Think of a time when you sat across from a friend and felt truly understood. Deeply known. Maybe you sensed how she was bringing out your ‘best self’, your cleverest observations and wittiest jokes. She encouraged you. She listened, articulated one of your patterns, and then gently suggested how you might shift it for the better. The two of you gossiped about your mutual friends, skipped between shared memories, and delved into cherished subjects in a seamlessly scripted exchange full of shorthand and punctuated with knowing expressions. Perhaps you felt a warm swell of admiration for her, and a simultaneous sense of pride in your similarity to her. You felt deep satisfaction to be valued by someone you held in such high regard: happy, nourished and energised through it all.
These are the friendships that fill our souls, and bolster and shape our identities and life paths. They have also been squeezed into social science labs enough times for us to know that they keep us mentally and physically healthy: good friends improve immunity, spark creativity, drop our bloodpressure, ward off dementia among the elderly, and even decrease our chances of dying at any given time. If you feel you can’t live without your friends, you’re not being melodramatic.
But even our easiest and richest friendships can be laced with tensions and conflicts, as are most human relationships. They can lose a bit of their magic and fail to regain it, or even fade out altogether for tragic reasons, or no reason at all. Then there are the not-so-easy friendships; increasingly difficult friendships; and bad, gut-wrenching, toxic friendships. The pleasures and benefits of good friends are abundant, but they come with a price. Friendship, looked at through a clear and wide lens, is far messier and more lopsided than it is often portrayed.
The first cold splash on an idealised notion of friendship is the data showing that only about half of friendships are reciprocal. This is shocking to people, since research confirms that we actually assume nearly all our friendships are reciprocal. Can you guess who on your list of friends wouldn’t list you?
One explanation for imbalance is that many friendships are aspirational: a study of teens shows that people want to be friends with popular people, but those higher up the social hierarchy have their pick (and skew the average). A corroborating piece of evidence, which was highlighted by Steven Strogatz in a 2012 article in The New York Times, is the finding that your Facebook ‘friends’ always have, on average, more ‘friends’ than you do. So much for friendship being an oasis from our status-obsessed world.
‘Ambivalent’ relationships, in social science parlance, are characterised by interdependence and conflict. You have many positive and negative feelings toward these people. You might think twice about picking up when they call. These relationships turn out to be common, too. Close to half of one’s important social network members are identified as ambivalent. Granted, more of those are family members (whom we’re stuck with) than friends, but still, for friendship, it’s another push off the pedestal.
Friends who are loyal, reliable, interesting companions – good! – can also be bad for you, should they have other qualities that are less desirable. We know through social network research that depressed friends make it more likely you’ll be depressed, obese friends make it more likely you’ll become obese, and friends who smoke or drink a lot make it more likely you’ll smoke and drink more.
Other ‘good’ friends might have, or start to have, goals, values or habits that misalign with your current or emerging ones. They certainly haven’t ‘done’ anything to you. But they aren’t a group that validates who you are, or that will effortlessly lift you up toward your aims over time. Stay with them, and you’ll be walking against the wind.
In addition to annoying us, these mixed-bag friendships harm our health. A 2003 study by Julianne Holt-Lunstad from Brigham Young University and Bert Uchino from the University of Utah asked people to wear blood-pressure monitors and write down interactions with various people. Blood pressure was higher with ambivalent relationships than it was with friends or outright enemies. This is probably due to the unpredictability of these relationships, which leads us to be vigilant: Will Jen ruin Christmas this year? Ambivalent relationships have also been associated with increased cardiovascular reactivity, greater cellular ageing, lowered resistance to stress, and a decreased sense of wellbeing.
One research team, though, found that ambivalent friendships might have benefits in the workplace. They showed that in these pairings workers are more likely to put themselves in the other’s shoes, in part because they are trying to figure out what the relationship means and what it is. Also, because ambivalent friendships make you feel uncertain about where you stand, they can push you to work harder to establish your position.
‘Frenemies’ are perhaps a separate variety in that they are neatly multi-layered – friendliness atop rivalry or dislike – as opposed to the ambivalent relationship’s admixture of love, hate, annoyance, pity, devotion and tenderness. Plenty of people have attested to the motivating force of a frenemy at work, as well as in the realms of romance and parenting.
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As with unhappy families, there are countless ways a friend can be full-on ‘bad’, no ambivalence about it. Susan Heitler, a clinical psychologist in Denver, and Sharon Livingston, a psychologist and marketing consultant in New York, have studied the issue, and found some typical qualities: a bad friend makes you feel competitive with her other friends; she talks much more about herself than you do about yourself; she criticises you in a self-righteous way but is defensive when you criticise her; she makes you feel you’re walking on eggshells and might easily spark her anger or disapproval; she has you on an emotional rollercoaster where one day she’s responsive and complimentary and the next she freezes you out.
