True friendship can (and indeed should, at times) involve mundane matters such as helping your friend move or make rent.
“The man continually seeking help is no friend,
nor is the one who never links help with friendship.
For one barters kindness for favors, while the other cuts off
hope for the future.”—Epicurus, The Art of Happiness
There were high-minded aristocrats in the ancient world who believed that friendship ought to soar high above self-interest. Those who wish to play tit-for-tat with favors aren’t friends, though they may be excellent business partners. Conversely, there were then (as now) cynical business-school types who maintained that all friendship was really just networking—viz., a power grab.
Epicurus disagreed with both of these positions. The latter was, for him, self-evidently wrong to all but the most depraved souls. The former was equally wrong, but less obviously so. The basic problem that bedevils us, avers Epicurus, is anxiety about the future. Having friends who we know we can depend upon in times of need, friends who we can lean on if need be, helps to alleviate this anxiety. As such, outlawing this kind of help is antithetical to the good life. True friendship can (and indeed should, at times) involve mundane matters such as helping your friend move or make rent.
In Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work (2009), Matthew B. Crawford maintains that one of the great things about the trades is that they force you to acknowledge your failures—as well as your neediness—on a fairly regular basis. By contrast, many white-collar workers (especially managers and executives) live in a make-believe world wherein every failure can be explained away, denied, or blamed on others. What’s worse, many wealthy white-collar workers are freed from the need to lean on friends and family.
If you’ve got money in our society, you can pay people to do many of the things that are normally done for free by family and friends. For instance, if you’re going through a rough patch, on account of the death of your father, you can—if you’ve got the money—pay a therapist to help you get through this difficult period. But is this really such a good thing? I don’t think so. I think you may have just robbed yourself of a golden opportunity. You could have bonded with your brother or sister. You could have leaned on your spouse, and grown closer as a consequence. You could have talked about it at length (over far too much wine) with a new friend—a new friend who soon becomes one of the best friends you’ve ever had in your life. You rob yourself of all these possibilities, and many others, when you pay a stranger to hang out with you.
That being said, I’m not against all therapy, nor am I against all commodification. After all, we all like going out for dinner from time to time, and this usually involves paying a stranger to cook for us. Still, most of our meals are home-cooked by family members or friends. But imagine, for a moment, how strange it would be if we all ate out at restaurants so much that we forgot how to cook for each other. What’s more, imagine if we came to believe that it was actually dangerous and unhealthy for “non-professionals” to cook for themselves and others. That, to my mind, is where we are right now vis-à-vis therapy in our culture. Many of us seem to have come to the conclusion that the normal thing to do—Plan A, as it were—is to go to a therapist whenever something’s wrong. And that’s the problem. That’s what’s stunting the growth of our personal relationships and rendering so many of our friendships shallow and superficial.
Though some of our deepest and most meaningful connections to others grow out of joy, most are forged in adversity: e.g., she was there for me when I was going through that terrible break-up; she was there, as well, when my mother was dying of cancer; he was there for me when I got fired; he was there, as well, when I was recovering from that horrible car accident.
Modern technological societies make it possible for wealthy lone wolves to be remarkably disconnected from their family and friends. From the outside, this often looks like heaven. But I suspect it’s actually hell. I suspect that it’s a privilege that, in the long run, isn’t much of a privilege. After all, fortresses can so easily turn into prisons.
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2015)
Originally published at Committing Sociology. Reprinted with permission.
Photo courtesy of author.