Guest column by Hector Kilgoe and Ana Schwartz | Breaking-Up with the Idea of the Friend

· April 23, 2014, 7:39 pm   ·  Updated April 24, 2014, 2:48 am

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Sara’s column isn’t out to make any friends. She’s OK with that. Friendship isn’t about quantity, right? It’s about quality. But intimate and frank discussions about friendships are at best awkward, which often drags with it a hostile response. So maybe the reflex to argue with her logic just goes with the territory.

How valuable it is that Sara, nevertheless, demands that level of reflection! It’s timely, too. The semester began unhappily. A lot of people, in a lot of different ways, expressed a lot of dissatisfaction towards the caliber of attention and care they receive as students here at Penn. To make it worse, the cold, isolating winter just wouldn’t let go. Now, at the end of these lonely months, a long break appears ahead, one that will interrupt, though hopefully only temporarily, the relationships that have been slowly and often deliberately forged during this time.

Looking forward to summer’s approaching separation, her idea of “friendship” deserves not more definition, but more fleshing out. The category of “friend” is expansive. Sometimes usefully, sometimes not, it’s also vague. It rarely excludes, but it also rarely clarifies, either.

Sara’s article courageously insists that we take our friendships more seriously. She contrasts friendships with erotic relationships, which tend to be considered with greater discourse and greater delicacy. For Sara, one symptom of friendship’s relative low worth among college students is the reluctance to end friendships definitively, with a closure that romantic relationships, by contrast, evidently merit.

It doesn’t help that the category of “friend” is now experienced alongside digital representations of the category, like those proliferating on Facebook. The idea used to be that “Friends” on Facebook represent friends in real life, but of course, friendships are variable, not only among acquaintances, but also through time. Nevertheless, that Facebook has persisted as a dynamic resource for social life suggests that the category, even if artificial, is comforting in important ways.

Sara’s argument derives rhetorical force from tapping into a similar desire, the desire for categories by which to define the sometimes uncomfortable attachments and compulsions that animate all relationships, not only the erotic. Still further, the category is desirable for its use in asserting control over how those attachments change over time.

But to define brings with it the power to limit, to outline, to draw the boundaries. That power is also a power to declare an end, and this degree of control can be valuable, even necessary for self-preservation, for mental and social health, as Sara describes. Accordingly, she encourages readers to imagine “breaking up” with “toxic” friends. But the definition of a friend — specifically what disqualifies someone from that title — as well as the instability of such a category, remains unchallenged.

To define a “friend” goes against the grain of what is so rich and valuable about friendships — qualities like flexibility, pliability and resilience. She acknowledges these qualities when she begins narrating imaginary scenes of first arriving at college: Among all the new acquaintances, it’s nearly impossible to tell with certainty which of these will turn out to be the closest, dearest friends.

Furthermore, it’s a chimera to identify which friends did, over the years, emerge as dearest: It only identifies them in their present condition. It is not a comprehensive description. Sara values the mutability of friendship, its ability to change over time, certainly, but her eagerness and desire to define or assert control over her experience of friendship seems to express dissatisfaction with these variables. It is an understandable fear, the fear of change, but her prescription appears perilously similar to the problem itself: the fiction of an ideal and consistent friend.

Perhaps a more productive line of inquiry, although a no less awkward one, would be to consider friendships on an individual scale, probe and inquire into what makes each satisfactory — or not. Then — and it would be a long then — one might assess from personal experience: What do I want from my friendships? What defines the experience for me? Beyond what boundary will I refuse to extend the name of “friend”? And, perhaps most importantly, how might my future relationships affect my confidence in this boundary?This might, in some cases, require rejecting previously held standards or ideals of friendship, breaking up with abstractions in favor of reality.

There is no answer to these questions, as of course, there can never definitively be. Sara’s opinion, however, has and will probably continue affect on many friendships, making her, in a small sense, friend to many.

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