In 2014, a team at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh found that, as the amount of negativity in relationships increased for healthy women aged over 50, so did their risk of developing hypertension. Negative social interactions – incidents including excessive demands, criticism, disappointment and disagreeable exchanges – were related to a 38 per cent increased risk. For men, there was no link between bad relationships and high blood pressure. This is likely because women care more about, and are socialised to pay more attention to, relationships.
Negative interactions can lead to inflammation, too, in both men and women. Jessica Chiang, a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, who conducted a study showing as much, has said that an accumulation of social stressors could cause physical damage, just like an actual toxin.
Some of our most hurtful friendships start out good, but then became bad. Among teens, for example, the rates of cyber aggression are 4.3 times higher between friends than between friends of friends. Or as Diane de Poitiers, the 16th-century mistress of King Henry II of France, said: ‘To have a good enemy, choose a friend: he knows where to strike.’
The writer Robert Greene addresses the slippery slope in his book The48 Laws of Power (1998). Bringing friends into your professional endeavours can aid the gradual crossover from ‘good’ to ‘bad’, he warns, in part because of how we react to grand favours:
Strangely enough, it is your act of kindness that unbalances everything. People want to feel they deserve their good fortune. The receipt of a favour can become oppressive: it means you have been chosen because you are a friend, not necessarily because you are deserving. There is almost a touch of condescension in the act of hiring friends that secretly afflicts them. The injury will come out slowly: a little more honesty, flashes of resentment and envy here and there, and before you know it your friendship fades.
Ah – so too much giving and ‘a little more honesty’ are friendship-disrupters? That conclusion, which runs counter to the ethos of total openness and unlimited generosity between friends, provides a clue as to why there are so many ‘bad’, ‘good and bad’, and ‘good, then bad’ friends. In his paper ‘The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism’ (1971), the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers concludes that ‘each individual human is seen as possessing altruistic and cheating tendencies’, where cheating means giving at least a bit less (or taking at least a bit more) than a friend would give or take from us.
Good people do attract more friends (though being a high-status good person helps)
Trivers goes on to explain that we have evolved to be subtle cheaters, with complex mechanisms for regulating bigger cheaters and also ‘too much’ altruism. He writes:
In gross cheating, the cheater fails to reciprocate at all, and the altruist suffers the costs of whatever altruism he has dispensed without any compensating benefit… clearly, selection will strongly favour prompt discrimination against the gross cheater. Subtle cheating, by contrast, involves reciprocating, but always attempting to give less than one was given, or more precisely, to give less than the partner would give if the situation were reversed.
The rewarding emotion of ‘liking’ someone is also a part of this psychological regulation system, and selection will favour liking those who are altruistic: good people do attract more friends (though being a high-status good person helps). But the issue is not whether we are cheaters or altruists, good or bad, but to what degree are we each of those things in different contexts and relationships.
Perhaps this seesaw between cheating and altruism, which settles to a midpoint of 50/50, explains why 50 per cent keeps coming up in research on friends and relationships. Recall that half of our friendships are non-reciprocal, half of our social network consists of ambivalent relationships, and – to dip into the adjacent field of lie detection – the average person detects lies right around 50 per cent of the time. We evolved to be able to detect enough lies to not be totally swindled, but not enough to wither under the harsh truths of (white-lie-free) social interactions. Likewise, we’ve evolved to detect some cheating behaviours in friends, but not enough to prohibit our ability to be friends with people at all. As the seesaw wobbles, so do our friendships.
Should this sound like a complicated business to you, Trivers agrees, and in fact speculates that the development of this system for regulating altruism among non-kin members is what made our brains grow so big in the Pleistocene. Many neuroscientists agree with his conclusion: humans are smart so that we can navigate friendship.
The psychologist Jan Yager, author of When Friendship Hurts (2002), found that 68 per cent of survey respondents had been betrayed by a friend. Who are these betrayers? At such high numbers, could ‘they’ be us?
We somehow expect friendships to be forever. Friendship break-ups challenge our vision of who we are
That scary thought leads me to ask: are we really striving to forgive small sins? To air our grievances before they accumulate and blow up our friendships? To make the effort to get together? To give others the benefit of the doubt? Are we giving what we can, or keeping score? Are we unfairly expecting friends to think and believe the exact same things we do? Are we really doing the best we can? Well, maybe that’s what most of our friends think they are doing, too. And if they aren’t being a good friend, or if they have drifted away from us, or we from them, maybe we can accept these common rifts, without giving into a guilt so overwhelming that it pushes us to slap a label on those we no longer want for friends: toxic.
When a friend breaks up with us, or disappears without explanation, it can be devastating. Even though the churning and pruning of social networks is common over time, we still somehow expect friendships to be forever. Friendship break-ups challenge our vision of who we are, especially if we’ve been intertwined with a friend for many years. Pulsing with hurt in the wake of a friend break-up, we hurl him or her into the ‘bad friends’ basket.
