On Letting Go of Friends

Throughout my teaching life, spanning twenty-five years, I have frequently had the honor of serving as private counselor or mentor to students struggling with personal problems — usually problems of an existential, as opposed to practical, nature. I seem to have a knack for attracting young people who are a little outside modernity’s social norms, whether temperamentally, intellectually, or both.

One reason for this attraction is undoubtedly the immense value, in the life of a young misfit, of recognizing — or even more importantly, being recognized by — a kindred spirit, but one who has apparently managed to overcome the emotional difficulties of being “the ugly duckling.” Another reason, equally powerful, is the sheer dearth of teachers in today’s education world, at any level, who care to understand, let alone sincerely give a damn about, the souls of abnormal students, beyond the cloying and obnoxious encouragement to “get along,” “cheer up,” “learn to fit in,” or — today’s primary advice for the unhappy — “see a doctor.”

When you get to know a troubled student well, and to earn his or her trust, one topic that is almost certain to arise is some variation on the following: “I don’t think most of my friends are very good friends, or even real friends at all, and I know we don’t usually see the world the same way; but I like having friends, and I’ve known many of them for years, so I don’t know if I can accept losing these relationships right now, when I’m so weak.”

When this issue arises, one of the first things the young person needs to understand — it usually hits him as a bit of a revelation — is that evolving away from childhood or youthful friendships is a very normal and natural thing. Furthermore, such a painful evolution is almost mandatory for someone living through that period of life — usually university age — during which the more thoughtful young person begins to face the inevitable existential conflict between the child he has been and the adult he vaguely intuits becoming. In other words, to state the matter in its most extreme and exalted form, casting off youthful presuppositions, comforting illusions, and potentially restrictive relationships, is an essential step in turning toward the philosophic life — that is to say, the examined life. 

Furthermore, and most difficult for the young person in the midst of the problem to understand, those restrictive and backward-looking friendships are often a significant source of the very confusion and emotional turmoil the person is trying to overcome. Thus, clinging to such limiting or damaging relationships, on the grounds that “I can’t face my life without my friends right now,” just might be the equivalent of burning down the house to get the flies out of the living room.

Not to get all ancient about this…oh, on second thought, why not get all ancient? 

The purpose of life, viewed generally, is to develop yourself, which means to become the best version of yourself that you can find, which in turn entails an exhaustive (perhaps never-ending) search for the true human good, and a searching (certainly never-ending) effort to exhaust every bit of your soul’s innate potential to approach that good.

If life’s purpose is self-development, defined in this way, then we can immediately see that the quest for the full meaning of what I have called “the true human good” is an indispensable element of a fruitful life — perhaps the most fundamental element of all, as working toward a goal obviously requires first determining what that goal is. Everything in life, then, depends on one’s search for the good. Given this, it seems imperative that one avoid distractions that might interfere with one’s search. It is in this light that all the elements of one’s life, particularly those elements of an emotionally involving and permanent nature, must be assessed or reassessed with regard to their value to one’s life.

What, then, is the actual purpose or benefit of seeking and maintaining friendships, for someone hoping to transcend the limits of socially-indoctrinated “meaning,” and begin advancing toward genuine spiritual fulfillment?

It is surely not to “fit in” with others, or to “belong.” What if the others are doing harmful or wasteful things? Fitting in with them would mean harming yourself or others. How could that be good for you? (This, in modern student life, is the problem that most often manifests itself in the arena of “drinking friends.”)

It is not to avoid hurting other people’s feelings as one might do by rejecting their choices or preferences. For one thing, such “consideration” for others is harmful to those others in the long run. If their choices are bad, they should be rejected, so they might finally face up to their poor choices and change. If you go along with them just to avoid upsetting them, you are actually encouraging their harmful or destructive behavior. How could that be good either for them or for you?

It is not to be liked by other people. If people who prefer to do harmful or useless things prefer you when you agree to do these harmful or useless things with them, then how is your life improved by being liked by them?

