“If a man has frequent intercourse with others, either in the way of conversation, entertainment, or simple familiarity, he must either become like them, or change them to his own fashion.”
- The Golden Sayings of Epictetus
Epictetus speaks to us of friendship and is alerting us that we do not exist in a vacuum, that our associations affect us and we affect those associations. The deeper the association from casual acquaintance, personal knowledge or familiarity, to a close friend, one attached by affection or esteem, the more one is influenced and the more influence one has on the relationship.
Based on the above definitions from Webster's dictionary, it is clear that friends are much more than casual acquaintances, but still the influences are there. Those influences are bi-directional as well, influenced and influencing. That friendship is an attachment to another by affection or esteem. Even more so, the word friend includes to act as a friend, to befriend someone.
When we decide to make a change in our lives such as a commitment to a healthier lifestyle, our friends may be impacted as well. First of all, we may have less time to spend with them since we will devote some of our free time to exercise. We maybe making significant adjustments to our diet as we embark on the journey to a healthier lifestyle, and that means that we may not be able to fully participate with our friends in certain activities. Sometimes we may find that we are expanding our circle of friends and may find ourselves spending time with them.
As friends, how are we attached to the other? We might want to consider to whom we became attached and how we became attached, why, what affections or esteem do we have for each other, and even where we met and how that allowed that attachment to grow.
Let us examine the how of a friendly relationship. Perhaps, we were childhood friends, or worked together, or any other of a great deal of possibilities, but there is something common I think in any of these instances. The commonality is a shared experience. The shared experience could be work related, growing up together, raising children, or anything else, but it is based on an experience shared with another person. That shared experience is something that helps create and nurture friendships.
Who do we hold in esteem and why? For whom do we have affection and why? To whom we become attached as friends is based on a number of factors, but to be a friend, we must be attached by affection or esteem. The traits that cause us to be attached to another by affection or esteem are many but certainly we cannot doubt that we are influenced by the other. How we interact with them and they with us are changed by the friendship. If we hold them in esteem for any number of reasons, we can be influenced by them and they of course influenced by the esteem we hold for them.
Even the where and when of a budding friendship can be helpful in understanding the context of the friendship and even if it would have any longevity. Sometimes we meet people on a vacation, enjoy their company and part ways. The 'friendship' goes no further, it was only the vacation atmosphere that brought us together for a short time. Since there is no reason to continue the friendship, it fails. However, if we are brought together by a work experience, that 'where and when' would influence the nature of the relationship.
Why one becomes a friend with someone and not with another, even in the situation of a shared experience, is something to be examined. Although an experience may be shared, the friendship may not develop. Personalities may clash or more likely, values are not aligned. The values do not have to be perfectly aligned and certainly not all values need to be aligned, but the core values must be aligned enough for a friendship to take root and to grow. It is these core values that are shared and held in enough esteem that the friendship can provide the basis for the friendship.
The why of a friendship is an important question. Why do you care? Why is this person your friend? How is your life improved by the friendship and how do you improve their life? Who brings what to the friendship? Kahil Gibran speaks to this issue in The Prophet.
“And a youth said, Speak to us of Friendship.
And he answered, saying:
Your friend is your needs answered.
He is your field in which you sow with love and reap with thanksgiving.
And he is your board and your fireside.
For you come to him with your hunger, and you seek him for peace.
When your friend speaks his mind you fear not the 'nay' in your own mind, nor do you withhold the 'ay.'
And when he is silent your heart ceases not to listen to his heart:
For without words, in friendship, all thoughts, all desires, all expectations are born and shared, with joy that is unacclaimed.
When you depart from your friend, you grieve not;
For that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain.
And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.
For love that seeks aught but the disclosure of its own mystery is not love but a net cast forth and only the unprofitable is caught.
And let your best be for your friend.
If he must know the ebb of your tide, let him know its flood also.
For what is your friend that you should seek him with hours to kill?
Seek him always with hours to live.
For it is his to fill your need but not your emptiness.
And in the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures.
For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.”
Italics have been added to two lines, “And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.” and “Seek him always with hours to live.” Gibran advises us to understand friendship from the spiritual aspect, the aspect of giving and living life. A friendship should deepen the spirit and enrich the lives of the friends. It cannot be a uni-directional relationship with one giving and the other receiving. The friendship must be bi-directional. In addition, there must be something about the friendship that deepens the spirit, that enhances life. Sometimes our 'friendships' require a great deal of effort, are one sided, are one directional, and do little if anything to deepen our spirit. These 'friendships' are merely between acquaintances and profit us little since they take time and effort from our real friendships. So as Gibran states, “Seek him always with hours to live.” Celebrate life with your friends. As Epictetus advised, “Try to enjoy the great festival of life with other men.'
We have seen the importance of valid friendships, that friends influence our lives and we influence theirs. If we are true friends, and they are true friends, our friendship deepens our spirits as we grow together. The friendship is full of life and meaning. Friends sustain each other, even when feeling empty. As friends we seek not to fill the emptiness but to provide for the others needs.
As we know ourselves, we know our values. If we have people in our lives that do not share our values, we can certainly become influenced by their values and actions. To paraphrase Epictetus again, as a burning twig can either light another twig or be extinguished, our associations and friendships can be affected in the same way. One cannot rub against soot without having some soot attach itself to us. That much is proven by anyone who has a dog who sheds and wears clothes brought back from the dry cleaners.
Our friendships define us and we help define our friendships. We must examine these friendships and ask why we are friends. Are we really friends, attached by esteem or affection, or are we merely acquaintances? If friends, devote our energies to the friendship. If we are acquaintances, then assign the relationship to its proper place and devote minimal effort to it. If our friends help bring out the best in us or influence us in positive ways, then by all means keep the friendship alive. If our friends are influencing us in ways that are not positive and do not support our positive goals, then they are not friends at all, but witnesses to our own destruction. That does not mean that friends sit by idly and support us blindly, but rather that our friends help supply our needs and not our emptiness. If we are in need, and pursue something to fill our emptiness, they will act as a friend and try to shield us from things that provide no benefit to us.
In this examination of our friendships, that we choose to exercise our free will in pursuing friendships that are mutually beneficial, we learn and grow. We are there to help our friends and they are there to help us. The friendship is mutually beneficial and productive for all.