But, sometimes, we have to drop a friend to become ourselves. In Connecting in College (2016), the sociologist Janice McCabe argues that ending friendships in young adulthood is a way of advancing our identities. We construct our self-images and personalities against our friends, in both positive and negative ways.
As much as we need to take responsibility for being better friends and for our part in relationship conflict and break-ups, quite a few factors surrounding friendship are out of our control. Social network embeddedness, where you and another person have many friends in common, for instance, is a big challenge. Let’s say someone crosses a line, but you don’t want to disturb the group, so you don’t declare that you no longer think of him as a friend. You pull back from him, but not so much that it will spark a direct confrontation, whereby people would then be forced to invite only one of you, but not both, to events. Sometimes we are yoked to bad friends.
The forces that dictate whom we stay close to and whom we let go can be mysterious even to ourselves. Aren’t there people you like very much whom you haven’t contacted in a long time? And others you don’t connect with as well whom you see more often? The former group might be pencilling you into their ‘bad friend’ column right now.
Dealing with bad friends, getting dumped by them, and feeling disappointed with them is a stressful part of life, and it can harm your body and mind. Yet having no friends at all is a far worse fate. Imagine a child’s desperation for a playmate, a teenager’s deep longing for someone who ‘gets’ her, or an adult’s realisation that there is no one with whom he can share a failure or even a success. Loneliness is as painful as extreme thirst or hunger. John Cacioppo, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, has found associations between loneliness and depression, obesity, alcoholism, cardiovascular problems, sleep dysfunction, high blood pressure, the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, cynical world views and suicidal thoughts. But if you have friend problems, you have friends – and that means you’re pretty lucky.
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is a journalist and former features editor at Psychology Today. Her work has appeared in Discover and Scientific American Mind, among others. She is the author of Friendfluence (2013).
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Essays, First Series 
A ruddy drop of manly blood
The surging sea outweighs,
The world uncertain comes and goes,
The lover rooted stays.
I fancied he was fled,
And, after many a year,
Glowed unexhausted kindliness
Like daily sunrise there.
My careful heart was free again, �
O friend, my bosom said,
Through thee alone the sky is arched,
Through thee the rose is red,
All things through thee take nobler form,
And look beyond the earth,
And is the mill-round of our fate
A sun-path in thy worth.
Me too thy nobleness has taught
To master my despair;
The fountains of my hidden life
Are through thy friendship fair.
We have a great deal more kindness than is ever spoken. Maugre all the selfishness that chills like east winds the world, the whole human family is bathed with an element of love like a fine ether. How many persons we meet in houses, whom we scarcely speak to, whom yet we honor, and who honor us! How many we see in the street, or sit with in church, whom, though silently, we warmly rejoice to be with! Read the language of these wandering eye-beams. The heart knoweth.
The effect of the indulgence of this human affection is a certain cordial exhilaration. In poetry, and in common speech, the emotions of benevolence and complacency which are felt towards others are likened to the material effects of fire; so swift, or much more swift, more active, more cheering, are these fine inward irradiations. From the highest degree of passionate love, to the lowest degree of good-will, they make the sweetness of life.
Our intellectual and active powers increase with our affection. The scholar sits down to write, and all his years of meditation do not furnish him with one good thought or happy expression; but it is necessary to write a letter to a friend,--and, forthwith, troops of gentle thoughts invest themselves, on every hand, with chosen words. See, in any house where virtue and self-respect abide, the palpitation which the approach of a stranger causes. A commended stranger is expected and announced, and an uneasiness betwixt pleasure and pain invades all the hearts of a household. His arrival almost brings fear to the good hearts that would welcome him. The house is dusted, all things fly into their places, the old coat is exchanged for the new, and they must get up a dinner if they can. Of a commended stranger, only the good report is told by others, only the good and new is heard by us. He stands to us for humanity. He is what we wish. Having imagined and invested him, we ask how we should stand related in conversation and action with such a man, and are uneasy with fear. The same idea exalts conversation with him. We talk better than we are wont. We have the nimblest fancy, a richer memory, and our dumb devil has taken leave for the time. For long hours we can continue a series of sincere, graceful, rich communications, drawn from the oldest, secretest experience, so that they who sit by, of our own kinsfolk and acquaintance, shall feel a lively surprise at our unusual powers. But as soon as the stranger begins to intrude his partialities, his definitions, his defects, into the conversation, it is all over. He has heard the first, the last and best he will ever hear from us. He is no stranger now. Vulgarity, ignorance, misapprehension are old acquaintances. Now, when he comes, he may get the order, the dress, and the dinner,--but the throbbing of the heart, and the communications of the soul, no more.
