I used to see my friends as an escape from the real world. They were a little treat I gave myself. If I deserved it, I get to hang out with my friends.
As we got older, what was once a treat has now become a bit of an obligation. That’s growing up. I used to meet up with my friends for pleasure, now I meet up with them because I know how important it is to keep the ship afloat. “I should be resting,” or “I should be working,” says my guilty self. Still I go and I have a good time, often. It has turned into an expense, a holiday, an indulgence. I’m paying to keep them. I need them for a rainy day as if they are insurance. And like insurance, even if nothing bad happens, it’s worth having.
The idea that these important people can fade like an old memory is heartbreaking. But it is the way it is. A good friendship like a good investment, compounds. You have to keep attending events, buying gifts, showing that you care so that you keep making memories. You need to keep money in savings, and only withdraw when necessary. My life is not split into events, but rather the people entering and exiting my life — depositing and withdrawing.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, that I read multiple books at the same time. I’m a polygamous reader. The same way I can have different relationships with different people, I feel the same way with books. Some books teach me, some books make me laugh, and some books make me empathetic. Friendships are the books of you, written in partnership with another, and should that partnership ends, the book goes unfinished — unread.
In one way or another, we’ve all gone through a situation where a friendship met its demise. This could be because of irreconcilable differences. This could be because of geographical changes. This could be because of the volatilities of life, things that are out of our control, twists of fates that pull two people — two groups — apart, stranding them on their own. In this world, we pick sides, what are the chances that your friends won’t pick yours?
This article, I pose that question to you…
I want to discuss three novels where the loyalty of friendships and families are tested, pulled to very limits, and allowed to snap.
Friendship as an Expense
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas
The Slap is one of those stories told through the perspective of multiple characters. Each chapter, the vantage switches and we see through the eyes of someone we thought we couldn’t possibly feel sympathy for. That’s the beauty of a good book, it can make you love and hate many characters individually. One moment you are rooting for them and the next you are cursing them.
At the heart of the story, The Slap asks us to pick sides when an invisible line is crossed. It ask you where you yourself set the lines. Would you cheat on your wife with a younger woman? Would you use a racial slur without malice? Would you hit someone else’s child in order to protect your own? Where is that line for you in this gray world? And should you cross it, how will you live with the consequences? What if it was your friend who crosses it? Will you stand by him?
There are numerous themes coursing through the veins of this book, and when I finished it I happily, but without confidence, claimed to my fiance (now my wife) that this was the best book I have ever read. I said it like this, “I think it’s my favourite book.” This one found me at exactly the right time in my life, as I watch two of my best friends make their way into parenthood.
Whenever I hear that one of my friend is going to have a kid, I put on a smile and congratulate them. It is what they want and I am happy for them. In my childfree life, I’m saddened to know that those wild late nights with those individuals have officially ended. I will see them on key occasions throughout the year — birthday parties, Christmas, etc. — but otherwise, we aren’t going to hang out like we used to. Even if we lived close by, it becomes a long distance relationship. We now see the world differently. But that would have happened otherwise. Different jobs, different neighbourhoods, different gender of the child you bear will lead to different life values.
Time is not the only thing that is gone. What they want to talk about also changed. What they were once proud of has changed. I look at the pictures of their children as they show me, and I smile… once again happy for them. We are friends still, yes, maybe even family in some way, but we aren’t sharing the same qualities that friends share. You see that when friend circles gather together, at say, a BBQ, like the characters of The Slap were when the conflict occur, when the child was slapped.
Parenting, like food or politics, is something that every person has an opinion on whether they have children or not. People with kids are quick to dismiss the thoughts of those without — and those without see parents as fixed in their ways. It’s easy to be fixed in your ways because the consequence is so far away. You don’t know your child will turn bad until later on in life, and even then, can you really say parenting was the fault?
I digress. We, as our own person, just like the eight characters we enter the minds of in the book, we don’t feel what other people are feeling. We can never know what it’s like to be a parent without having kids, we can never know what it’s like to be ethnic if we are not, and we cannot know what two people are like when they are alone, so how can we judge someone for adultery — when in the same situation, in the same life, we would do it as well?
Watching my friends have children made me realize that from this point on, I’ll never see eye to eye with these people. We’ll have different politics. What is good for them will no longer be good for me. What makes them happy, will not be the same thing that makes me happy. Yet, beyond all that can we still be friends? Of course. But what happens if I cross the line? How great is our loyalty then?
