Saturday, 24 January 2009

A panoply of friends?


Despite the general richness of the English language, there seems to be a paucity of terms to cover the enormous field of relationships that we simply call “friends”. At a minimal end of the spectrum, we have the term “acquaintance”. More often than not, we just categorise “friends” with adjectives to indicate the degree of closeness – “good friend”, “close friend”, “BFF” (for those instant messaging-challenged readers, “best friend forever”). Beyond “friend”, the different words that are available are often tinged with sexual overtones - for example “mate, “companion”.

Perhaps this limited vocabulary, and the lack of precision with which it is used, hinders us in understanding what, if I may put it in crass business terms, the rights and obligations are of the parties engaged in the friendship should be and even what “cloud of friends” (just what is the collective noun for the varied set of relationships we call friends?) you have or need in your life.

I’ve been led to think about what friendship means through a hectic period of socialising at many levels of intensity in Todos Santos, and by a passing comment from someone that the nature of their friendships seemed different here to those in their home town. She remarked that many of her friendships in Todos Santos were superficially close, involving much discourse and hugging, but that the true lives and makeup of these people were, in fact, unknown to her.

In Todos Santos, the most frequently encountered “friend” (Amicus Familiaris Todos Santos) is indeed akin to that encountered in a work environment or, more precisely, a project colleague. You are both here for a limited duration, brought together for disparate reasons and having little in common other than this co-location, and you spend a lot of waking time together. Your joint project is … the TS season, which you work on together tirelessly. What drives you internally is not for discussion; it’s protocol that you show only one facet of yourself to others. And the pressure of the project causes a temporary sense of intimacy and bonding.

Back in Comox, we are the exceptions in being seasonal, rather than full-time residents, and so the fauna of friends is different. The friend species that we encounter most is the newly arrived retiree (Amicus Familiaris NovoComox), who bears a close similarity to a type encountered in childhood – the “playdate”. Coming together for the purpose solely of enjoying group play activities (biking, hiking, kayaking, …), little is shared beyond this bubble.

Though I may be poking fun at these strange interactions that get labelled “friendship”, such relationships do play a vital part in participating in life in the different communities. But, just as a life eating only chocolate may appear delicious at first, yet is hardly a recipe for healthy longevity, so do we all need a varied cloud of relationships to protect us and allow us to function and flourish – in my terms, perhaps, a “panoply” of friends.

As I have tried to understand what I want and need, and the reasons for subtle dissatisfaction, it has occurred to me that the field of relationships that one might call “friendship” has many independent dimensions. While the nature of the relationship will be wildly different along each dimension, it is not true that there is a “correct” point on the scale. Each may play a valuable role in your life – if you understand what you have, and don’t expect it to meet a different need. Consider, perhaps, as a starting point, the following sample of possible orthogonal dimensions of (asexual) friendship:

1. Intimacy (in the sense of the extent to which secret and difficult parts of your life are shared): it’s a vital relief valve; a means of checking your own perceptions. But I tire even at the thought of maintaining many such intense relationships. Sometimes life should just be FUN!

2. Reciprocity: strange though it perhaps seems at first, there is not always a need for complete reciprocity in actions and intents between the parties in a successful relationship. Our needs may be quite different, yet be satisfied by the prescribed dimensions of the relationship.

3. History: long lasting friendships provide glue, a rooting of your life. Losing contact as we moved from Calgary to Comox and began our peripatetic lives has been traumatic. But people change over time and some needs become no longer relevant. And there is wonder and value in the injection of new people into our consciousness.

4. Commonality:
living a life bereft of anything in common with the people with whom we interact would be very dislocating. Commonality allows a sense of safety; a forum to share views and work collaboratively. But living in a Stepford Wives commune would be stultifying. We all need to be reminded of different perspectives; to have a kick on the side of the head to make us grow.

Considering my cloud of relationships within such a framework has given me some matter to chew upon. But, least you be tempted to imagine that I have become, of all things, deeply analytical in my dotage, I have to admit that I am often most fascinated by the ambiguity that exists in relationships. The shifting inconsistencies and unknowns that define us as humans are often the magic that draws and intrigues me.

1 comment:

Ian Lidster said...

Some really intriguing insights here, Vic. Some questions that I often ponder, and have come to ponder more as time goes by. I have two very oldest friends (I count them as such), and we're lucky if we see each other more than once a decade -- one is in Toronto and the other in Australia. So, I don't like to thing about how many more times in this lifetime we get to interact. In your case, with two residences, it must compound the isssue considerably, as you indicate.