What is so pleasant as these jets of affection which make a young world for me again? What so delicious as a just and firm encounter of two, in a thought, in a feeling? How beautiful, on their approach to this beating heart, the steps and forms of the gifted and the true! The moment we indulge our affections, the earth is metamorphosed; there is no winter, and no night; all tragedies, all ennuis, vanish,--all duties even; nothing fills the proceeding eternity but the forms all radiant of beloved persons. Let the soul be assured that somewhere in the universe it should rejoin its friend, and it would be content and cheerful alone for a thousand years.
I awoke this morning with devout thanksgiving for my friends, the old and the new. Shall I not call God the Beautiful, who daily showeth himself so to me in his gifts? I chide society, I embrace solitude, and yet I am not so ungrateful as not to see the wise, the lovely, and the noble-minded, as from time to time they pass my gate. Who hears me, who understands me, becomes mine,--a possession for all time. Nor is nature so poor but she gives me this joy several times, and thus we weave social threads of our own, a new web of relations; and, as many thoughts in succession substantiate themselves, we shall by and by stand in a new world of our own creation, and no longer strangers and pilgrims in a traditionary globe. My friends have come to me unsought. The great God gave them to me. By oldest right, by the divine affinity of virtue with itself, I find them, or rather not I, but the Deity in me and in them derides and cancels the thick walls of individual character, relation, age, sex, circumstance, at which he usually connives, and now makes many one. High thanks I owe you, excellent lovers, who carry out the world for me to new and noble depths, and enlarge the meaning of all my thoughts. These are new poetry of the first Bard,--poetry without stop,--hymn, ode, and epic, poetry still flowing, Apollo and the Muses chanting still. Will these, too, separate themselves from me again, or some of them? I know not, but I fear it not; for my relation to them is so pure, that we hold by simple affinity, and the Genius of my life being thus social, the same affinity will exert its energy on whomsoever is as noble as these men and women, wherever I may be.
I confess to an extreme tenderness of nature on this point. It is almost dangerous to me to "crush the sweet poison of misused wine" of the affections. A new person is to me a great event, and hinders me from sleep. I have often had fine fancies about persons which have given me delicious hours; but the joy ends in the day; it yields no fruit. Thought is not born of it; my action is very little modified. I must feel pride in my friend's accomplishments as if they were mine,--and a property in his virtues. I feel as warmly when he is praised, as the lover when he hears applause of his engaged maiden. We over-estimate the conscience of our friend. His goodness seems better than our goodness, his nature finer, his temptations less. Every thing that is his,--his name, his form, his dress, books, and instruments,--fancy enhances. Our own thought sounds new and larger from his mouth.
Yet the systole and diastole of the heart are not without their analogy in the ebb and flow of love. Friendship, like the immortality of the soul, is too good to be believed. The lover, beholding his maiden, half knows that she is not verily that which he worships; and in the golden hour of friendship, we are surprised with shades of suspicion and unbelief. We doubt that we bestow on our hero the virtues in which he shines, and afterwards worship the form to which we have ascribed this divine inhabitation. In strictness, the soul does not respect men as it respects itself. In strict science all persons underlie the same condition of an infinite remoteness. Shall we fear to cool our love by mining for the metaphysical foundation of this Elysian temple? Shall I not be as real as the things I see? If I am, I shall not fear to know them for what they are. Their essence is not less beautiful than their appearance, though it needs finer organs for its apprehension. The root of the plant is not unsightly to science, though for chaplets and festoons we cut the stem short. And I must hazard the production of the bald fact amidst these pleasing reveries, though it should prove an Egyptian skull at our banquet. A man who stands united with his thought conceives magnificently of himself. He is conscious of a universal success, even though bought by uniform particular failures. No advantages, no powers, no gold or force, can be any match for him. I cannot choose but rely on my own poverty more than on your wealth. I cannot make your consciousness tantamount to mine. Only the star dazzles; the planet has a faint, moon-like ray. I hear what you say of the admirable parts and tried temper of the party you praise, but I see well that for all his purple cloaks I shall not like him, unless he is at last a poor Greek like me. I cannot deny it, O friend, that the vast shadow of the Phenomenal includes thee also in its pied and painted immensity,--thee, also, compared with whom all else is shadow. Thou art not Being, as Truth is, as Justice is,--thou art not my soul, but a picture and effigy of that. Thou hast come to me lately, and already thou art seizing thy hat and cloak. Is it not that the soul puts forth friends as the tree puts forth leaves, and presently, by the germination of new buds, extrudes the old leaf? The law of nature is alternation for evermore. Each electrical state superinduces the opposite. The soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude; and it goes alone for a season, that it may exalt its conversation or society. This method betrays itself along the whole history of our personal relations. The instinct of affection revives the hope of union with our mates, and the returning sense of insulation recalls us from the chase. Thus every man passes his life in the search after friendship, and if he should record his true sentiment, he might write a letter like this to each new candidate for his love.