There is a way of thinking that says, if your friends can’t propel you forward, they are holding you back. I think that’s true. What’s the point of having friends if they are just going to make you miserable or keep you from reaching your potential? The key is to notice this before it’s too late. Loyalty in friendship is honourable, sure! But it’s not always healthy. Recognizing your friend’s values as they change will save you from crossing the line in the future.
But of course, like the obligation of going to work, we are at times obligated to see our friends. They are family. We enter the social scene and at the end of the night, we leave breathing a sigh if nothing bad has happened. The Jenga pieces that are our friendship wasn’t destroyed, but each time we see each other we are forced to pull a tile from the bottom and move it to the top. That’s progression. But what if it does fall? Is it tragic? What if it wasn’t you that knock down the pieces either? It was someone else, another friend. There you watch as two friends bite at each other… their relationship is sent to the fringe. By staying neutral, you lose both of them… what do you do? That is the case with many of the characters in the novel The Slap. Friends are told to pick sides and in that — loyalty and value are tested.
It’s not about who you share the most precious memories with that holds a friendship together. It’s about who you will keep as friends as one by one each of them crosses that line you drew for nobody but yourself.
Friendship as an Investment
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
The painful idea of having to pick sides between friends led me to my next tragic novel by Haruki Murakami. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (a mouthful), for me, falls into the category of mystery. In The Slap, it’s so obvious what happened. The knife that severed the bond of the friendship was clear. But what if the situation wasn’t? What if suddenly one day, all your friends stopped talking to you?
To me, when I talk about wealth, I’m not always talking about money. Sometimes, wealth can be having a supportive group of people around you. When you are ill, is there someone that will come and take care of you for free? If no, then you are poor. If something great has happened to you and you want to celebrate, is there someone you can immediately call and share the news with and know that there won’t be any jealousy or animosity? If not, then you are poor.
Like money, the friends in our lives are currency. You don’t need money to pay for movers if you have a group of burly friends with freetime and a truck. You don’t need money to pay for dinner if you have a friend that is a culinary fiend and just wants you to taste his latest recipe. You don’t need to rent a hotel if you have a friend who has relatives in New York or San Francisco or London or Tokyo and they are happy to have you for a few days to a week. Not that you bother all those friends all the time — being a good friend, and a smart investor, is knowing when to cash out.
Wealth in any form can be lost. One morning you can wake up and find that it has all disappeared. Like you had been robbed, all the friends you thought you had. The friends, like your savings that you were hoping will be there for you until your old age, will be gone. That is exactly what happened to Tsukuru Tazaki.
Like a poor investment, the same feeling is felt with people. You wonder where the mistake was made. If your core group turns their back on you, do you have more in the reserve to call upon? Will you demand to know what happened? Will you take it as the natural forces of growing up? A painful lesson. If a friend decides to stop showing up to parties, if a friend stops responding to your messages, if a friend disappears from your life completely, will you be okay with it? If you lose a hundred dollars, wouldn’t you want to know where it went?
Every person within a core friend circle needs to fill a role. You might not consciously recognize this, but it’s true. Like a community cannot have too many bakeries or too many tailors, it cannot have too many members with the same characteristics, skillsets, or functions before they start stepping on each others toes.
For example, in a group of five where three are male and two are female, it’s going to be tricky for the third boy if the two other are paired up with the two girls. The boy will ultimately be forced out, this is especially true if he has feelings for one of the girl as well. When you pick your core group of friends, the ones you want to be sustainable for the rest of your life, ask yourself will you betray one of them for your needs — will they betray you? And if they should, will the others join you — or will you be the odd man out?
With friends, we often think in the short term, we walk into a party, we see a group of people and we join in. Slowly we learn the dynamic of each person within the circle, but is this the group where you want to put your chips down? Sure you can invest a little in this group and a little in that group, and create a lot of little bonds and feel that when they are looking around at the stakeholders of the group and wondering who they should buy out, most likely it’ll be the one who only chipped in a little. Like accumulating monetary wealth, generosity is a necessary quality for establishing friendships that is sustainable. It can’t all be fun. If you want someone to take care of you when you are sick, you better be willing to do the same for them. Getting wealthy with friends is not about winning the lottery, it’s about investing, it’s about paying insurance, it’s about putting funds in every day, week, month, year, and knowing that when shits hit for you, they will be there tenfold.
Friendship as a Debt
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
In The Slap, we witness what happens when friends turn against each other. In Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, we see what happens when friends turn against us. But what happens when we turn against our friends? Like a dog with an incurable itch we scratch at ourselves, and when our friends, our companions, attempt to block our nails from another vicious scratch to the face, the neck, or the wrist, we bite at them.
