New Year is a good time to reflect on the important things in life, things like friendship. Indeed, friendship is up there with love and having children as being one of the greatest experiences of being human and alive. Friendship can produce such joy, laughter, intimacy and wonder when it is at its best; and similarly, and surely, we have all had that experience where we come to feel that the friend we have is not really a friend at all; they are not a bad person necessarily, but they are not our friend, our special (in a non-exclusive sense) friend. The trouble is that these non-friendships can continue for years; they drain our energy, our time, our resources; and either duty or guilt means we somehow never quit them, and so end up a martyr to friendship. A sad condition, especially when you consider that the essence of friendship, unlike our families, is choice: we are supposed to choose our friends, but we cannot choose who our mother or brother is.
What, then, are the key characteristics of true friendship? I think there are three. First, and most importantly, is equality. Friendship is always based on equality. That means that if you think you are superior to others, or if you feel inferior, then you will have a real problem sustaining friendships. Equality is essential because in the first instance it enables ease of communication: there is no ‘boss’, no need for deference or degree; there is instead the glorious freedom of equality where we can speak to another as we would speak to our self! That is wonderful. And less people think to diminish the importance of this point, we need to bear in mind the insidious way that certain people develop self-images of themselves which invariably predicate self-importance and so superiority. Nobody, except a social climber or a snob, wants truly to be with a friend who is manifestly superior.
Second is reciprocity. Friendship is not about accounting: I have done this for you so that you should do this for me, a sort of one-to-one exchange, a commoditisation in other words of true friendship. But the reality is that true friendship always involves the exchange of benefits, and benefits are mutually shared and this is apparent. Sometimes we have so-called friends who never do anything for us; we haven’t been counting but over time, consciously or sub-consciously, we notice and feel empty. All the giving has been from us. Sometimes we have so-called friends who ‘give’ but what they give is not what we want, but what they want, and thus is always misdirected because the benefit accrues to them. And that’s an important word in friendship (as it is in sales): benefits. We can spend a lot of time with friends enjoying the ‘features’ of friendship – a weekly meeting in the restaurant or down the bar – but the benefits never emerge: for example, the conversation is always about them, or it’s always about how much alcohol can be consumed and little else; and this over time proves empty too.
And this leads on to the third key characteristic: namely, empathy, or the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes and feel life as they feel it. For if we can do that there will be no or few misdirected benefits for we will really know what our friends want and eagerly seek to help them get it. This is no different from how we might consider our children at Christmas. Sure, we can buy presents for our kids, but the loving parent knows – knows – what their kid really wants because they empathise completely with them. And you see the difference in the results: the kids who have parents who bought them ‘everything’ but, who gives a damn, and those who may have only bought their child one present, but it’s the right one and their joy and pleasure go on and on beyond the twelve days of Christmas. So it is with true friendship: when we empathise with our friends then our reciprocations become more and more valid and telling.