This week I have veered off the path of solitude by feet here and yards there. Now I feel the need to take the project fully off trail. Friendship has been on my mind lately. It is something we’re all craving now. We can still work in our homes. If we are lucky, we are surrounded by family or companions, or at least our animal friends. But the emptiest spaces for many of us now are for the people with whom, to paraphrase Lana Del Rey, we miss doing nothing most of all.
Being separated from friends now also makes me think of those I’ve lost along the way. I think of my dear friend Chip, who died four years ago. I think of people I’ve lost touch with or who I decided had become too much work to keep close. I remember an important friendship with a woman I once foolishly (decades ago) threw away by half heartedly pursuing her romantically, and even, in a strange way, my father, who was an utter failure to me as an authority figure and role model, but oddly enough filled a vital role in my life for many years by being someone much more akin to a friend.
Montaigne claimed to have a special talent for friendship. I cannot claim the same. For too many years, I was too careless with all but my closest relationships and figured I could always find replacements. As I grow older, friendships have become more important to me than all other types of relationships, and I hope I have learned from my many mistakes.
I have probably “friended” more people on social media this week than ever before. Also, I have begun re-evaluating relationship, past and present, realizing that it’s the elements of friendship — of shared laughs, outrages, and enthusiasms — that endure even the bitterest memories, and if only humanity had a natural process for returning people to their proper roles after others were deemed a poor fit, we might all find ourselves a little more loved, or at least less heartbroken.
Montaigne had so many beautiful words about friendship that he doesn’t require the lengthy setup I just gave him. I’ll let this paragraph speak for itself:
Common friendships can be shared. In one friend one can love beauty; in another, affability; in another, generosity; in another, a fatherly affection; in another, a brotherly one; and so on. But in this friendship love takes possession of the soul and reigns there with full sovereign sway: that cannot possibly be duplicated. If two friends asked you to help them at the same time, which of them would you dash to? If they asked for conflicting favours, who would have the priority? If one entrusted to your silence something which it was useful for the other to know, how would you get out of that? The unique, highest friendship loosens all other bonds. That secret which I have sworn to reveal to no other, I can reveal without perjury to him who is not another: he is me. It is a great enough miracle for oneself to be redoubled: they do not realize how high a one it is when they talk of its being tripled. The uttermost cannot be matched. If anyone suggests that I can love each of two friends as much as the other, and that they can love each other and love me as much as I love them, he is turning into a plural, into a confraternity, that which is the most ‘one’, the most bound into one. One single example of it is moreover the rarest thing to find in the world.
Montaigne is writing here about Etienne de La Boetie. His friendship with La Boetie was so important, and Montaigne’s grief so deep, that you could read his entire project as an effort to continue their conversations after death. I cannot claim to have one single friendship that fills up as much space as the Montaigne/La Boetie diad. For me, that role seems to have shifted through time and even across roles. At times it was filled by my father, my wife, my mentor, perhaps even by a therapist.
What’s interesting to me is that, in many cases, I would not even consider these bonds to be friendship at the time they were strongest. And yet, when a relationship disappears, fades or destructs, it is the friendship elements that I have missed the most and they have been the parts of my life I have looked most readily to fill.
Montaigne did not believe that such a friendship was possible between fathers and sons:
From children to fathers it is more a matter of respect; friendship, being fostered by mutual confidences, cannot exist between them because of their excessive inequality; it might also interfere with their natural obligations: for all the secret thoughts of fathers cannot be shared with their children for fear of begetting an unbecoming intimacy; neither can those counsels and admonitions which constitute one of the principal obligations of friendship be offered by children to their fathers. There have been peoples where it was the custom for children to kill their fathers and others for fathers to kill their children to avoid the impediment which each can constitute for the other: one depends naturally on the downfall of the other.
Montaigne is not wrong here. It is true that my father was not able to share secret thoughts with me. To be honest, I wouldn’t have wanted him to do so. On the other hand, I readily offered my father counsel and admonitions. By the time we formed a closer bond later in his life, all hierarchy had been obliterated. He readily accepted my role as an equal or better. In friendship, I rediscovered elements of my father that had been lost since early childhood.
It is strange that a female therapist recently evoked some of these same feelings in me, which left me bewildered during and after our time together. She wasn’t experienced or skilled enough to look beyond the transference affection that I was expressing towards her to find my genuine yearning. However, I now see that the grief I have experienced recently was for my father, both the loss of his companionship and the deeper regret of missing out on a guiding force in my life, a role my father could not or would not play.
Friendships give us the opportunity to recreate families to the lives we have chosen. Some of us choose to keep friends that remind us of simpler times in life. Others gather new ones as their interests change in time. I prefer the latter course, while doing the best I can to find ways to fit old friends into the new pattern. I do not always succeed.
If it seems like I am just riffing off of Montaigne today and not really engaging him, that’s because it’s true. He too is an old friend, and I no longer feel obliged to follow him like another substitute guiding force in my life. We can now argue productively or even hold two conversations at once. Friends can do that. Friends don’t make too much of a bad day, they eagerly turn the page and get back to the important work of doing little more than being there.