What is a friend and what is friendship for? It’s not as frivolous a question as it might seem on the surface. In fact, many philosophers have spent a great deal of time on the subject throughout the centuries, and so too will we wrestle with it here, for I think it’s one of the more practical and necessary questions we can investigate; everyone has friends, or has had friends, or wants friends. It’s an integral part of who we are as humans.
What is a friend?
So what is a friend? It might be easier to say what is not a friend. A friend is not your enemy. A friend does not hate you. A friend does not wish harm upon you or for unfortunate things to befall you. But a friend is also not indifferent about you. This here reduces a great deal of the population.
A friend is someone who cares about you in a personal, direct way. Someone might care about you in an indirect or institutional way, but these people do not likely know you as an individual. A friend is someone who wants the best for you, who will honestly advise you, and who you have judged as trustworthy. Beyond these criteria, it may be that a person sets their own criteria for what a friend is.
Are there different types of friends?
Labeling someone “best friend” is one of the earliest distinctions we make regarding relationships. That label, however, might not be founded on much as five year olds are not the most discerning of individuals. And certainly throughout elementary school, the term “best friend” can become problematic once a person acquires more than one friend. It is the beginning of our understanding that the term friendship may need to become more sophisticated and nuanced as we grow older.
Perhaps there is someone who you feel comfortable enough with to complain about work situations but not so comfortable with that you would discuss complications in your love life? Maybe there is someone you enjoy hiking or watching sports together with at a bar but would feel very awkward around them in a church setting. Or maybe it’s as simple as who would you feel comfortable crying with?
Is there anything wrong with having friends for different situations and settings? Would you call these setting specific individuals “friends?”
What creates and maintains friendships?
Is it simply just a matter of proximity? Many create friendships with people who are in their provided social circles and institutions: school, church, book club, work place, parent group, exercise group, or volunteer group.
Is it a matter of time and shared experiences? Two people may have gone through a traumatic or joyful experience together and this created a bond. Or simply, two people might sit next to each other in three out of five classes and spend a lot of time together working on projects, so they eventually became friends?
Or is it that you like the same kinds of things – movies, comedy, music, food, philosophical views, or shared values?
For a friendship to endure over time, it must be more than this; people change.
Maybe it is something more. If you are in a class of 30 people, you are not friends with all 30 people. You might become friends with a few, but not all. But why not all? Is it that perhaps proximity and shared experiences are the instigators or motivators in finding your friend, similar to, say, a romantic partner? You might not be able to explain how it is you know that this one person is THE person out of the many potentials in your social circles, yet they are. Is friendship founded on the same kind of undefinable premise?
What is friendship for?
A fantastic question. Perhaps it should be the first question. Do we become friends with someone because they fill a gap in ourselves thus making us more whole, or is it to satiate the existential thirst for relationship, or can it be boiled down to an evolutionary need for companionship and survival told to us through neuroscience and psychology? Or is there an even higher purpose to friendship that transcends categories of meaning?
I don’t really know the answers to these questions. Perhaps it is a combination of them all. What does seem clear is that friendship is as necessary to a life well lived as to good bread and water.
Can friendship transcend other categories?
Friends are obviously special people in our lives, but there are many special people in our lives with which we have relationships. Another great question is, can a friendship exist in such relationships, of which I will refer to as categories?
Can a person be friends with their boss or supervisor at work, or with a pastor or priest perhaps? Can a student be a friend with a teacher, or children (young or adult) friends with their parents? I think the difficulty here is the power that is at play in these particular categories. A boss ultimately has power over their employees, as does a teacher over their students, and parents over children. The relationship is not on equal ground nor intended to be. I do not think these kind of relationships impossible, but it does add a layer of complexity.
Can you be friends with your romantic partner, or with your sibling? Here the power concerns evident in the previous example should not be as large a factor, if at all, but the question is still intriguing. Is friendship a separate category like teacher, mentor, boss, spouse – mutually exclusive of each other? Or is friendship a kind of umbrella covering it all, the ultimate in venn diagramming?
And if you have people in your life that don’t fit in any of these kind of categories I’ve been talking about, then if they don’t have their own called “friend”, then what are they?