You Can’t Choose Your Friends

 

Axiomatic in our times is the foundational nature of choice. Our politics, economics, and law are all based on the idea that individuals make choices that can be good or bad. When asked, this is what we mean by “responsibility”: we are responsible for our own choices. After all, we can’t be responsible for other people’s choices. Responsibility, therefore, implies personal responsibility. It only exists when we choose something.

Even friendship with others is reduced to choice. As the adage has it, “You can choose your friends, but not your family.” But is friendship really a choice? After all, a friendship cannot be accomplished unilaterally. I cannot just choose to be friends with whomever I wish, and if I just “chose” to be friends with someone, I would be labeled a stalker. Mutuality therefore seems to be at the core of friendship. It’s not just individual choice, but rather two people choosing each other. Like a business contract, there are two sides entering into a mutually beneficial relationship.

But actual friendship is clearly something more than expedient cooperation. What is this element that makes a friendship deeper than my relationship with my grocer? With this question we reach a paradox. The more we try to nail down intellectually what friendship is, the more it slips through our fingers. Friendship is not something you can know, it is only something you can experience—because it’s a matter of persons and not things. There is no essence of friendship, and the only way we can actually be friends with someone is if we drop our preconceptions about what we think “friendship” really is.

Consider what happens when two people choose each other as friends: they will do things together, spend time together, enjoy each other’s company. If anything is of the “essence of friendship,” it is this. Of course, these expressions of friendship involve trade-offs and opportunity costs. Being friends with someone means expending one’s time and energy with them and not with someone else. So it is necessarily exclusive; to be friends with one person means not being friends with another person. But what happens when one person becomes friends with someone else? Jealousy is never far off. Friendship is about both possession and being: I am a friend when I have a friend. It is also about appearances: we are friends through doing the things friends do. Without appearing to be friends to a third party, how can we say that we are friends?

Only problems come from thinking that we know what “friendship” consists in. The paradigm of mutual choice, of possession, of being, of essence, of appearance… is all insufficient, unstable, structurally flawed. Sitcoms show the humorous side of this futile desire with characters like The Office’s Michael Scott or 30 Rock’s Kenneth Parcell, who want to be everyone’s friend. Meanwhile, crime dramas portray the dark side of possessive, desirous love: “If I can’t have her, nobody can.”

It is not that friendship goes horribly wrong when it turns possessive. It is rather that thinking in general terms about “friendship” at all is inherently possessive. If we think in terms of the meaning of friendship and try to act according to our best understanding of what it involves, we will inevitably miss the mark. We can only admit that we don’t know what friendship is, that we don’t know what it means to be a friend, and simply respond to others. In other words, friendship arises naturally when we are not looking for it, when we do not seek to capture it, when we do not know what we are doing. The more we think about friendship and turn it into an object of desire, the more we miss the real possibilities for it in front of us.

But friendship cuts more deeply even than who we are or who we want to be. We do not choose our deepest loyalties, but rather, they choose us. Our responsibilities for others find us, rather than coming about because of our choices. We are not responsible for ourselves as individuals, but for others, and this is not something we can choose. How could we? Why would we? We never really choose friendship. If we did, it would be only an economic exchange: two friends agree to be together because it is mutually beneficial. That ends as soon as one of the parties finds someone better.

Friendship, on the contrary, involves loyalty and responsibility, and this means it is not an object of choice, since we can never know in advance where friendship is going to take us. Friendship is never scripted, never goes according to a plan we can implement, so we never know what it has in store for us. Rather, as in any encounter with something that is real and not the product of our own desire, we can learn something new from the course friendship takes. With friendship, we don’t know what we’ve bargained for. We can’t choose it, because we can only choose things that we know ahead of time.

This throws a wrench into the way we conceptualize our social and moral nature. The whole modern tradition of ethical and political thought studiously avoids coming to terms with friendship for a reason. If we are not primarily responsible for ourselves first, and only secondarily and superfluously responsible for others—if instead our personal responsibility consists in living out solidarity for others not of our choosing—then our default conception of human sociality is turned on its head, and a fundamental reassessment of our modern tradition is in order.

But it is not just a matter of assessing modernity and its narrow focus on certain knowledge. We all like what we know; knowledge brings us control and comfort, and it’s always easier to stick to the things we’re used to. But friendship is a reality that we cannot control. We are only a part of any friendship — we can’t completely control it and are therefore always to some degree at the mercy of others. To be a friend is not to get what you bargained for. Friendship is real. Friendship is actual, genuine, authentically existing to a much greater degree than physical reality. It is not an aspect of reality, reducible to a set of attitudes or subjective friendly feelings, as we often tend to think.

Friendship is real. Like anything real, I fundamentally cannot “choose” it. The realm of choice, outside of our experience as consumers, is only a small part of our life. Consider things that are real can I go outside and “choose” that tree there, that lamppost, that hill? Likewise, friendship is no pre-packaged product I can take off the shelf and bring home. Rather, like anything real, friendship has to be respected in its integrity. I am part of it, it is greater than me. If I am uncomfortable with any reality greater than me, I can try to avoid friendships and restrict my relationships to certain boundaries and certain levels of interaction—and so live in a petty fiefdom of certain knowledge. But I will be plagued by a lingering suspicion that I’m missing out on the “real world.”

Reality entails being disappointed in others, being a disappointment oneself, forgiveness, pain, betrayal, loss. No one is perfect, and no one lives forever. But stronger friendships and stronger character can grow from these defeats. Over time, friendship always calls for more and more of a personal connection, more loyalty, more responsibility, more openness to a shared life and the common good.

About Phillip Harold

Philip Harold is Associate Dean of the School of Education and Social Sciences and co-directs the Honors Program at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 2010, he was a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at Catholic University in Eichstatt, Germany, and he is the author of Prophetic Politics: Emmanuel Levinas and the Sanctification of Suffering (Ohio University Press, 2009)


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