In my post on counterfactual hugging and vampire friendship, I started to develop the idea of one type of friend as an optimizing process who takes initiative to further your interests even when you’re not around to notice or prompt them.
A real life example:
I have a friend who learned when she was a child that oleander trees are very poisonous. (You can apparently get sick just from bruising the leaves and then touching your mouth.) She immediately started trying to warn people whenever she saw them interacting with an oleander tree, or at risk of doing so (because it was in their yard). She still feels the urge to do this. I didn’t see anything I could or should do about this, but I made sure to include this in my model of her, because it’s a thing she feels strongly about. When I think of oleander trees, I now automatically think of her wanting to warn people. A few weeks ago we were going for a walk and another friend pointed out a flowering tree across the street. I said that I thought they were boring because they were white flowers, and the first friend said, “No, they’re terrifying! That’s an oleander tree!” Immediately, I walked across the street to look at the tree, so that I could learn what an oleander tree looks like, so that in the future I could warn others about oleander trees, should the opportunity arise.
I still think this kind of friendship is beautiful and worth aspiring towards, with one’s closest friends. But I’ve been having a problem with this kind of friendship: whenever I’m medium-good friends with someone, I feel a tension, like I need to know whether they’re headed towards the category of a permanent ally, almost another self, or whether they’re just a casual acquaintance. For years, I’ve known that this binary view was insufficiently nuanced, but I had no good theory to replace it. Until now.
I noticed the solution when thinking about a related problem. The problem is that I seem to believe that if I’m not actively meeting someone’s needs and helping them, they’ll stop being my friend, or at least, if they stay my friend it’s because I’ve tricked them somehow.
I was talking with my life coach Gideon about this, and he mentioned a friend he grew up with, whom he often doesn’t see for years, but when they meet, it’s like they never parted - they can pick up where they left off. I noticed that I have friendships like this too. I’m secure in the friendship. It’s a type of very deep friendship; it doesn’t feel like casual acquaintanceship. And yet, there is no allyship whatsoever! When we get together, it isn’t to help each other advance our interests or grow or troubleshoot - it’s to connect.
I had been holding all my friendships to the standard of alliances. I’d been evaluating my behavior and theirs like the only valuable thing was mutual aid. But sometimes I just enjoy someone’s presence, even though they can’t help me and I can’t help them. Sometimes that’s enough. Maybe I was confused by the fact that allies are much better able to help each other if they have a deep connection. And there’s also something that enhances the pleasure of connection if you’re able to help your friend get what they most want right now. I imagined that surely if we were truly connected, we'd be allies. But they aren’t the same thing, and I can have one without the other.
I’m going to experiment with pursuing connection without pursuing allyship. I’m going to ask friends to spend time with me, specifically not allocated to helping one another. If it comes up, fine - but I’m going to ask them to agree, with me, to call the interaction a success even if we do nothing but enjoy it.
I feel ridiculous realizing this only now. But that’s what badly-needed growth feels like.