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Why Learning to Be a Good Friend Matters

by Aisyah Shah Idil
10 January 2018
SOCIETY, RELATIONSHIPS AND CULTURE
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Is the Bad Friend just a person learning how to love? Aisyah Shah Idil tests this in her own life and consults the wisdom of a few philosophers.



How had I found myself here again?
 
I tucked my phone away. Apart from all the fun Facebook promised me others were having, I had grown tired of reading the newest obituary of my dwindling friendships. The schoolmate: “No, not free that week.” The travel buddy: “I keep forgetting to call you!” The silent group chat, last message from a fortnight ago: “Due for a catch up?” Even the group of laughing school girls on the bus loomed over me as a promise of what I could have had. If only I wasn’t… a Bad Friend.
 
A Bad Friend.
 
The very thought made me shudder. A Bad Friend, that modern spectre of malice. Nice to your face while secretly gossiping about you behind your back. Undercutting your achievements with little barbs of competition. Judging you for your mistakes and holding them against you for years to come. Leaving you feeling like a used tissue. Toxic.
 
I floundered in denial. I wasn’t one of those! I love my friends. I send birthday messages. I text in stagnant group chats. I offer a warm, understanding, slightly anxious shoulder to lean on. I even hosted Games Night!
 
Besides, that’s just modern friendships. We work full time. We’re sleep deprived. We’re too poor to brunch. Flush with self righteousness, I turned back to my phone. “Missing you guys! Anyone free tonight?”
 
(Too short notice. Rookie mistake.)
 
I wouldn’t say I was primed for loneliness. I was just ready to complain about it when it happened.
 
After weeks of this I was in a slump. A blind spot lingered in my vision – until a wise colleague offhandedly told me that in her 23 years of marriage, she had to learn how to love. ‘I’ve gotten a lot better at it’, she assured me.
 
Bingo.
 
It was so obvious that I wanted to kick myself. Love was a verb. Just like we learn to read, write, walk, and talk, so too do we learn to love. And just like any other skill, we learn by doing – not just by thinking.
 
Social media didn’t help. By knowing their names, plans and volatile political opinions, I felt like I had spent time with my friends – when I was making minimal effort to connect with them at all.  
 
I had fallen prey to this. I had spent so much time thinking and complaining and ruminating and reading about friendship that it began to feel like work. Like I was doing something about it. The old adage ‘friendship takes work’ bloomed into neuroticism. And I furiously dug myself deeper into the same hole.
 
All of this wasn’t making me a better friend. I thought I was being patient, when I was really being avoidant. I thought I was being strong, when I was scared to ask for help. When I spoke to my friends, I masked the chatter of discontent and unfulfilled longing with carefully crafted text messages, small kindnesses, and pleasant banter. In unintentionally defining love as the balm against loneliness, I’d missed out on crucial considerations along the way. Namely:

1. A common purpose

Aristotle believed the greatest type of friendship was one forged between people of similar virtue, who recognise and appreciate each other’s good character. According to him, true happiness and fulfilment came from living a life of virtue. To have a friend who lived by this and helped you achieve the same was one of the greatest and rarest gifts of all.

2. A spirit of generosity

For Catholic philosopher St Thomas Aquinas, friendship was the ideal form of relationships between rational beings. Why? Because it had the greatest capacity to cultivate selflessness. Friendships let you leave your ego behind. What they love becomes equal to or greater than the things you love. Their flourishing becomes a part of your flourishing. If they’re not doing well, neither are you.

3. The Golden Rule

Imam Al-Ghazzali, Muslim medieval philosopher, wrote friendship was the physical embodiment of treating others as you would like to be treated. In practice, “To be in your innermost heart just as you appear outwardly, so that you are truly sincere in your love for them, in private and in public”.

4. Knowing and being known

Philosopher Mark Vernon sees friendship as a kind of love that consists of the desire to know another and be known by them in return. This circle of requiting genuine interest and affection is perhaps one the more rewarding elements of friendships.
 
And most of all, these things take time.
 
Now, this isn’t a self help article. I’m not going to tell you if you follow these Four Simple Steps, you too can have Real Friends. After all, the number of people we can count as friends, however small or large, can be a matter of luck and chance. But understanding what friendships are made of helps you grab an opportunity when it arises.
 
Later that week, I bit the bullet. My friends were back from overseas, and summer school hadn’t started yet. I stood down from my altar, voice raw from shouting ‘FACE TO FACE CONTACT ONLY’. I downloaded Skype, remembered my password and spent my night ironing clothes and chatting to my friends. Leaning into the ickiness of admitting I needed help with some things rewarded me with laughter, warmth, and plans to buy a 2018 planner.
 
Because as lonely and confusing as the world is, we can be even more so. Be the friend that helps each other navigate both.


Aisyah Shah Idil is a poet, author and multimedia producer at the Ethics Centre.

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Header image credit: Juliette Borda