DEAR FRIEND: �
If I was sure of thee, sure of thy capacity, sure to match my mood with thine, I should never think again of trifles in relation to thy comings and goings. I am not very wise; my moods are quite attainable; and I respect thy genius; it is to me as yet unfathomed; yet dare I not presume in thee a perfect intelligence of me, and so thou art to me a delicious torment. Thine ever, or never.
Yet these uneasy pleasures and fine pains are for curiosity, and not for life. They are not to be indulged. This is to weave cobweb, and not cloth. Our friendships hurry to short and poor conclusions, because we have made them a texture of wine and dreams, instead of the tough fibre of the human heart. The laws of friendship are austere and eternal, of one web with the laws of nature and of morals. But we have aimed at a swift and petty benefit, to suck a sudden sweetness. We snatch at the slowest fruit in the whole garden of God, which many summers and many winters must ripen. We seek our friend not sacredly, but with an adulterate passion which would appropriate him to ourselves. In vain. We are armed all over with subtle antagonisms, which, as soon as we meet, begin to play, and translate all poetry into stale prose. Almost all people descend to meet. All association must be a compromise, and, what is worst, the very flower and aroma of the flower of each of the beautiful natures disappears as they approach each other. What a perpetual disappointment is actual society, even of the virtuous and gifted! After interviews have been compassed with long foresight, we must be tormented presently by baffled blows, by sudden, unseasonable apathies, by epilepsies of wit and of animal spirits, in the heyday of friendship and thought. Our faculties do not play us true, and both parties are relieved by solitude.
I ought to be equal to every relation. It makes no difference how many friends I have, and what content I can find in conversing with each, if there be one to whom I am not equal. If I have shrunk unequal from one contest, the joy I find in all the rest becomes mean and cowardly. I should hate myself, if then I made my other friends my asylum.
Our impatience is thus sharply rebuked. Bashfulness and apathy are a tough husk, in which a delicate organization is protected from premature ripening. It would be lost if it knew itself before any of the best souls were yet ripe enough to know and own it. Respect the naturlangsamkeit which hardens the ruby in a million years, and works in duration, in which Alps and Andes come and go as rainbows. The good spirit of our life has no heaven which is the price of rashness. Love, which is the essence of God, is not for levity, but for the total worth of man. Let us not have this childish luxury in our regards, but the austerest worth; let us approach our friend with an audacious trust in the truth of his heart, in the breadth, impossible to be overturned, of his foundations."The valiant warrior famoused for fight, After a hundred victories, once foiled, Is from the book of honor razed quite, And all the rest forgot for which he toiled." Shakespeare
The attractions of this subject are not to be resisted, and I leave, for the time, all account of subordinate social benefit, to speak of that select and sacred relation which is a kind of absolute, and which even leaves the language of love suspicious and common, so much is this purer, and nothing is so much divine.
I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with roughest courage. When they are real, they are not glass threads or frostwork, but the solidest thing we know. For now, after so many ages of experience, what do we know of nature, or of ourselves? Not one step has man taken toward the solution of the problem of his destiny. In one condemnation of folly stand the whole universe of men. But the sweet sincerity of joy and peace, which I draw from this alliance with my brother's soul, is the nut itself, whereof all nature and all thought is but the husk and shell. Happy is the house that shelters a friend! It might well be built, like a festal bower or arch, to entertain him a single day. Happier, if he know the solemnity of that relation, and honor its law! He who offers himself a candidate for that covenant comes up, like an Olympian, to the great games, where the first-born of the world are the competitors. He proposes himself for contests where Time, Want, Danger, are in the lists, and he alone is victor who has truth enough in his constitution to preserve the delicacy of his beauty from the wear and tear of all these. The gifts of fortune may be present or absent, but all the speed in that contest depends on intrinsic nobleness, and the contempt of trifles. There are two elements that go to the composition of friendship, each so sovereign that I can detect no superiority in either, no reason why either should be first named. One is Truth. A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him I may think aloud. I am arrived at last in the presence of a man so real and equal, that I may drop even those undermost garments of dissimulation, courtesy, and second thought, which men never put off, and may deal with him with the simplicity and wholeness with which one chemical atom meets another. Sincerity is the luxury allowed, like diadems and authority, only to the highest rank, that being permitted to speak truth, as having none above it to court or conform unto. Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins. We parry and fend the approach of our fellow-man by compliments, by gossip, by amusements, by affairs. We cover up our thought from him under a hundred folds. I knew a man, who, under a certain religious frenzy, cast off this drapery, and, omitting all compliment and commonplace, spoke to the conscience of every person he encountered, and that with great insight and beauty. At first he was resisted, and all men agreed he was mad. But persisting, as indeed he could not help doing, for some time in this course, he attained to the advantage of bringing every man of his acquaintance into true relations with him. No man would think of speaking falsely with him, or of putting him off with any chat of markets or reading-rooms. But every man was constrained by so much sincerity to the like plaindealing, and what love of nature, what poetry, what symbol of truth he had, he did certainly show him. But to most of us society shows not its face and eye, but its side and its back. To stand in true relations with men in a false age is worth a fit of insanity, is it not? We can seldom go erect. Almost every man we meet requires some civility,--requires to be humored; he has some fame, some talent, some whim of religion or philanthropy in his head that is not to be questioned, and which spoils all conversation with him. But a friend is a sane man who exercises not my ingenuity, but me. My friend gives me entertainment without requiring any stipulation on my part. A friend, therefore, is a sort of paradox in nature. I who alone am, I who see nothing in nature whose existence I can affirm with equal evidence to my own, behold now the semblance of my being, in all its height, variety, and curiosity, reiterated in a foreign form; so that a friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature.
