Saturday, October 1, 2011

Thesis 7: Friendship anchors relationships

My seventh thesis is that friendship is the core of all successful human relationships.

In elaborating this thesis, I could argue that affection is the core of all successful relationships. Yet I want to bring friendship to the fore, especially as other parts of this essay have emphasized marriage and family. 

    La Rochefoucauld exemplifies how with love and affection friendship can overcome the obstacles that plague close relationships. Late in life, unhappy and disillusioned, he met a woman who truly befriended him and placed the friendship ahead of other considerations. Said to be "successful with women," he was by then disfigured and outmaneuvered, his ambitions thwarted. But the mind is the true engine of our feelings, to which the tongue and pen give expression. Left with his essence, he found a friend who loved him for it.
    Consider again Vanessa Bell. Married to Clive Bell, she grew to resent his familiarity with other women. Falling in love with Roger Fry, she tried out what would have been a second marriage and household, but gave it up, returning to the households she and Clive Bell originally shared. Their marriage kept going. Meanwhile, she fell in love with Duncan Grant. Her physical relationship with him, which Grant found singular enough to record, produced a daughter, Angelica Bell. Once she was pregnant, or soon after, he told her that this aspect of things had to stop. Despite the unhappiness this caused her, their relationship continued. They lived together and painted together. Their closeness seems only to have grown stronger.
    Angelica Bell wrote a memoir that describes her ambivalent relationships with her parents. Gradually she came to understand that Grant was her biological father, although Clive Bell had always stood in. Ten years after writing her memoir, she wrote a new foreword acknowledging that her annoyance with all of them was expunged, that she saw them in a different light. And even in the first edition, she pointed to her daughters as compensation enough.
    I recount these episodes in one extended family to note how, as the I Ching  says, affection underlies all close human relationships. Marriage, family, and friendship alike are either grounded in affection or risk becoming a sea of unhappiness. In asserting this, I recognize that I'm projecting my own nature, which is more affectionate than not.
    In an interview in the Paris Review, the poet Frederick Seidel said that you reach a point in life where you're unwilling not to be yourself. You write what you write, he said, and if people don't like it, that's their problem. I agree with his attitude, but feel it has to be tempered when one is together with others. I've observed that some people take pleasure in constant strife. "This is sex for them," I sometimes think. I'm not speaking here of the flashes of anger that are inherent to close human interaction, but of a chronic penchant for behavior that quells affection.
    As we get older, the loosening of the mortal coil allows us a greater openness to others - a clearer sense of who they are beneath their foibles and quarrels. It's as if we can feel their hearts beating, sense the humanity that connects us. We no longer think of them as ours, as part of our circle or orbit or whatever, revolving around us. As this happens, friendships take on a different hue. We're grateful just to be with a friend when it happens. How it was, how it might be - memories and speculations may well up, but they no longer gnaw at us. We're finally on better terms  with our past and more willing to let life surprise us with its possibilities. It's at this point that friendship takes center stage.
    Friendships take many forms. I'm not arguing that one form or another enables closeness to blossom, but that closeness is independent of the form a friendship takes. And while affection is necessary to a friendship, its closeness really depends on mutual acceptance. This is the lesson of La Rochefoucauld and his friend, and of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.

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