It’s not often I’ll cross-refer to GOING CHEEP, but the other day, I wrote about my different taste to most of my friends when it came to television series we respectively enjoy.
It occurs to me that in the list of things where people differ, I gave politics and religion short shrift.
I wanted to get the quote right, so I dug out my collection of Alistair Cooke’s Letters From America and came across the following passages, taken from one of the letters from 1956 (apologies in advance for the length):
I have , for instance, a close friend, a merry, kindly and simple man, very able in his special field of finance. I feel agreeable in his presence and I admire his human qualities. At the shabbiest period in recent American history, when the fear of domestic Communists was most paranoid, this friend was a strong, even a devout, McCarthyite… You might guess, therefore, that my friend’s admiration for McCarthy marked the parting of the ways for us. Well, it was an embarrassment, but not to our affection or our continuing association. Of course, if by some convulsion of history, McCarthy had become an American dictator, my friend and I would probably have said goodbye and retreated to opposite sides of the barricades. Nobody has sharpened this point better, in my opinion, than the late Justice Holmes when he said that the purpose of civilised argument between friends is to arrive at the point where you agree that some day it might be necessary to shoot each other. Until that day is unavoidable, ‘the democratic process’ both in public and in private is no more but no less than an acceptance of the notion that in important issues, you may be wrong.
My first mentor in journalism in this country was a man who had no use for democracy at all, except in this crucial belief. ‘Democracy’, he once wrote, ‘is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.’ But he also wrote, ‘What I admire most in any man is a serene spirit… when he fights he fights in the manner of a gentleman fighting a duel, not in that of a longshoreman cleaning out a waterfront saloon.’ We had a tacit understanding that while I allowed him to shoot off his face about the fraudulence and guile of Franklin Roosevelt, I should then be allowed to go off and vote for him. This division never interfered with a friendship that was amiable at all times.
I believe this to be not only a sane approach to politics but essential to all things that lie outside politics.
It’s something I’ve been thinking about a great deal recently, since I saw a column online from someone complaining – only semi-jokingly, I suspect – about all the things his friends do that irritate him. It made me consider friendships in general and specifically: where is the line drawn?
When a friend, acquaintance or whatever holds a view that’s not only in opposition to your own, but something that you can’t understand how anyone with the intelligence of a retarded slug could hold, or is something that you actually find offensive (personally or in general)… what do you do?
Do you accept that they hold the opposite view, or do you walk away?
Are you like Cooke, i.e. you allow them to proselyte their view to you, as long as they allow you to do the same? Or do you just agree never to discuss it?
As an example, as I’ve mentioned before, a friend I’ve somewhat lost contact with over the past decade or so genuinely regards the Jewish practice of circumcising male children as child abuse; we’ve kind of agreed never to discuss it. it didn’t affect our friendship that I know of. Another friend from long ago and I agreed never to discuss Cromwell; he may have let Jewish people back into England after 350 years’ worth of exile, but his policies towards Ireland made him not far short of a genocidal maniac. Again, it didn’t – at the time – affect our friendship.
On the other hand, there are others that hold views in opposition to mind where it undoubtedly has affected the friendship, lessening it. Only mildly in some cases, but noticeably nonetheless.
And now that I think about it, I’m damned if I know how I feel about it.
But back to the thing with which I started this piece; are there things that friends of mine do that piss me off? Well, my immediate thought was “if my friends are my friends, they already know what pisses me off about them… and there’s no reason to further piss them off any more than I already do, deliberately or otherwise.”
Moreover, on second thought, to a certain extent, I hold to that – if they are my friends, I don’t really want to piss them off any more than I already do, and if they’re not my friends, they won’t give a damn anyway.
However, on pondering the question, I figure I want to write a little more on the subject.
Well, there’s at least three problems with the question as stated.
The first is that ‘friends’ has taken on a whole new meaning over the past few years because of the whole blogging and social networking issue.
At one point, on Facebook, I had about 300 friends, before I reduced that down to 150 and then to a couple of dozen, and then removed myself from the site. When I had a Livejournal blog, there were over 150 people reading the blog, or at least people I’d marked as friends, and a similar number of people who’ve marked me as a friend. Were all of them actual “friends”? Hell, no- most of them I’d never met, and were never likely to; more than a few of them I wouldn’t have recognised had I walked past them in the street. There’s a large number of people who follow my Twitter account, or this blog where I genuinely don’t have a clue (nor have I attempted to discover) what their ‘real name’ is. There’s even quite a few where I have no idea what gender they are.
In most cases, these people aren’t friends; they’re acquaintances at best, and ‘online contacts’ (what a horrible phrase) in reality.
So now we come to the next thing: what is a friend? I’ve always been struck by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s comment of:
A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him I may think aloud.
But does that imply that one can be completely open with a friend, or merely that one never has to worry about watching your words in front of them. Because I know many people that would qualify as the latter, but precious few that would fall into the former category.
And there are, to me, other attributes that seem inherent in friends, and friendship.
With friends, I kind of figure I should want to spend time in their company, and vice versa. Whether I do spend time in their company (and vice versa) is almost irrelevant; do I – and they – actually want to spend time with the other? Do I, and they, get pleasure from seeing the other person; is there a genuine welcome, or is it merely toleration of their (or my) company?
Can I rely on them (and them on me) in times of need, and not just in terms of presence; would I pissed off at them if they called me at 3am just because they needed to chat to someone? Am I sympathetic to their hurts, and they to mine? Even if I think they’re wrong (or they think I’m wrong), will either get upset/angry at that disagreement? If it matters to them, does it matter to me, and if not to the extent of what they would regard as callousness, isn’t there something seriously wrong there?
This is the thing I’ve come to realise – friendship (or at least the depth of it) isn’t always a two way street. Oh, I’m not saying that you can have two people where A regards B as a friend, but B regards A as his most hated enemy. Well, not outside soap operas. But the depths, and importance, of friendships, they vary in reality and in perception.
C considers D one of their closest friends, but D regards C as just “one of the crowd”. Or E considers F as someone so important to them that they’d do pretty much anything for them, while it doesn’t even occur to F that they owe E anything more than sharing a phone call or a drink every so often.
I’m utterly convinced that for the sake of humanity, people should never – ever – discover exactly how reciprocal in depth and importance their individual friendships are… or are not.
Finally – for the moment anyway, I may add to this – there’s the small thing there’s no one thing that pisses me off in common about people I regard as friends. Different friends piss me off in different ways.
But what those ways are? Naah, I go back to what I originally said:
“if my friends are my friends, they already know what pisses me off about them… and there’s no reason to further piss them off any more than I already do, deliberately or otherwise.”