was ever eager to accumulate more and more friends, to revel in the joy and excitement of newness. I spread myself pretty thin, too thin perhaps and I know that some of my closest friends felt neglected and like I didn’t really have time for them. We all want to be popular, it feels great to be the centre of attention, for people to know who you are, to remember you even if you don’t remember them, but surely there comes a point where adding new friends can only mean having less time for old ones, making it easier for these friendships to slip, and for you to be unavailable to people when they need you the most. The more people we have in our lives, the more we believe in our own popularity and self importance, the easier it is to let people slip off the radar when they are struggling.
I am currently at a point in my life where I can count the number of close friends I have in my life on two hands, and probably with a few fingers to spare. I’m currently not well enough to see more than one or two people a week at best and then only if they come and visit me for no more than an hour or two at my house. I feel lonely sometimes, but not more than I have done at any other point in my life, and here comes the good bit; these friends are the people who, despite their own busy lives, have stuck by me even while I am unable to be present in their lives in the way that I was previously, when i’m no longer the life and soul of the party, when I don’t have exciting stories of new experiences and people to share with them. Despite all of that, these are the people who have tried to support and encourage me when I’ve felt so low that I wanted to just put an end to everything, and who make me feel incredibly lucky – whatever else has been happening – to have the privilege of knowing them.
I see fewer people and I have fewer conversations than at any other point of my twenties, but I feel like the quality of that communication has gone up significantly. Perhaps this is because I have more time with myself, and more time to think about and be in tune with how I actually feel. Perhaps this is because I have given up trying to impress people – it’s not easy to do this when you are living at home with your parents and an exciting day consists of being able to go for a ten minute walk. Perhaps it is because in my current situation I have little choice but to be honest about the everyday realities of my life. Maybe this honesty creates a space for more meaningful conversation, maybe because I have less to say about myself I have more time to listen to other people and what they have to say. Perhaps it is because the people I’m talking to are the ones that I really care about and that really care about me, and perhaps simply because of the relative scarcity of these interactions I simply appreciate each one so much more than I did previously.
I know it is probably becoming de rigueur to slag off Facebook these days so I won’t spend too long doing it, but here are a couple of observations. I know that Facebook can be a real lifeline to people who are ill because it allows them to maintain some semblance of contact with people when they are physically unable to. While I appreciate this fact, for me, any form of electronic communication other than a phone / video call (and sometimes even these forms too) feels like such a pale and hollow imitation of real face to face contact that they feel like unwelcome if sometimes necessary evils. This being the case, during my lowest points Facebook simply allowed me to feel the kind of loneliness that comes with being around people whilst feeling emotionally disconnected from them and at the same time to feel the loneliness of being physically disconnected from other people too.
Whether we mean to or not, we do tend to self-censor on social media, to only share a rose-tinted version of our lives, and people can often be quite damning of those who seek to break this unspoken rule and who have the audacity of burdening us with their unhappiness, particularly if they do it more than once in a short period of time. If you are having a terrible time and you don’t have much good news to share, Facebook can form a sort of prison where, desperate for some semblance of connection, you login only to find yourself feeling shut out from a world of seemingly happy, successful people, and unable to express your own feelings of hopelessness.
Although I still use Facebook a little bit, I have also discovered the joy of writing letters. Here is an example of an activity that people might these days never undertake, or only ever consider doing with a romantic / sexual partner. And yet it is a form of communication, unlike many others, that can really allow people to underscore the importance of other people in their lives and can – with its built in thinking space – be conducive to the type of conversation and dialogue that the instantaneous nature of whatsapp renders almost impossible. Who wouldn’t prefer to receive a hand-written letter than a text message or a brief email? There has to be a relationship between the ease and distance (relative to real face to face interaction) from which we are able to communicate, and the amount of care that goes into what we say. If you don’t agree with me then go and read the comments section of an article on any online publication, or ask yourself how many relationships or friendships have turned sour, even if only temporarily, because of a failure to respond to a message in time, or a misunderstanding of a written message whose meaning, stripped of vocal emphasis / tone, and body-language, can – no matter how emoji strewn – become deceptively difficult to decipher.
As I am writing this, the same friend with whom I discussed the talk called. She is feeling sorry for herself because she stayed up all night drinking wine with a friend and now, somewhat worse for wear, she is unable to attend a group dinner that she had agreed to attend. Now I’ve got nothing against group social occasions, quite the opposite, but it turns out that by staying up all night with her friend they were able to have the kind of conversation that can define and give real value to a friendship, the ability to share secrets, of being able to expose the parts of ourselves about which we feel most vulnerable and allowing these parts and therefore ourselves, to be seen, accepted and known. These are the kind of conversations that we need to have if we are to be able to feel truly good about ourselves, and in fact my friends friend said that she didn’t have anybody else to have those kind of conversations with. Yet in order for conversations such as this to emerge, they sometimes require time and space. Sometimes they even require us to stay up all night, one on one, drinking wine. They don’t always fit into a hectic life pre-booked with the kind of large-scale group activities that become necessary if we are to see all of our carefully acquired friends.
Almost all of us want – or even feel like we need – to have lots of friends. But at the same time we also want to feel genuinely known and accepted by our friends, and can be inclined to feel down when we feel like we aren’t as close to them or we don’t spend as much time with them as we would like. To what extent are both of these ambitions possible, especially when we also factor in commitments to work, family and hopefully ourselves too?
So what did I mean when I decided to call this post On (slow) friendship? What does that even mean? The slow food movement is a global grassroots organisation that links the pleasure of food with a commitment to the community and the environment. Slow friendship therefore represents the idea of really valuing and making the time for the people in our lives. It moves away from the idea propagated by Facebook that we can have hundreds if not thousands of friends who we continue to accumulate and largely interact with electronically. Instead it draws attention to the time and emotional labor required to build ‘real’ and long lasting friendships, one by one. The ones that allow us to really know ourselves and each other, the ones that last whether that person is living a street away or on the other side of the world.
Just as the slow food movement links the joy of food with a commitment to the community and the environment, so the idea of slow friendship encourages us to make a real commitment to the members of own communities, and to stick with them through the challenging times as well as the joyful ones. We live in a disposable culture, in which we are told endlessly that we can always have more and better, and in which we are encouraged to strive for permanent happiness, as if it were not only possible but the only correct, healthy, way of being. At the same time we are encouraged to shy away from those who do not meet up to these exacting standards as if they posed a threat to our own happiness and wellbeing, and to judge them as if their supposed inability to live up to these standards was in itself a personal failing rather than a mere fact of life, a product of circumstances that all but the most fortunate of us will experience at some point in our lives. But do we really want to throw away our friendships and relationships when they become challenging, just because there may be a newer and seemingly more exciting one available? What are we losing when we do this? Where does it leave us if we are unfortunate enough to find ourselves becoming the ‘difficult’ person that people don’t have time for?
The idea of slow friendship encourages us to take the time to think more broadly about our relationships with the people beyond our friendship circles too; To colleagues, to strangers, to the people we constantly ignore or hide from as we remain glued to the glowing screens infront of us, but whom might desperately need our connection, and whose friendship, even in the form of the most brief of acknowledgements, we might benefit from too.
Finally, by rethinking the nature of friendship and the quality of relationships that we would actually like, we can rekindle the compassion in our relationship to global society as a whole, to animals and the environment, and perhaps even more significantly, to the most important friends we will ever have… ourselves.