Love is not friendship. Love is a dive, deep and delirious, but it can’t be that forever, or you’ll drown. You find equilibrium instead, coming up for air, sinking and bobbing—fulfilling and transformative, but often exhausting. Friendship can be tiring, too, but not from the deep dive. You meet them on the beach, on level ground, and eye-to-eye you stick it out. The tide flows, inch by inch, till you’re adrift—maybe swimming for a common goal, but mostly floating, waiting to see where you’re liable to land.
As with any relationship, it’s easy to take friendship for granted; but unlike love, it doesn’t matter if you do. Or else it matters—it can hurt like hell to be slighted by the ones you hold close—but if you’re friends, you hold the pain between you, and you keep swimming. You save your focus for the swim, the sharks, whatever. Take your friends for granted, do—because in the long run, they intuit why you’re slighting them, and it’s the same set of reasons they’d do it to you—have done it, will do it again, slight after slight, as you swim stroke for stroke towards the next stop.
My friends and I were airtight, as kids. There was so much peer toxicity, plus poisons even more insidious, threats over which we had so little control, so little understanding. We knew refuge, though; we manufactured sanctuary in unlikely spots, creating private jokes that served as shibboleths to prove our loyalty through thick and thin. Why was it funny, to wave a broken toy helicopter around while shouting “Euh”? It wasn’t funny, it was dumb. But it was ours, and in our shared recognition of the code, we found such deep relief from fear, it came out of our boiler-pressure bodies in the form of laughter. I can only see that clearly now, with 25 years of hindsight. Laughter becomes tears; fear becomes joy.
We were kids, though, and kids fuck up. Knowing each other so well, our nerve-endings exposed, and often it was too great a temptation to resist grabbing, pulling, ripping into one another. When the going gets tough, teens hurt themselves, and mostly we had rotten self-esteem and creative ways to self-destruct—and yet, for all our self-inflicted pain, it’s the collateral damage we regret the most. Some of my friends admit to losing sleep over minor, thoughtless slights they made against me, 20 years ago or more. It helps no one to absolve them, or downplay the incident; they linger and grow, slow sadistic coral that hinders our mutual progress through the waves.
So cavalier, back then, about each others’ pain. An example: in our early 20s, one of my private jokes involved a list of “all the maps,” ie. floorplans of the various houses and apartments where we’d lived, squatted, or crashed. I brought out the list a few nights ago, hoping to provoke a nostalgic chuckle or two. But one of the locations was “Y’s cell in the Juve”—such a casually cruel inclusion, an offhand reference to a long dark chapter of a dear friend’s life. One drop of sour milk in the cream. No use for me to earn Y’s apologies now, any more than it helps him to win my forgiveness for any number of parallel digs. Because I know that I wrote those words—“cell” and “Juve”—with utterly no empathy.
It’s like watching my four-year-old’s “parallel play”—entertaining himself while other kids do likewise in proximity. Soon enough, he’ll be playing authentically with others, but it could be another 14 years or more before he’s really living authentically with others, experiencing what they’re going through as human beings. It was especially hard for us, as heterosexual males with no cultural vocabulary for sorting out our own feelings, much less others’. And doubly hard for those friends on the autism spectrum, or who struggle with isolating mental illnesses. Sometimes it seems like our entire society is calibrated to reinforce isolation, because happy, well-balanced citizens aren’t consuming enough. So it ends up feeling insurmountable, Sisyphean, to raise up even a stone’s worth of empathy in life.
Why do we do it, then? What’s the point of friendship, if it serves as a conduit for casual harm, especially at the times when support is needed most? I do have a theory—not revolutionary, but profound enough to make a lot of things fall into perspective now, when I’m celebrating a reunion of 25 years and 8,000 km. I think friendship is a triumph of humanism over our animal selves. Yes, monkeys and dolphins and ants are all social creatures, but there’s a difference. We hurt each other, but we accept each other, fit or flawed.
Nature abhors imperfection, even as it rewards mutation. Deep inside our ape-brains, we abhor our flaws, and yearn for self-destruction to appease the gene pool. No matter the amount of flattery we field, no matter how we know intellectually that we’re worthwhile and beautiful, the ape-brain sees only ugliness in difference, and it nudges us away from the tribe, out to the desert to die. The only thing that can defeat that instinct is community, acceptance into the tribe. That embrace can never silence our ape-brain—because we’re all flawed, and we always will be—but it negates the urge to isolate ourselves.
Enter friendship. My friends see my flaws, clear as day: bossy, manipulative, irritable, lazy, stubborn, and even at 41, still empathy-impaired. They see them, call them out, attack them…and then, miraculously, they hang onto me, because I challenge and inspire them, or because I understand them, or just because we’re friends. “Y’s cell in the Juve” alludes to a dark night of isolation for a messed-up kid; but here, reading it aloud within the circle of friends, that casual cut is balm, not salt. It says “you fucked up” and it says “we’re with you.”
Love is not friendship, but friendship is a form of love, the kind that elevates us by exposing the worst in us, then laughing at it till its threat dissolves. Swim till it hurts but never drown. A miracle.