The other element of friendship is tenderness. We are holden to men by every sort of tie, by blood, by pride, by fear, by hope, by lucre, by lust, by hate, by admiration, by every circumstance and badge and trifle, but we can scarce believe that so much character can subsist in another as to draw us by love. Can another be so blessed, and we so pure, that we can offer him tenderness? When a man becomes dear to me, I have touched the goal of fortune. I find very little written directly to the heart of this matter in books. And yet I have one text which I cannot choose but remember. My author says,--"I offer myself faintly and bluntly to those whose I effectually am, and tender myself least to him to whom I am the most devoted." I wish that friendship should have feet, as well as eyes and eloquence. It must plant itself on the ground, before it vaults over the moon. I wish it to be a little of a citizen, before it is quite a cherub. We chide the citizen because he makes love a commodity. It is an exchange of gifts, of useful loans; it is good neighbourhood; it watches with the sick; it holds the pall at the funeral; and quite loses sight of the delicacies and nobility of the relation. But though we cannot find the god under this disguise of a sutler, yet, on the other hand, we cannot forgive the poet if he spins his thread too fine, and does not substantiate his romance by the municipal virtues of justice, punctuality, fidelity, and pity. I hate the prostitution of the name of friendship to signify modish and worldly alliances. I much prefer the company of ploughboys and tin-peddlers, to the silken and perfumed amity which celebrates its days of encounter by a frivolous display, by rides in a curricle, and dinners at the best taverns. The end of friendship is a commerce the most strict and homely that can be joined; more strict than any of which we have experience. It is for aid and comfort through all the relations and passages of life and death. It is fit for serene days, and graceful gifts, and country rambles, but also for rough roads and hard fare, shipwreck, poverty, and persecution. It keeps company with the sallies of the wit and the trances of religion. We are to dignify to each other the daily needs and offices of man's life, and embellish it by courage, wisdom, and unity. It should never fall into something usual and settled, but should be alert and inventive, and add rhyme and reason to what was drudgery.
Friendship may be said to require natures so rare and costly, each so well tempered and so happily adapted, and withal so circumstanced, (for even in that particular, a poet says, love demands that the parties be altogether paired,) that its satisfaction can very seldom be assured. It cannot subsist in its perfection, say some of those who are learned in this warm lore of the heart, betwixt more than two. I am not quite so strict in my terms, perhaps because I have never known so high a fellowship as others. I please my imagination more with a circle of godlike men and women variously related to each other, and between whom subsists a lofty intelligence. But I find this law of one to one peremptory for conversation, which is the practice and consummation of friendship. Do not mix waters too much. The best mix as ill as good and bad. You shall have very useful and cheering discourse at several times with two several men, but let all three of you come together, and you shall not have one new and hearty word. Two may talk and one may hear, but three cannot take part in a conversation of the most sincere and searching sort. In good company there is never such discourse between two, across the table, as takes place when you leave them alone. In good company, the individuals merge their egotism into a social soul exactly co-extensive with the several consciousnesses there present. No partialities of friend to friend, no fondnesses of brother to sister, of wife to husband, are there pertinent, but quite otherwise. Only he may then speak who can sail on the common thought of the party, and not poorly limited to his own. Now this convention, which good sense demands, destroys the high freedom of great conversation, which requires an absolute running of two souls into one.
No two men but, being left alone with each other, enter into simpler relations. Yet it is affinity that determines which two shall converse. Unrelated men give little joy to each other; will never suspect the latent powers of each. We talk sometimes of a great talent for conversation, as if it were a permanent property in some individuals. Conversation is an evanescent relation,--no more. A man is reputed to have thought and eloquence; he cannot, for all that, say a word to his cousin or his uncle. They accuse his silence with as much reason as they would blame the insignificance of a dial in the shade. In the sun it will mark the hour. Among those who enjoy his thought, he will regain his tongue.