It is not to have the greatest number of “connections,” or a “social network.” True friendship is essentially a form — the highest form — of intimacy. If you are sharing yourself with everyone, then you make every relationship meaningless, because (to speak distributively) you cannot be intimate with many people without finally weakening the emotional significance and seriousness of each individual relationship. Furthermore, to speak logically, intimacy means opening your soul’s private, pristine pathways to another’s footsteps. In other words, it is a kind of excess or superabundance of openness, and an excess is, by definition, the abnormal or rare case. More friends, then, will not mean more friendship, but rather less. That private pathway in the soul is both the natural locus and the necessary condition of real friendship. A public highway is merely a means of mass transportation, a soulless track from here to there. To turn the former into the latter is not to multiply friendship, but to nullify it.

On the contrary, if the life well and properly lived is the life spent searching earnestly and fruitfully for the true (natural) human good, then as a practical matter this would seem to recommend reducing your substantial relationships, as far as is practicable, to the few (if any) you have found that are clearly and genuinely helpful to your search in some way. If a relationship is not helpful in this search, or even hinders your path to the most fulfilling life, then it is worse than merely a distraction or diversion; it is hurting you, by making your life qualitatively smaller and less meaningful than it ought to be. To state this another way, to seek the good is to seek completion, the fullness of life. Clinging to relationships that are of no value, or only tangential value, to this search for the good, suggests that one has traded fullness for mere congestion.

If your shoes are broken down or too small, they hurt your feet and you have to throw them away. The same is true — much more true — with people. Broken down friends hurt your soul. Friends who are too small restrict your soul’s growth and movement.

Many people hold on to connections that are harmful on the grounds that “I’ve known him for so many years.” This is exactly the same faulty reasoning that makes us feel uncomfortable throwing away the old toys in our house that are useless now. We remember liking them as children, and we feel nostalgic about our childhood when we think about them, so we hate to say goodbye to them. More precisely, we fear letting go of the version of ourselves that we associate with those useless things. But letting go of the earlier, less individuated or independent version(s) of yourself is of the essence of becoming an adult, and especially a spiritually serious or philosophical adult.

Or think of popular songs you liked as a teenager, but now realize are stupid, cheesy fluff, or worse. When you hear one of those songs again, you might smile and feel a moment of giddy pleasure, even though in your mind you know this music is trivial and not beautiful. So why do you smile at bad music? Nostalgia.

As a momentary weakness, there is nothing so terrible about this feeling, as it is merely a by-product of memory. But nostalgia in itself is not a good reason for doing or choosing anything. Nostalgia means clinging to the past just because it is the past, regardless of whether it is good or bad for you. But if something in your past harmed you, or is harming you now, or is wasting your time, or is useless now, then it is no different, in principle, from any new harmful and useless thing you happened to encounter today. Harmful is harmful. What is more, harmful things that are also incidentally attractive due to old familiarity or sentimental associations, may actually be more harmful than new, unfamiliar ones, which, lacking that layer of nostalgic emotional appeal, are in that sense less of a threat.

For example, if you met some new acquaintances today and they said, “We’re going to sit at a bar and drink until we are talking like idiots, and we’re going to gossip about our sex partners and try to impress each other by bragging about our private affairs, because we have no respect either for ourselves or for the other people in our lives — do you want to join us?” you would instantly reply, “No, thank you.” But when old friends make essentially the same offer, you might experience complicated feelings, or worry about the ramifications of saying no. What’s the difference? Nostalgia.

On the other hand, if you find something (old or new) that is genuinely helpful to your long-term spiritual development (as defined above), then you should cling to that thing, hard. You should make sacrifices to get it, struggle night and day to deserve it, accommodate your life to its conditions in order to keep it as close to you as you can. If that something is a person, then he or she is a desirable friend, for this is a person whose presence in your life will smooth your path to completion, rather than turn it into a gravel pit, an icy cliff, or an avalanche zone, as those old friends-of-convenience, friends-of-nostalgia, or friends-of-amusement are prone to do.

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