What is Friendship? Part Two

by Miles Raymer

Note: This is the second section of a four-part essay. If you haven’t already done so, please begin with the Introduction and Part One.

Part Two: Friendships are a narrative resource

In the spring of 2012, I was preparing to apply to graduate programs to pursue a doctorate in philosophy. My intended area of study was naturalized ethics, where I hoped to participate in research programs that combined ancient ethical wisdom with the findings of contemporary psychology and neuroscience. While doing background research for my statement of purpose, I became fascinated with “narrative resources”––a term I defined as “all of our internalized genetic and environmental modules for interacting with and overcoming ethical problems.” The idea was to give credence to an essential but under-acknowledged activity of the mind, one that translated the unconscious lessons of genetic inheritance and experiential memory into stories, or narrative resources, that the conscious mind could use as tools for analyzing and solving ethical problems.

Had I actually gone to graduate school, I would have refined this idea or (more likely) thrown it out in favor of a better one, but the notion that narrative resources are important has stuck with me since that time. This is because our internal narratives help determine the quality of our decision-making. Here I do not refer to quotidian, inconsequential choices that are dominated by habit (e.g. toast or eggs?), but rather to the rare moments when we are confronted with choices we know to be deeply consequential and which do not admit easy answers (e.g. which career path should I choose?).

American philosopher John Dewey developed a keen understanding of this deeper deliberative activity. In Human Nature and Conduct, he describes how our routine habits become interrupted, at which point we must engage in a special kind of deliberation called “dramatic rehearsal”:

Deliberation is a dramatic rehearsal (in imagination) of various competing possible lines of action. It starts from the blocking of efficient overt action, due to that conflict of prior habit and newly released impulse to which reference has been made. Then each habit, each impulse, involved in the temporary suspense of overt action takes its turn in being tried out. Deliberation is an experiment in finding out what the various lines of possible action are really like. It is an experience in making various combinations of selected elements of habits and impulses, to see what the resultant action would be like if it were entered upon. But the trial is in imagination, not in overt fact. The experiment is carried on by tentative rehearsals in thought which do not affect physical facts outside the body. Thought runs ahead and foresees outcomes, and thereby avoids having to await the instruction of actual failure and disaster. An act overtly tried out is irretrievable, its consequences cannot be blotted out. An act tried out in imagination is not final or fatal. It is retrievable. (190)

The strength of dramatic rehearsal is that it simulates a variety of possible outcomes without “having to await the instruction of actual failure and disaster.” However, this same “retrievable” quality is also its weakness; there are massive limitations to our ability to accurately predict the future, and our minds easily trick us into excluding essential aspects of a problem or including superfluous ones.

It seems that we are caught between two undesirable decision processes: One in which we deliberate responsibly but cannot verify the plausibility of our imagined outcomes (dramatic rehearsal), and another where we forgo serious deliberation, act impulsively and spend the rest of our lives picking up the pieces when we guess wrong. I don’t think we can fully resolve this tension, but I do think it’s possible to improve the quality of our deliberation. This is where narrative resources become relevant. Someone who invokes narrative resources that are in step with the facts will choose more wisely than someone who invokes narrative resources that stem from bias or ignorance, or that are not applicable to the matter at hand.

Given the complexity of the natural world and the social ecosystems it contains, individuals can hardly be expected to single-handedly curate an optimal suite of narrative resources to guide us through life’s endless challenges. The cultivation of friendship, therefore, is a highly desirable method of gaining access to narrative resources that are otherwise unavailable to us. Intimate friendships are founded on each participant’s willingness to share their personal story, but this is not just a mechanistic way of becoming more comfortable with one another. It is also an imaginative, playful mining activity, one in which narrative resources are unearthed, polished and displayed in the hopes of bettering each person’s deliberative prospects.

