I think I’m about to do one of those ‘oh I love my friends’ posts. I hate those. I hate that kind of thing because it sounds so insincere to my cynical drizzle-soaked British ears. I am inexcusably intolerant of blogs/round robin Christmas cards/Facebook profiles that are all about how wonderful the writer’s life is. What is the POINT of them? Most people’s lives are a bit boring, rubbish or horrible at least 30% of the time. Who wants to read about how perpetually excellent someone else’s life is? And those people are either fooling themselves or they’re lying. Or they’re robots who don’t notice or reflect on the non-lovely things about life. And what do they think their readers will think when they read that stuff? ‘O my GOD what an awesome human being….‘? No. What readers actually think is one of two things:
a) My life is shit compared to theirs. I am a failure.
b) What a cock.
But… friendship. Yes. I’ve thought A LOT about friendship because more often than not in my trainee-human years it was a source of painful disappointment.
My first friend disappointment was M, who went to live in Tasmania when I was young enough to think that I might be able to hear her if I lay down on the ground with my ear to the pavement, and after that I moved schools enough times to prevent me forming a group of friends to carry with me through life. At primary school number 2 I made another friend I considered my ‘best’ and was devastated when she went off with someone else who talked about periods a lot and laughed at me for being embarrassed. I wasn’t comfortable with vagina-based conversation in those days. Nowadays vaginas are everywhere so I’ve come to terms with them (although am slightly troubled by the fact that modern ones are supposed to be freakishly hairless, like – as my friend P commented – a pack of Tesco Value Ham).
I’ve always felt that, once you have decided someone’s worthy of being awarded the title of ‘friend’, then you should be loyal to them regardless of what they do in the world outside your friendship. If a friend turned out to have done some murdering by mistake, for example, I would still be loyal to them so long as I knew they could be trusted with my feelings, that they’d make me laugh, that they’d insist on feeding my cat if I had to go into hospital for gall bladder surgery and would reassure me, when necessary, that I am not too repulsive to go outside.
But it doesn’t happen that way very often when we’re young. Most of us are too busy working out who the hell we are; obsessing over (and being misled by) our own needs and feelings and being tricked by the concept of ‘cool’ to make real friendships. We hurt each other by mistake because we are still clumsy in the world ourselves.
Another thing that screwed up friendships in my particular youth was alcohol and drugs. Friendship is basically about living/working around people who you trust and who can trust you, and I spent many of my formative years in communities twisted by alcohol. it’s impossible to work together when everyone is perpetually imbibing the liquid poison that makes humans revert to what Freud would call their Id. Alcohol makes people want to shag, talk shit, fight and eat crap, and we don’t even really enjoy it when we do it because we’re too pissed. How is it possible to hold real relationships together when at any minute someone might misread something you’re saying and punch your face off?
Some drugs, of course, are supposed to promote peace, respect, love, harmony and all-night jiggling, but my experiences with people who use those is that they may be all unity and loveliness while they’re on them, but that just makes them seem all the more hypocritical when they’re back doing their juvenile swaggering, bickering and back-stabbing the rest of the time. LSD, too, is supposed to bring you together with your fellow trippers on a level that transcends the material. I have had that experience myself. I remember a particularly lovely trip where my friend P and I totally comprehended the universe and saw it spiralling in the air in front of us. We knew without speaking words that we had discovered the meaning of everything. It was a right bugger when we found we’d forgotten it 14 hours later. We felt the utmost harmony with each other, but ultimately it was meaningless because it wasn’t applicable to the real things we do in the world like make babies, friendships, sandwiches and decipher car park ticket machine instructions.
I used to genuinely believe that everyone should take LSD at least once in their lives because it opens up doors of perception that otherwise remain closed, man. What a dick. Now I’ve finally distanced myself from that world, I realise that those years I spent in various altered states actually suspended my development as a human and as a friend. I only started learning about things that matter again after I’d completely escaped it and come to realise that being ‘straight’ – being able to think clearly – is the greatest high there is.
After spouse and I abandoned that world, we gradually shed our connections with anyone who we couldn’t trust or who didn’t make our lives feel better in any way. This sounds selfish, but I reckon it’s the secret to constructing a life that feels worth living. Humans are pack animals I’m sure, but not just any old pack will do. I only have one close friend left from those days now, and we have both had quite a struggle unweaving ourselves from our background. I’ve learned about friendship together with her; I’ve also learned it from some extraordinary people I met in my first proper job, and from my own spouse (what is a long term relationship if not the most important friendship of your life?).
But oddly, having opined a lot about how much I’ve learned about stuff from growing older, it’s a 27 year old human who has taught me most about friendships; or maybe she has just made me pull together all my observations about friendship into a coherent whole. Whichever it is, it’s through discussion with her that I realise I’ve finally achieved those elusive friendships that I have looked for all my life.
This friend, H, is very wise (her dad recently said, “H, you never were 5 years old, You were born and then you were immediately 32″), probably because she has suffered from health problems since babyhood and is as familiar with the inside of a hospital as she is with her parents’ home. The result of this is that she has always appreciated the security of solid family and friend relationships and has learned from those times they have gone wrong. She finds absolute contentment in things like having a cup of tea with a cousin, or watching some shit on TV with her brothers. She knows how to make people love her because she is funny, undemanding, pleasing to have around and goes out of her way to show appreciation to those she loves and to make the most ordinary occasions into tiny celebrations of what fun it is to be alive. She does this without being nauseating in any way. And she’s good at swearing. She’s sort of a tiny, sweary Buddha.
Anyway, between us we have spent many a tea-and-cake consuming hour working out exactly how to ensure excellence in friendships. Here are our conclusions:
1. Allow friendships to develop naturally, and only be friends with people who make you feel happy and who you can trust.
2. Be a person who makes others feel happy to be around you. And be trustworthy.
3. Work on the assumption that you and your friend/s are on the same side. If someone says something you think is a bit horrible, assume they’re having a bad day or that you’re being paranoid, and don’t dwell on it. If it turns out it was horrible, then don’t be their friend. I discontinued contact with one friend I really liked because she has a habit of occasionally making little critical remarks. Life’s too bloody fantastic to waste any of it around people who make you feel bad. I have not missed her.
4. Don’t be paranoid. Paranoia breeds horribleness (see above and below).
5. Don’t be needy. Neediness is absolutely offputting. If a friend you trust hasn’t contacted you for a while, then assume they are busy or whatever, don’t assume they hate you (if you don’t trust them, why do you want to be their friend?). Real friends can be apart without contact for an unlimited amount of time because they know that the friendship is solid whatever happens, and they know that people sometimes just want to get on with their own lives, because the same applies to them.
6. Build the sort of friendship where it’s possible to say, “I can’t be bothered”, in response to an invitation and nobody will think you don’t love them. Also – if someone says ‘no’, don’t take it personally and don’t keep pushing.
7. Don’t expect or demand too much from each other. I had another friend who I really liked – she was funny, interesting and very clever indeed – but she demanded my time and attention all the time. When we were on our final dissertations at uni, for example, she finished hers first and I was beside myself with stress over mine. Instead of offering me any support, she demanded that I read hers to check it was written properly and got stroppy when I said I couldn’t spare the time. I distanced myself from this friend because she made everything too stressful. I actually miss the good things about her, but they weren’t worth the bad.
8. Make the occasional effort to do something unexpected and lovely. Our friend P once sent me and H a Valentine’s Card each that he’d made from the Niceday stationery catalogue because we always laugh at their stupid name. This made us happy for several weeks.
9. Be comfortable with silence and laugh as much as you can.
10. Any other suggestions?