Friendship requires that rare mean betwixt likeness and unlikeness, that piques each with the presence of power and of consent in the other party. Let me be alone to the end of the world, rather than that my friend should overstep, by a word or a look, his real sympathy. I am equally balked by antagonism and by compliance. Let him not cease an instant to be himself. The only joy I have in his being mine, is that the not mine is mine. I hate, where I looked for a manly furtherance, or at least a manly resistance, to find a mush of concession. Better be a nettle in the side of your friend than his echo. The condition which high friendship demands is ability to do without it. That high office requires great and sublime parts. There must be very two, before there can be very one. Let it be an alliance of two large, formidable natures, mutually beheld, mutually feared, before yet they recognize the deep identity which beneath these disparities unites them.
He only is fit for this society who is magnanimous; who is sure that greatness and goodness are always economy; who is not swift to intermeddle with his fortunes. Let him not intermeddle with this. Leave to the diamond its ages to grow, nor expect to accelerate the births of the eternal. Friendship demands a religious treatment. We talk of choosing our friends, but friends are self-elected. Reverence is a great part of it. Treat your friend as a spectacle. Of course he has merits that are not yours, and that you cannot honor, if you must needs hold him close to your person. Stand aside; give those merits room; let them mount and expand. Are you the friend of your friend's buttons, or of his thought? To a great heart he will still be a stranger in a thousand particulars, that he may come near in the holiest ground. Leave it to girls and boys to regard a friend as property, and to suck a short and all-confounding pleasure, instead of the noblest benefit.
Let us buy our entrance to this guild by a long probation. Why should we desecrate noble and beautiful souls by intruding on them? Why insist on rash personal relations with your friend? Why go to his house, or know his mother and brother and sisters? Why be visited by him at your own? Are these things material to our covenant? Leave this touching and clawing. Let him be to me a spirit. A message, a thought, a sincerity, a glance from him, I want, but not news, nor pottage. I can get politics, and chat, and neighbourly conveniences from cheaper companions. Should not the society of my friend be to me poetic, pure, universal, and great as nature itself? Ought I to feel that our tie is profane in comparison with yonder bar of cloud that sleeps on the horizon, or that clump of waving grass that divides the brook? Let us not vilify, but raise it to that standard. That great, defying eye, that scornful beauty of his mien and action, do not pique yourself on reducing, but rather fortify and enhance. Worship his superiorities; wish him not less by a thought, but hoard and tell them all. Guard him as thy counterpart. Let him be to thee for ever a sort of beautiful enemy, untamable, devoutly revered, and not a trivial conveniency to be soon outgrown and cast aside. The hues of the opal, the light of the diamond, are not to be seen, if the eye is too near. To my friend I write a letter, and from him I receive a letter. That seems to you a little. It suffices me. It is a spiritual gift worthy of him to give, and of me to receive. It profanes nobody. In these warm lines the heart will trust itself, as it will not to the tongue, and pour out the prophecy of a godlier existence than all the annals of heroism have yet made good.
Respect so far the holy laws of this fellowship as not to prejudice its perfect flower by your impatience for its opening. We must be our own before we can be another's. There is at least this satisfaction in crime, according to the Latin proverb;--you can speak to your accomplice on even terms. Crimen quos inquinat, aequat. To those whom we admire and love, at first we cannot. Yet the least defect of self-possession vitiates, in my judgment, the entire relation. There can never be deep peace between two spirits, never mutual respect, until, in their dialogue, each stands for the whole world.
What is so great as friendship, let us carry with what grandeur of spirit we can. Let us be silent,--so we may hear the whisper of the gods. Let us not interfere. Who set you to cast about what you should say to the select souls, or how to say any thing to such? No matter how ingenious, no matter how graceful and bland. There are innumerable degrees of folly and wisdom, and for you to say aught is to be frivolous. Wait, and thy heart shall speak. Wait until the necessary and everlasting overpowers you, until day and night avail themselves of your lips. The only reward of virtue is virtue; the only way to have a friend is to be one. You shall not come nearer a man by getting into his house. If unlike, his soul only flees the faster from you, and you shall never catch a true glance of his eye. We see the noble afar off, and they repel us; why should we intrude? Late,--very late,--we perceive that no arrangements, no introductions, no consuetudes or habits of society, would be of any avail to establish us in such relations with them as we desire,--but solely the uprise of nature in us to the same degree it is in them; then shall we meet as water with water; and if we should not meet them then, we shall not want them, for we are already they. In the last analysis, love is only the reflection of a man's own worthiness from other men. Men have sometimes exchanged names with their friends, as if they would signify that in their friend each loved his own soul.
