True Friendship

True Friendship

This post was prompted by and draws on an essay written many years ago by my true friend, Phil Hamlin. Uncle Phil, as he liked to be known by his students, was a professor of mine at the University of Tennessee, whom I first met in the fall of 1964. He had not yet become Uncle Phil.

Outside of being a professor of philosophy, he also:

Was active in the Unitarian, Universalist church of Knoxville.

Arranged for Shirley and I to be married in his church.

Was a witness at our wedding.

Was the first person to babysit our first child.

Lived in an urban commune (The Green House) in Knoxville.

Hosted our first child at The Green House for a summer.

Took a canoe trip down the Mississippi river accompanied by his girlfriend (now wife), his daughter, my youngest brother, my eldest son, a university colleague and myself.

Phil had to be rescued by helicopter while on the verge of sliding over a steep cliff on the Pacific Coast of California.

He was supposed to be in Knoxville writing.

Phil served on the dissertation committee for my PhD and

at my dissertation defense, he was said to have asked the most interesting questions of anyone on the committee.

Americans are casual in their use of the term “friend.” They will refer to almost anyone, including people they have just recently met, as “friend.” Leaving that aside, it generally requires that there be some positive relationship over a period of time before the label of friend is applied even to a casual friend.

One cannot be a true friend of just anyone. Indeed, many people in our culture are incapable of being a true friend. It is almost axiomatic that anyone who organizes their life around the stereotyped thinking and feeling common in bigotry, such as found in racism or sexism, do not have the capacity for true friendship.

One of the gifts that come with attaining the capacity of true friendship is autonomy. Autonomy is important for true friendship because it frees one from the shackles of dependence on and conformity to stereotyped thinking.

The range and variety of friendship is illustrated by this quote from Mark Twain that offers guidance on how much grief to express at a funeral:

…at the moving passages in the funeral oration, be moved — but only according to the degree of your intimacy with the parties giving the “entertainment,” or with the party in whose honor the entertainment is given. Where a blood relation sobs, an intimate friend (read, true friend) should choke up, an acquaintance (read, casual, social or business friend) would sigh and a stranger merely fumble sympathetically with his handkerchief.

One characteristic of a true friendship is that it has persisted for a significant amount of time and has been tested by difficulties, such as disagreements that have been resolved.

Another characteristic is an abiding affection between the parties to the friendship notable for the sharing of feelings about situations or persons or, at least, there exists the acknowledged possibility of such sharing.

We value our true friends and are obliged to respect their autonomy, treat them as equals, understand them at some depth and they are obliged to reciprocate.

Sidney Jourard, in his book, The Transparent Self, argues that an essential ingredient in building rapport between a therapist and client is reciprocal, personal transparency, which I think is necessary in true friendship as well.

A true friendship would never be based on an advantage of one party over another. A “friend” that you cultivate to get invited to “parties” or who can get you sales leads doesn’t qualify as a true friend. These are social friends or business friends.

With true friends, we can be “ourselves” and don’t have to be on guard when we are with them. Because we are transparent to true friends, betrayal or rejection by them can be traumatic.

The characteristics so far described should suggest why it is extremely difficult for true friendships to develop in an hierarchical relationship.

For example, between a boss and his employee, an officer and an enlisted man, a teacher and a student, a parent and a child or a husband and wife in a traditional marriage. In other words, the requirements for true friendship are subverted by one party being in a position of superiority or authority over the other.

In the case of parent-child relationships, it is not possible for a parent and child to be true friends, at least before a child matures. It may be possible in adulthood, depending on whether or not the parents have raised a child capable of true friendship. Thus, in raising children, one should keep in mind the qualities that go into true friendship.

This is a better goal than raising a child to follow in the parents’ footsteps or do something a parent never was able to do or be something a parent always aspired to become. It is much better to raise a child capable of true friendship.

In the case of marriage partners, a traditional hierarchical relationship will be an impediment to true friendship. In such a relationship, the husband has a stereotyped view of women and the wife has a stereotyped view of men. This leads to a relationship between “roles.” Many, if not most, failed marriages are probably the result of role-based relationships.

Leaving aside marriage, this same stereotyped view of men by women and of women by men, I suspect is the reason that true friendships between men and women are less common than those between men or between women.

It also seems to me that gay and lesbian marriages are less likely to be burdened by the traditional hierarchical relationship that still occurs in many marriages between a man and a woman. Absent this burden, the opportunity for true friendship is more likely within gay and lesbian marriages. However, I have no real basis for this statement other than speculation.

One might ask if describing true friendship isn’t also describing a role. Is true friendship a relationship that is free of role constraints? Clearly, a casual, social or business friend have role characteristics because they are constrained by a limited set of obligations. For example, having lunch friends at work, befriending someone to get invitations to parties or cultivating a sales person in order to get discounts carry few obligations.

