‘People we love take on some of our inner darkness so we aren’t taken over by it’
Laura Kennedy: When one person tires and grows heavy the other leans down to carry them
“Close friendships of any sort are intensely fragile” Photograph: istock
Lately, one of my friends – a person I love – is struggling intensely. They have changed and become unhappy. Their suffering is paralysing them, altering their personality, and I don’t know how to help.
Even as someone with a history of depression myself, I feel lost – the world looks so different from outside of that black wave than it does when you are being cast around within it, dark water greedily swallowing your cries. I know from experience how unreasonable it is. How impenetrable.
Francis Bacon talks about friendship in his Complete Essays; he describes it as a sort of pressure gauge that we can offer people we love, a space to release the tension of thought and emotion that builds and can become trapped within us – “A principal fruit of friendship, is the ease and discharge of the fullness and swellings of the heart, which passions of all kinds do induce.”
Good friends offer us the same in return – Bacon compares them to confessors – acting almost as divine conduits performing a meaningful psychological role, allowing us to articulate the most secret and often ignoble fears and feelings that would otherwise fester in us like sins and do damage – “no receipt openeth the heart, but a true friend; to whom you may impart griefs, joys, fears, hopes, suspicions, counsels, and whatsoever lieth upon the heart to oppress it, in a kind of civil shrift or confession.”
Friendship brings us closer to what philosophers traditionally called God, or the sublime
People we love volunteer to take on some of the darkness within in us so that we aren’t overtaken by it.
Friendship brings us closer to what philosophers traditionally called God, or the sublime (or whatever you want to call it) by imbuing us with the power to give comfort and relief to the people we value most. One of the most painful situations in which you can find yourself is witnessing the suffering of a friend or loved one and knowing that that nothing you do will ultimately lessen their pain, and that all you might do is honour their internal condition by listening, witnessing the suffering, and taking a little of it under your own skin through the act of observing it.
It is an offering, made more beautifully delicate by the fact that there are scenarios by which we can be induced to withdraw it
By acknowledging it, we make the sufferer less alone. By hurting ourselves in seeing their pain, we step down into the mire with them, even if all we can do is stand silently by, loving them.
Friendship implies the element of choice – the love we give is volitional. It is an offering, made more beautifully delicate by the fact that there are scenarios by which we can be induced to withdraw it – prolonged neglect, abuse, or less malevolent but often still tragic, a change of character so fundamental that the object of our love is no longer present in the person as we know them.
Somewhere within the relationship, there is a line which churns like the tide. Once crossed, this line snaps something integral, and both people drift from one another, hands outstretched, grabbing for that which is no longer there.
My friend is not gone – I see them still inside the version that now dominates
Close friendships of any sort are intensely fragile. When one person tires and grows heavy, the other leans down to carry them, and this is alternated through the course of the relationship. We do this in the knowledge that if ever it happens that one person must do all of the carrying all of the time, the bond changes into something else, and ceases to be good for one or both parties.
We tend to be dishonest about depression, but honesty is worth making ourselves uncomfortable for, so I will write the discomfiting words - depressed people can be unconscionably selfish, relentlessly draining, and crushingly ambivalent about and toward the people who love them. My friend is not gone – I see them still inside the version that now dominates.
I will do everything that I can to help as long as my friend continues to put the reduced energy they have into getting better. However, this offering too is volitional. It is not a debt I owe, but something in my gift. We must protect ourselves, even and especially from those we love when they cannot or do not have the ability to consider our wellbeing.
Love should always have limits – if it didn’t, giving it would be less meaningful.