The higher the style we demand of friendship, of course the less easy to establish it with flesh and blood. We walk alone in the world. Friends, such as we desire, are dreams and fables. But a sublime hope cheers ever the faithful heart, that elsewhere, in other regions of the universal power, souls are now acting, enduring, and daring, which can love us, and which we can love. We may congratulate ourselves that the period of nonage, of follies, of blunders, and of shame, is passed in solitude, and when we are finished men, we shall grasp heroic hands in heroic hands. Only be admonished by what you already see, not to strike leagues of friendship with cheap persons, where no friendship can be. Our impatience betrays us into rash and foolish alliances which no God attends. By persisting in your path, though you forfeit the little you gain the great. You demonstrate yourself, so as to put yourself out of the reach of false relations, and you draw to you the first-born of the world,--those rare pilgrims whereof only one or two wander in nature at once, and before whom the vulgar great show as spectres and shadows merely.
It is foolish to be afraid of making our ties too spiritual, as if so we could lose any genuine love. Whatever correction of our popular views we make from insight, nature will be sure to bear us out in, and though it seem to rob us of some joy, will repay us with a greater. Let us feel, if we will, the absolute insulation of man. We are sure that we have all in us. We go to Europe, or we pursue persons, or we read books, in the instinctive faith that these will call it out and reveal us to ourselves. Beggars all. The persons are such as we; the Europe an old faded garment of dead persons; the books their ghosts. Let us drop this idolatry. Let us give over this mendicancy. Let us even bid our dearest friends farewell, and defy them, saying, 'Who are you? Unhand me: I will be dependent no more.' Ah! seest thou not, O brother, that thus we part only to meet again on a higher platform, and only be more each other's, because we are more our own? A friend is Janus-faced: he looks to the past and the future. He is the child of all my foregoing hours, the prophet of those to come, and the harbinger of a greater friend.
I do then with my friends as I do with my books. I would have them where I can find them, but I seldom use them. We must have society on our own terms, and admit or exclude it on the slightest cause. I cannot afford to speak much with my friend. If he is great, he makes me so great that I cannot descend to converse. In the great days, presentiments hover before me in the firmament. I ought then to dedicate myself to them. I go in that I may seize them, I go out that I may seize them. I fear only that I may lose them receding into the sky in which now they are only a patch of brighter light. Then, though I prize my friends, I cannot afford to talk with them and study their visions, lest I lose my own. It would indeed give me a certain household joy to quit this lofty seeking, this spiritual astronomy, or search of stars, and come down to warm sympathies with you; but then I know well I shall mourn always the vanishing of my mighty gods. It is true, next week I shall have languid moods, when I can well afford to occupy myself with foreign objects; then I shall regret the lost literature of your mind, and wish you were by my side again. But if you come, perhaps you will fill my mind only with new visions, not with yourself but with your lustres, and I shall not be able any more than now to converse with you. So I will owe to my friends this evanescent intercourse. I will receive from them, not what they have, but what they are. They shall give me that which properly they cannot give, but which emanates from them. But they shall not hold me by any relations less subtile and pure. We will meet as though we met not, and part as though we parted not.
It has seemed to me lately more possible than I knew, to carry a friendship greatly, on one side, without due correspondence on the other. Why should I cumber myself with regrets that the receiver is not capacious? It never troubles the sun that some of his rays fall wide and vain into ungrateful space, and only a small part on the reflecting planet. Let your greatness educate the crude and cold companion. If he is unequal, he will presently pass away; but thou art enlarged by thy own shining, and, no longer a mate for frogs and worms, dost soar and burn with the gods of the empyrean. It is thought a disgrace to love unrequited. But the great will see that true love cannot be unrequited. True love transcends the unworthy object, and dwells and broods on the eternal, and when the poor interposed mask crumbles, it is not sad, but feels rid of so much earth, and feels its independency the surer. Yet these things may hardly be said without a sort of treachery to the relation. The essence of friendship is entireness, a total magnanimity and trust. It must not surmise or provide for infirmity. It treats its object as a god, that it may deify both.
Selected Criticism on "Friendship"
- McNulty, John Bard. "Emerson's Friends and the Essay on Friendship." New England Quarterly 19 (Sept 1946): 390-94.
- Rucker, Mary E. "Emerson's 'Friendship' as Process." ESQ 18 (4 Quarter 1962): 234-48.
- Yarbrough, Stephen R. "From the Vice of Intimacy to the Vice of Habit: The Theories of Friendship of Emerson and Thoreau." Thoreau Journal Quarterly, 8 (July-Oct 1981): 63-73.
- Baldwin, David. "The Emerson-Ward Friendship: Ideals and Realities." In Studies in the American Renaissance 1984, pp. 299-324. Charlottesville: UP of VA, 1984.
- Sebouhian, George. "A Dialogue with Death: An Examination of Emerson's 'Friendship'." Studies in the American Renaissance, 1989, pp. 219-239. Charlottesville: UP of VA, 1989.
- Newfield, Christopher J. "Loving Bondage: Emerson�s Ideal Relationships." ATQ 5 (1991): 183-93.