Story type: Essay
Considering that most friendships are made by mere hazard, how is it that men find themselves equipped and fortified with just the friends they need? We have heard of men who asserted that they would like to have more money, or more books, or more pairs of pyjamas; but we have never heard of a man saying that he did not have enough friends. For, while one can never have too many friends, yet those one has are always enough. They satisfy us completely. One has never met a man who would say, “I wish I had a friend who would combine the good humour of A, the mystical enthusiasm of B, the love of doughnuts which is such an endearing quality in C, and who would also have the habit of giving Sunday evening suppers like D, and the well-stocked cellar which is so deplorably lacking in E.” No; the curious thing is that at any time and in any settled way of life a man is generally provided with friends far in excess of his desert, and also in excess of his capacity to absorb their wisdom and affectionate attentions.
There is some pleasant secret behind this, a secret that none is wise enough to fathom. The infinite fund of disinterested humane kindliness that is adrift in the world is part of the riddle, the insoluble riddle of life that is born in our blood and tissue. It is agreeable to think that no man, save by his own gross fault, ever went through life unfriended, without companions to whom he could stammer his momentary impulses of sagacity, to whom he could turn in hours of loneliness. It is not even necessary to know a man to be his friend. One can sit at a lunch counter, observing the moods and whims of the white-coated pie-passer, and by the time you have juggled a couple of fried eggs you will have caught some grasp of his philosophy of life, seen the quick edge and tang of his humour, memorized the shrewdness of his worldly insight and been as truly stimulated as if you had spent an evening with your favourite parson.
If there were no such thing as friendship existing to-day, it would perhaps be difficult to understand what it is like from those who have written about it. We have tried, from time to time, to read Emerson’s enigmatic and rather frigid essay. It seems that Emerson must have put his cronies to a severe test before admitting them to the high-vaulted and rather draughty halls of his intellect. There are fine passages in his essay, but it is intellectualized, bloodless, heedless of the trifling oddities of human intercourse that make friendship so satisfying. He seems to insist upon a sterile ceremony of mutual self-improvement, a kind of religious ritual, a profound interchange of doctrines between soul and soul. His friends (one gathers) are to be antisepticated, all the poisons and pestilence of their faulty humours are to be drained away before they may approach the white and icy operating table of his heart. “Why insist,” he says, “on rash personal relations with your friend? Why go to his house, or know his wife and family?” And yet does not the botanist like to study the flower in the soil where it grows?
Polonius, too, is another ancient supposed to be an authority on friendship. The Polonius family must have been a thoroughly dreary one to live with; we have often thought that poor Ophelia would have gone mad anyway, even if there had been no Hamlet. Laertes preaches to Ophelia; Polonius preaches to Laertes. Laertes escaped by going abroad, but the girl had to stay at home. Hamlet saw that pithy old Polonius was a preposterous and orotund ass. Polonius’s doctrine of friendship–“The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel”–was, we trow, a necessary one in his case. It would need a hoop of steel to keep them near such a dismal old sawmonger.
Friendships, we think, do not grow up in any such carefully tended and contemplated fashion as Messrs. Emerson and Polonius suggest. They begin haphazard. As we look back on the first time we saw our friends we find that generally our original impression was curiously astray. We have worked along beside them, have consorted with them drunk or sober, have grown to cherish their delicious absurdities, have outrageously imposed on each other’s patience–and suddenly we awoke to realize what had happened. We had, without knowing it, gained a new friend. In some curious way the unseen border line had been passed. We had reached the final culmination of Anglo-Saxon regard when two men rarely look each other straight in the eyes because they are ashamed to show each other how fond they are. We had reached the fine flower and the ultimate test of comradeship–that is, when you get a letter from one of your “best friends,” you know you don’t need to answer it until you get ready to.
Emerson is right in saying that friendship can’t be hurried. It takes time to ripen. It needs a background of humorous, wearisome, or even tragic events shared together, a certain tract of memories shared in common, so that you know that your own life and your companion’s have really moved for some time in the same channel. It needs interchange of books, meals together, discussion of one another’s whims with mutual friends, to gain a proper perspective. It is set in a rich haze of half-remembered occasions, sudden glimpses, ludicrous pranks, unsuspected observations, midnight confidences when heart spoke to candid heart.
The soul preaches humility to itself when it realizes, startled, that it has won a new friend. Knowing what a posset of contradictions we all are, it feels a symptom of shame at the thought that our friend knows all our frailties and yet thinks us worth affection. We all have cause to be shamefast indeed; for whereas we love ourselves in spite of our faults, our friends often love us even on account of our faults, the highest level to which attachment can go. And what an infinite appeal there is in their faces! How we grow to cherish those curious little fleshy cages–so oddly sculptured–which inclose the spirit within. To see those faces, bent unconsciously over their tasks–each different, each unique, each so richly and queerly expressive of the lively and perverse enigma of man, is a full education in human tolerance. Privately, one studies his own ill-modeled visnomy to see if by any chance it bespeaks the emotions he inwardly feels. We know–as Hamlet did–the vicious mole of nature in us, the o’ergrowth of some complexion that mars the purity of our secret resolutions. Yet–our friends have passed it over, have shown their willingness to take us as we are. Can we do less than hope to deserve their generous tenderness, granted before it was earned?
The problem of education, said R. L. S., is two-fold–“first to know, then to utter.” Every man knows what friendship means, but few can utter that complete frankness of communion, based upon full comprehension of mutual weakness, enlivened by a happy understanding of honourable intentions generously shared. When we first met our friends we met with bandaged eyes. We did not know what journeys they had been on, what winding roads their spirits had travelled, what ingenious shifts they had devised to circumvent the walls and barriers of the world. We know these now, for some of them they have told us; others we have guessed. We have watched them when they little dreamed it; just as they (we suppose) have done with us. Every gesture and method of their daily movement have become part of our enjoyment of life. Not until a time comes for saying good-bye will we ever know how much we would like to have said. At those times one has to fall back on shrewder tongues. You remember Hilaire Belloc:
From quiet homes and first beginning
Out to the undiscovered ends,
There’s nothing worth the wear of winning
But laughter, and the love of friends.