We use the word friend quite a bit- even to describe those who are more accurately our acquaintances. Seneca, then, provides us with a magnificent picture of who we should consider our true friends in his third letter (Penguin Classics edition). Would we censor ourselves around someone we've accepted into our hearts as a friend? No, says Seneca, and he exhorts his friend Lucilius to be as honest with his friends as he is with himself. Indeed, the letter begins addressing the apparent contradiction Lucilius presents, stating that he does not feel comfortable openly sharing what is on his mind with a so-called friend. Seneca responds, "Why should I keep back anything when I'm with a friend? Why shouldn't I imagine I'm alone when I'm in his company?" As I've found, we shouldn't- else through our dishonesty we risk losing our friend.
It turns out that the overuse of the concept of a friend, like information overload, is not a new concept. Seneca points out that the common usage of friend is really anyone we feel like we know more than an acquaintance, whereas a true friend is, or should be, much more exclusive. It's someone we trust completely, and so have no fears or misgivings about telling them or asking them anything.
This is an interesting idea because typically who we consider to be a friend is a matter of convenience. Seneca says we should deliberately choose our friends, precisely because we should be trusting them with so much. Reasonable advice given that the half-dozen or so people we spend the most time with are typically a good measure of who we are as people. We may as well consciously and deliberately choose our friends, and hence a portion of our own identities and personalities.
Specifically, Seneca says:
"Certainly you should discuss everything with a friend; but before you do so, discuss in your mind the man himself. After friendship is formed you must trust, but before that you must judge... Think for a long time whether or not you should admit a given person to your friendship. But when you have decided to do so, welcome him heart and soul, and speak as unreservedly with him as you would with yourself."
As I read the letter, I began thinking back on old friendships. I have old friends that, even if we haven't seen or spoken with each other in ages, it feels like no time has passed. I'm excited to see them, and we have the same rapport and complicity as before. The friendship is still there. Then I have old friendships where the opposite happened. For whatever reason, we drifted apart. I certainly considered them friends at some point, even using Seneca's strict definition of the concept, but I'm not so sure now. Publicly, I'd still call them my friends, of course. Even if I agree with what Seneca says, I'm not out to change the way we use the word "friend". But if I saw these old friends again, it would be like our rapport were starting back from zero. In some cases, I'm hesitant or even flat-out decided not to see them again.
Why do some friendships survive and others die?
At first, I thought the problem lay with the first part of Seneca's equation: the judging. Perhaps I'd judged poorly and made friendships with people I wasn't compatible with in the long run. But the more I reflected on this the less true it seemed. It was too easy of an answer. If I'm comfortable with that thought, I'm basically saying that the friendships were doomed in the first place and, oh well, nothing I can do about it now. And as I already said, even in the friendships that fell apart there was a reason we became friends in the first place. Sure, not all friendships last forever, I realize that. But what could have caused me to become so antithetic towards former friends?
Seneca's advice on choosing friends wisely is theoretically sound. But it's also difficult in practice. At no point in my life have I said to myself, "I've decided I know this person enough to call them my friend, so I won't censor myself around them anymore. I will open up to them fully and completely." Human beings just aren't that rational. What usually happens is I gradually feel more comfortable around someone and I like who they are and I like spending time around them. Eventually at some fuzzy grey point in time they go from "someone I know who I'd like to be friends with" to a place of psychic intimacy, without me realizing it until after the fact.
I am for now decided then that the judging was not the problem, and ultimately that rationally judging our friends doesn't really even work at all anyway. We decide who we admit into our sphere of friends emotionally, not logically.
As I reflected on my history with a couple of these former friends I realized the answer lay in the second part of Seneca's description of friendship, to "welcome him heart and soul, and speak as unreservedly with him as you would with yourself." In each of the cases I thought of, there had been a point where, for various reasons, I began to hide certain feelings or thoughts, particularly about things I was upset about or didn't agree with.
I stopped being honest.
For example, with one friend I didn't tell him that I hated hanging out with another one of his friends he had started to always bring along with him. In another case I didn't tell the friend in question that a certain aspect of his behavior annoyed those around him (me included) and that many of the people who knew him complained about him and his behavior behind his back.
Perhaps telling them this would have made for an awkward conversation. Maybe the ensuing confrontation would have killed the friendship. But the lack of honesty killed the relationship anyway, and much more surely.
It seemed harmless to conceal these emotional facts from my friends at the time. But in a certain way our rapport with other people is binary: on or off, friend or acquaintance, trusted or not. So in deciding at some point to not trust them as friends with the reality of how I felt at the time I flipped the switch from friend to not friend. Once I hid one thing, I began hiding more feelings and thoughts until pretty soon, in each of the cases, it felt like I couldn't be myself or be comfortable around them. Everything I should have been saying stayed locked in my head, suffocated by a layer of resentment. My lack of honesty about specific, negative emotions I'd had in one particular moment had killed the rapport we had and fed a general negativity directed towards my former friend.
As Christ said in a Gnostic gospel, "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."
And in the instances where the old friendships are still alive I see that I have never hidden anything emotionally burdensome from them, either because no tension ever arose in the first place or because I found the courage to be honest and tell them something I thought they wouldn't like to hear. Or they had the courage to do it instead.
And it is terribly difficult in many cases for me to tell someone something I think they won't want to hear. It's also something I have to do and become comfortable with, otherwise I may lose who-knows how many more friendships over what's really nothing at all. At a certain point in any relationship or friendship they're bound to do or say something that I don't like anyway. By recognizing it in the moment, I can move on and make way for new emotions.
With a keen understanding of human psychology, Seneca exhorts us to "regard him as loyal, and you will make him loyal." Sound advice. By trusting our friends with the truth, we affirm them not only as trustworthy but also as our friends.
Yours in his truth,
Dillon Dakota Carroll
...sees much and knows much