Friday, July 16, 2010

A Reflection on Friendship

Recently I became someone’s “first foreign friend.” This statement from a former mature student of mine puzzled me. I knew for a fact that I’m not the first foreign person that he has come across, met or had some sort of relationship with (in my case, it was teacher/student relationship). He works for a company that consists of, what to him are foreigners. In addition, I was aware that he went on trips with his colleagues and boss, had barbeques and played golf. Yet, I am his first foreign friend. A bit of context may be necessary: I was teaching English as a Second Language in Calgary and he was a student from Japan that I taught in the evenings.
I, for one, highly value friendship, and believe that one must become friends before becoming lovers. But, what makes one a friend?
As I was reading an article by Todd May, “Friendship in an Age of Economics,” I began to reflect on my friendships. He argues that in today’s society we are encouraged to lead two types of relationships: consumer and entrepreneurial. He draws on Aristotle’s friendship taxonomy, who believes there are three types of friendships—those based on pleasure, on usefulness, and finally true friendship.
This “true friendship,” is non-economical and surpasses personal gain or pleasure. May writes:

Friendships worthy of the name are different. Their rhythm lies not in what they bring to us, but rather in what we immerse ourselves in. To be a friend is to step into the stream of another’s life. It is, while not neglecting my own life, to take pleasure in another’s pleasure, and to share their pain as partly my own.

I find myself agreeing with May, true friendship occurs when you not only values the other person, but can see and feel through his/her lens. When you choose to understand and respect someone, even if you happen to disagree. Friendship is also a process, and could emerge from an entrepreneurial relationship or one originally based on self-interest. It does not suddenly happen overnight. May further writes: “[a]nd while the time we spend with our friends and the favors we do for them are often reciprocated in an informal way, we do not spend that time or offer those favors in view of the reciprocation that might ensue.”
While friendships should be as natural as a rhythm, it does require an effort to maintain. Nor do they always flow as a stream, but may progress into a flood or regress to a trickle. But it is in those moments that true friendships are tested. And furthermore, they are often threatened by a lack of “reciprocation.” This act does not have to take a physical form, but it could be mere appreciation. And sometimes, true friendship does not always survive, but that doesn’t diminish the relationship. Without reciprocation the relationship can become enervating.
While I’m not entirely sure why that former student considers me his friend, but I am sure of, is that friendship defies a clear definition. I’m grateful to be considered a friend and hope to embody such a role. It’s only fitting to end with a wonderful quotation from Aristotle: "What is a friend? A single soul in two bodies." But, what is a soul?

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