Epicurus thought that friendship was essential to human happiness. So essential, in fact, that he did something that by modern standards would be considered a backwards step. In 306 BC, when he was 35, he moved in with his friends.
Most people today consider themselves fortunate if they have managed to move on from shared living by that age. It is considered a mark of progress to be able to afford your own space. Besides, many friendships crumble beneath the weight of dirty dishes and judgment that is cohabitation, and this is something most of us have experienced at some point. There are “friends” and then there are friends.
I have been reading Epicurus again because I needed a reminder of what friendship is, or should be. Under the lens of friendship, seemingly petty things become important, because such relationships must be reciprocal. When we perceive that a friend doesn’t value us, the asymmetry can create hurt feelings and resentment and this – unless worked out – will doom the relationship.
I have one of those friends: the flighty sort who is brilliant company but for whom all interaction is on her terms; who will go off the radar when work is busy or when she just doesn’t feel like socialising. In other words, the type of friend who will always put herself first. She is not someone you would call upon in a crisis, but she is the sort of person you could discuss anything with intelligently and is ultimately good.
A year ago she let me down in a very real way, and I just couldn’t help but feel differently about her. I took the coward’s route of avoiding confrontation. Obviously, as a matter of principle, people should be honest in that situation. I should have contacted her to say that I felt hurt by her actions and given her the chance to react, or not.
Instead I avoided her, feeling prickled and ignoring her every time she asked if I was free. I was incensed that she didn’t feel the need to apologise for her previous actions and I felt she had ruined the friendship by pretending nothing was wrong.
If you think about it, Epicurus was right. Friendships are essential to our happiness. It is easy to tell because when a relationship with a friend is not as it should be, we become tense and unsettled.
We take good friendships for granted while they are at their best, and often fail to nurture them. Sometimes, to keep the appearance of peace, we will tolerate bad relationships with people who don’t treat us with the standard of respect and care that we apply to them. These are the ones we think about more, but usually fail to extricate ourselves from, because we don’t want to make a fuss or we fear being judged.
Purpose and meaning
There is no such thing as unrequited friendship, only bad friendships. As Epicurus recognised, good friends know our foibles, and accept them. Their estimation of us is not related to how important society in general considers us to be, or how much money we made last year. By listening to us, friends give purpose and meaning to our thoughts and ideas. They make us feel understood, and less lonely.
Close bonds like these are always based on a sense of equality, and friends should be interested in our lives and wellbeing. If a friendship makes you feel lonelier than actually being alone, you must have the courage to step away from it.
If you are the sort of friend who will take time from your life to honour the best aspects of someone you care about, then you deserve the same in return. Step away politely and decisively if you don’t feel valued. We can all sometimes fall into the pattern of being bad friends. More often than not, it’s the result of circumstance rather than character. If someone you care for is on your mind, call him or her and acknowledge the neglect or wrongdoing. With two willing parties, almost anything can be salvaged.
- FROM BEST MATES TO BROMANCES: All week on the irishtimes.com/life-and-style, we take a closer look at friendship