The same is true for our goals, which are more expressions of our biological and social milieus than of our private desires. Paul Thagard explains:

We do not get autonomously to choose our goals, because some are handed to us by our biological needs and others are transmitted socially, through mechanisms such as attachment-based learning, role modeling, and altruism. From such basic goals, many other subordinate goals naturally arise through acquisition of information about what changes can lead to what outcomes. (The Brain and the Meaning of Life132)

When choosing our friends, then, we are not just choosing their general amiability, but also their specific narrative resources and goals. For good and ill, the stories and goals of our friends will influence our lives in ways we cannot fully track or control. But acknowledging this reminds us to choose our friends wisely, and, as James Hollis puts it, to “review every commitment, every old friendship, every practice, and every summons, and say in a new way, ‘I will not serve that which does not serve me.’” (What Matters Most39)

When friendships transcend their early stages and become flowerings of mutual growth, our life narrative becomes inextricably bound up with the act of spending time with and caring for our friends. Milton Mayeroff suggests that this form of intersubjective intelligibility is the key to feeling at home in the world:

The intelligibility I am trying to suggest goes with feeling that we belong and are uniquely needed by something or someone, in contrast to the disquiet that comes with not quite fitting in anywhere and with continued and sometimes desperate attempts to find our place…Such intelligibility is not a once-and-for-all thing, but is a continuing function that goes with caring for my appropriate others…My world becomes intelligible for me through caring and being cared for, or, put differently, as I become responsible for the growth and actualization of others. In the sense in which intelligibility means being at home in the world, we are ultimately at home not through dominating or explaining or appreciating things, but through caring and being cared for. (On Caring91-2, emphasis his)

The most recent way in which my friends have rendered my self-story more intelligible was not a pleasant one. Earlier this year, while traveling abroad with a group of close friends from college, I unwittingly caused a great deal of social discomfort. But instead of abandoning me to my ignorance and grumbling behind my back, the people I was negatively affecting sat me down and explained the problem.

To my dismay, it turned out that the root of the issue went back much further than that one trip, and had to do with some of my fundamental social tendencies. The defensive part of me wanted to deny culpability and blame others, but my friends helped me realize that I was blind to aspects of my conduct that were problematic, even for people who knew and loved me. And because my friends had the courage to point out the lacuna in my self-understanding and help me reconstruct my self-story to include these foibles, I now possess a more accurate model of who I am and the range of possibilities for how I affect those around me. My narrative resources have been enhanced. This would have been impossible without the years of camaraderie I’ve shared with these people, and the experience was emblematic of how my friends make me a better person in ways I could never achieve on my own.

Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains:

We are all wrong about many things at every moment, but until we know it, we are often quite certain that we are right. Having people around us who are willing to disagree is a gift. So when you realize you are wrong, admit that you are wrong, and thank your critics for helping you see it. (The Coddling of the American Mind, 244)

In a more superficial sense, friends are also a primary source of cultural narrative resources, such as travel, books, films, music, plays, podcasts, and online media. Part of being a good friend is learning the preferences of one’s counterpart, making mental notes about the strengths and weaknesses of their narrative toolkit, and filling their perspectival gaps in ways that are entertaining and impactful. We must also allow our friends to do the same for us, remaining open to new things we might avoid in the absence of a friend’s recommendation.

In this spirit, I’d like to highlight some of my favorite fictional depictions of friendship, starting with the classics and working my way up to more contemporary examples. The first is the tripartite friendship between Samuel, Adam and Lee in John Steinbeck‘s East of EdenIn what is probably the best of Steinbeck’s many superb novels, these three characters explore together the questions of meaning and choice in human life. Each expands the horizon of the others in a special way, and they also push one another to confront their weaknesses, as when Samuel bestows on Adam “a medicine that might cure you and also might kill you” (304).

