Friendship: How to think ‘friend’?

series begins here

Why begin this way?
Is it true that we cannot see the face of the friend, only glance his back as he walks into remembrance?
Emma disagrees, she tells me she knows her friends, and she knows and loves them as friends, in the moment of loving. This may well be, but even here I’m willing to argue that it is the inevitable oscillation between loneliness and togetherness that make the friendship an object of reflection. Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m trying to draw a distinction between our experience of participating in a friendship, and the conditions under which we come to reflect upon that friendship, or ‘friendship’ in general. I’m not trying to denigrate the experience of participation or to argue that friendship is only ‘real’ when it is gone.

The experience of participating in a friendship is no less real for not being reflected upon. Actually, part of what I’m arguing is that this is intrinsic to the nature of friendship: it is oriented out towards the world and thus struggles to become the object of its own attention. (This might become clearer as we go forward, so hang in there).

Just a little more clarification: in these Meditations we are seeking to do ‘conceptual’ work together, to take a step outside our particular times and places and try to puzzle out a shared understanding of ‘friendship’. It is itself a friendly occupation, hammering away together in the mental shed.Solitary Walker, Image by The Round Peg We do conceptual work when we move beyond retelling our particular stories and experiences and seek to fit them all together into a coherent shared narrative (or picture, or drama, the metaphors never quite cover it all). We do this as we share with, and listen to, each other, and through this to pay attention to the patterns, figures, repetitions, motifs, that keep recurring throughout our lives and throughout creation. It is a difficult process, not least because often this requires us to become the objects of our own attention. It can be a little like standing in front of a mirror and trying to watch your eyes look at your hands. Maddening! In fact, the process involves the process of coming to know ‘oneself as another’ (Paul Ricoeur coined the phrase), and we can only genuinely and authentically do this when we pay attention to how we, ourselves, really are known by others. So, we swap stories, interrogate our memories, attend to other people’s reactions to our actions, and listen to the wisdom of those in other times and places. Really good conceptual work is always collaborative, even when it looks, or pretends to be, solitary. In the present case, we are working on developing a conceptual understanding of friendship, something that goes beyond the experience of participating in friendships and attempts to describe the features of ‘the friend’ that would enable us to pick him out of the crowd, regardless of local garb. In doing this we don’t leave behind the realities and particularities of our experiences. We aren’t trying to ‘get behind’ these stories, but to find the history that makes them one.

Series Part 1, Part 2.
Image by The Round Peg
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