A Little Life is hands down the saddest novel I have ever read — and thus making it a book that I encourage anyone that needs a heavy dose of empathy to checkout. It may cripple the light hearted, but those that are having trouble feeling grateful for the simplicity of life, they need to read this epic novel based around a group of male friends living in New York, growing old together.
We are all troubled. Every one of us. Everyday we wake up and we face our demons. Your demons might be addiction. Your friend’s demons might be a repressed childhood experience. Your other friend’s demons might be a relationship he or she is trapped in. We are all facing our own battles. Sometimes, we lose and our friends have to watch as our defences, our fortress that they so proudly built with us: our confidence, our happiness, and our successes — they watch it all crumble. Nobody will really know what it’s like to be you. Nobody can ever save you from yourself. But a friend is one that hopes — a friend is someone who doesn’t give up on you. They wait across the moat, watching the dust settle and for you to emerge from the ashes ready to lower the bridge, ready to let them back in, and ready to rebuild.
Jude, the protagonist of A Little Life, had built a facade, a shield he hid behind. For the majority of the story, we only learn what he tells his friends, especially his closest friend, Williem. His childhood injury that has caused spinal damages and affected the way he walks was merely addressed as a misfortune. His self-mutilation was hidden because he will never be seen by others without a shirt or with short-sleeves. His inability to be intimate was shrugged off as him not feeling any sexual desire for anyone, male or female.
When we build a fence or a wall, we do two things: we keep people out and we lock ourselves in. What Jude has done is that he has build a wall around his castle in ruins. He is there alone trying and failing to repair himself. His friends want to enter to help, but for much of the novel, he shuns them with one reason or another: he cannot trust that they are not Trojan horses entering as a gift and dismantling his world ever worse. Additionally, for the friends he knew who were loyal and noble, he did not want them spending their short life on Earth, helping him salvage what little life he had. His friends were all successes in their profession: artist, actor, architect. They deserved better than him — he did not want to be a charity case.
I have a problem with empathy. In day-to-day life, I’m failing at that trait — maybe barely passing. I am not the most empathetic person I can be, which at times, I feel can make me a less than perfect friend. When I was in high school, there was a class… actually, it was more of lecture, because it wasn’t so much of a course, as just a social worker coming into talk to us. We watched a movie where the main character went through some trauma and was cutting herself. I uttered out loud that indeed this movie was fiction. At that age, without having ever faced trauma of my own — misfortune yes, but nothing I can call trauma — I couldn’t understand why a character had chosen to hurt herself. The social work failed in empathy that day as well. All she said was, “I hope you never have to understand,” which was a weak attempt at educating, as if a math teacher will say, “I hope you’ll never need to use long division” after I failed a test. Empathy is such an important skillset and I feel like I was handicapped at an early age, because it was not something that came naturally. I had a hard time practicing empathy, so now when I see my friends in trouble, I wish I could do more, but I merely stand at the perimeter, from my tower, looking in their direction, hoping they will figure it out before it’s too late.
A Little Life taught me more than what that high school social worker teacher (or whatever she was) could. It taught me that loyalty goes both ways. A dog defends its master and the master feeds the dog. The thing is… in this scenario, sometimes the master gets sick and there is nothing the dog can do. Sometimes the master dies and there is nothing the dog can do… That is the lesson I got out of A Little Life, we might end up being the dog without a master. We are all hanging to life by a rope or a string or a piece of thread, awaiting to drop into oblivion. If we only have one person to rely on for our needs: food, shelter, love, then we are merely hanging by a thread.
Empathy becomes the knotted tether. Empathy gathers other threads and strings and binds them. If we want loyalty. If we want lasting friendships. If we even just want to be nicer to strangers, it all begins and ends with empathy. If we can’t do that… then we don’t deserve it. To have friendship without empathy is theft: theft of trust and loyalty and will ultimately lead to a sad heartbreak. We can’t always know our friends truly, but when things get bad — and they will, because the world is hard — we must lower our weapons, because our friends are fighting a must tougher enemy, one that you can’t see. We can help them instead.
I recommend these three books to anyone feeling the pull of life dragging them away from the good times. I recommend these three books to those who have lost a friend, be it through betrayal, misunderstanding, or tragedy. I believe sometimes the best way to cry is in the rain, so that nobody can see, but we can’t control the weather, so let it pour from the heart.
This piece was originally published on Medium.
If you enjoyed this piece, check out What I discovered when I read Fight Club and The Four-Hour Workweek together.