I adore the friendship that forms between Dorothea and Dr. Lydgate in George Eliot‘s MiddlemarchWhen it seems that Lydgate’s reputation and future prospects will be tarnished by a community’s misunderstanding, Dorothea honors the reciprocal duties of friendship by defending him:

I believe that people are almost always better than their neighbors think they are…Mr Lydgate would understand that if his friends hear a calumny about him their first wish must be to justify. What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other? I cannot be indifferent to the troubles of a man who advised me in my trouble, and attended me in my illness. (733-4, emphasis hers)

The notion that life represents an opportunity to ease the burdens of our friends is the cornerstone of a character who is perhaps literature’s single greatest paragon of friendship: Samwise Gamgee. In J.R.R. Tolkien‘s The Lord of the RingsSamwise puts himself in harm’s way repeatedly for no other reason than that he feels an unshakable obligation to protect his best friend, Frodo. When Frodo is entrusted with the task of saving Middle Earth from annihilation, Samwise makes it his singular mission to support him to the end, remaining faithful even after Frodo––his mind warped by the One Ring––rejects him. As they prepare to die together on the slopes of Mt. Doom, their quest fulfilled, Frodo says, “I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam” (926). This is a dramatic tribute to a mundane truth: As we age and face death, we would all like to have our dear friends beside us.

This truth is similarly played out in William Shakespeare‘s Hamlet. A major portion of this play’s tragic punch comes when Hamlet and Laertes––two young men who shared an upbringing and boyhood friendship––murder each other. As Hamlet’s life drains away, he turns to his faithful companion Horatio to carry forth his story and legacy after “the rest is silence” (V.ii.359). When we inevitably find ourselves unable to carry on, whether it be from exhaustion or death, we all need friends to whom we can pass on our values and responsibilities.

An exceptional contemporary example of fictional friendship is found in Hanya Hanagihara‘s A Little Life. Jude, the novel’s protagonist, struggles with lifelong trauma resulting from severe, protracted child abuse. He later becomes a tutor, and at one point explains to a student that it was through his college friends that he first gained a sense of identity not entirely dominated by his dark past:

I never had friends, either, not for a very long time…And I always wondered if I would find any, and how, and when…And when I went to college, and I met people who, for whatever reason, decided to be my friends, and they taught me––everything, really. They made me, and make me, into someone better than I really am. (210)

Willem, Jude’s closest friend, later observes that friendship provides a safe harbor in which to anchor the meaning of one’s life:

“I know my life’s meaningful because”––and here he stopped, and looked shy, and was silent for a moment before he continued–– “because I’m a good friend. I love my friends, and I care about them, and I think I make them happy.” (687-8)

At first glance, Ilona’s Andrews‘s ten-volume Kate Daniels series seems like just another urban fantasy time-suck, each cover bedecked with a sexy, sword-wielding heroine and a lion. But beneath the genre marketing is a heartfelt tale of how a lonely, isolated woman becomes the center of a large network of caring and quirky friends. Kate has a useful knack for turning enemies into allies, mostly because she is always willing to see the good in people and give someone a second chance when they deserve it. By the end of her epic adventure, Kate’s chosen community is powerful and diverse enough to save its beloved city of Atlanta from certain doom:

We weren’t just one thing. We were many: shapeshifters, necromancers, witches, mages, mercenaries…We came in all shapes and sizes, in every age, in every human color, in every variation of magic, and from that we drew our strength. We were surprising and unexpected, and we were united. (Magic Triumphs299)

I would be remiss to leave out the most famous fictional friends of my generation: Harry, Hermione and Ron from J.K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter books. Harry, who is special only because he is unusually kind and brave, is able to overcome incredible odds because he attracts friends who are loyal and capable (mostly Hermione). As they bond and grow together, Harry, Hermione and Ron lose sight of any desirable future in which their friendships cannot persist, and it is their commitment to this future that allows them to risk everything to protect one another.

Each of these stories has proved a valuable narrative resource for me as I strive to continually reimagine the best ways to strengthen my existing friendships and generate new ones. But why are we wired this way, and what role does friendship play in the larger project of creating and maintaining a civil society in which human flourishing is possible? This will be the topic of Part Three.