True friendship, however, is grounded in loyalty, giving it a much broader basis than mere advantage. Personal loyalty is an obligation that we owe to our family and our true friends. Loyalty to family usually takes precedence over true friends, but they usually run a close second to family.

Casual friends or those with a work, social or business basis have highly constrained expectations regarding obligations and loyalty. For example, I had professional friends that lasted 20 years but never extended outside of academic settings and carried little in the way of obligations or expectations. I suspect that some of you have or have had similar friends.

When I think of social friends, I am reminded of a TV series, The Gilded Age, where a woman with “new money” is attempting to break into an “old money” social network. Her efforts involved throwing difficult-to-avoid parties and inviting “old money” persons to attend, hoping for reciprocity. She also supported “old money” activities such as charities with large donations and other support. She desperately wanted to be accepted into this social network for the social validation and status such acceptance would bring her, not in search of true friends.

Honesty or truth-telling in a true friendship is especially valued. A true friend will give you the unvarnished truth and one can bear to hear the truth from a true friend, knowing that it will be non-judgmental. Such truth-telling from a true friend is important to us because such friends have a unique perspective on us that we often need to hear.

There are, however, external constraints that can hamper truth-telling by a true friend. For example, in sworn testimony in court where one has sworn to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, one’s truth-telling will be constrained by the questions asked by the court and how much one is allowed to qualify or to explain one’s answers.

True friendship is a difficult and creative achievement but is also one of the finest outcomes from the interaction of truly mature human beings.

I would like to end this talk with a few observations about true friendship and the UUA principles, as well as the “I – Thou” relationship defined by Martin Buber.

To begin, I can hardly imagine how a true friendship would be possible without the first three principles:

Wouldn’t a true friend embrace you as a person of inherent worth and dignity? Wouldn’t that friend expect no less from you? I think reciprocity of Principle One is foundational for true friendship.

Wouldn’t a true friend treat you justly and equitably out of genuine compassion for you as a human being? Wouldn’t that friend expect likewise from you? I think reciprocity of Principle Two is also a requirement of true friendship.

Wouldn’t a true friend unconditionally accept you in spite of any human flaws that you might exhibit and support you in ways that furthered your spiritual growth as a mature human being? Wouldn’t that friend expect the same from you? I think reciprocity of Principle Three is instrumental, as well, in maintaining a true friendship.

Commitment to and practice of these three UUA principles lays the groundwork for building true friendships. They are a part of your way of being in the world, not simply goals to be pursued at some point in the future.

Finally, a few comments about Martin Buber and his “I – Thou” relationship.

In his book I and Thou, Martin Buber discusses two core pairs of relational words, one or the other of which dominates our way of being in the world. They are “i – it” (lower case i) and “I – Thou” (upper case I and Thou instead of “you,” implying a higher meaning for both words). In the case of spoken language, the “i” in “i-it” might be less likely to be confused with the I in “I – Thou,” if expressed as “me – it”, which I will do going forward.

As I understand Buber, “me – it” separates and fragments, while “I – Thou” relates and unifies. For Buber, “me – it” relationships render all living things, including people, as objects and therefore suitable to use as a means to an end.

Buber suggests that Thou is the spiritual or authentic Self [that I’ve previously referred to in other posts], which precedes any development of an “ego-self” (or me) that obscures the authentic Self or I. Thus, when one has an “I – Thou” relationship, it is a dynamic, living and authentic relationship.

The authentic Self that lies behind ego must transcend the ego- self and enter into a relationship with another authentic Self. Thus, an “I – Thou” relationship is at root an authentic relationship that unifies rather than divides. I suggest that true friendships may be thought of as analogous to an “I – Thou” relationship.

Buber argues that the foundations of modernity can be seen in the objectification required by “me – it” relationships. Buber also would characterize objectification as typical of a materialistic worldview, which I spoke to in an earlier post.

Buber advocates learning to live through “I-Thou” relationships by rising above “me – it” relationships and embracing one’s authentic nature. A contemporary writer with a similar view on objectification is the philosopher Ken Wilbur.

The idea of objectification brought up by Buber and Wilbur also ties into the UUA 7th Principle, Respect for the Interdependent Web of Existence. I think both would argue that the biosphere that we are a part of and on which we depend for our survival is an integrated, dynamic process, not a collection of pieces or “its.”

As long as we objectify the biosphere as an “it” and thereby treat the fragments of the biosphere as means to our ends, we have a “me – it” relationship to the biosphere. This is a relationship that by its very nature separates and fragments the biosphere. This is a blindness that leads to fouling our own “nest,” so to speak.

The UUA principles appear to be critical for creating an authentic “I – Thou” relationship that relates and unifies. For Buber and Wilbur both, the “I – Thou” relationship is the key to transforming the fragmented and nihilistic underpinnings of modern societies into more positive, inclusive and integral societies.

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