I got this blog topic request from a heartbreakingly sweet friend and old housemate: discuss what means to be a good friend. I am so grateful for this question, which is why it took a while to clarify my thoughts here because I don’t want to participate in what is essentially a never-ending slush pile of catchy “top ten” lists or patronizing “expert” talk, some of it fecund but most of it recycled and done up in a distractingly gauche or simplistic way. There’s a lot being said about friendship all the time and I didn’t just want to auto-pilot-ly accept it as true or obvious and then regurgitate it in my own words. You’ll hopefully see why in a minute.
It’s not that “default” settings are bad by default. Auto-pilot is sometimes the thing that gets us through difficult stuff in life and those default settings we human beings come with (some examples, in no particular order: that we are the center of the universe; that people are thinking exactly what we are; that our needs deserve to be met; etc.) are actually necessary for our physical and psychological survival. I mean, we are hard-wired for survival. And the reason I’m going on about this seemingly unrelated thing is because I want to emphasize just how hard it is to do the next thing I’m about to say, which is the thing I think that makes a good friend.
The best thing you can give your friends, I think, is your attention.
If this sounds obvious – “wait, all I have to do to be a better friend is not ignore my friends?” – a) we should never underestimate the power of the obvious, especially is scenarios like this one, meaning where we’ve so fowled a basic developmental and emotional human need, speaking of hardwiring, that “attention,” when it comes after “he/she just wants” is a four-letter word. And b) I’m willing to venture that I’m not talking about the obvious kind of paying attention. This is not “stop multi-tasking while you’re on the phone.” This is not memorizing what people say and being able to repeat it back to them. This is not just being mindful (though I’ve had a number of friends lately do incredibly kind things that were a direct result of being thoughtful so I’m not knocking this at all). It’s a lot easier to talk about what it’s not, like a lot of things in life if you are, ahem, paying attention, but the kind of attention I’m talking about paying takes calorie-bearing strength – there’s a reason we say paying attention – to do for more than a minute and you’re tired afterward. Let’s try it.
I’m going to tell you to pick only one thing to pay attention to – the wind, your breath, a book, a person (Facebook doesn’t count). But then I’m going to immediately tell you that you can’t do it because to really pay attention to that one thing, you are going to need to also notice your thoughts about that one thing and then where those thoughts came from. The cultural air you grew up in will shape how you think about the wind – this is more obvious to those who are bilingual (because language is a system of how people think not “just” how people say stuff) and/or have lived abroad – or what breath exactly is or what book (and in what language, speaking of language) you’ll choose or the people available to you to pay attention to. Then I’m going to say that in order to pay attention to the wind or your breath or that book or that person, you are going to want to pay attention not only to the thoughts you have about the wind/your breath/that book/that person and where the thoughts came from, but also the current context they are now occurring in, not only geographically, physically, relationally, and emotionally, but also chronologically. Where are you in the human “our” story, your own, the other person’s__? And then, if you picked a person as your “only” thing to pay attention to, you are going to have to do the same thing with all of their verbalized thoughts as you just did with your own. And then, you will have a heap of still probably very cataracted data, which of course is happening all the time by default but now, you get to choose how to filter rather than letting it happen automatically in the background. You see now that the kind of paying attention I mean is precisely multitasking; it is not some meditative metastasizing detachment but proper recognition of your irretrievable, spiritually and bodily entanglement with all that is not you.
This is all very hard and you’re going to need help but that’s not the only reason it guzzles your energy to pay attention. Another reason it is so draining to pay attention – or should be if you’re doing it right – is found in quantum physics, where we learn that the very act of observing something changes it. In the to-scale world, observing something either changes it or changes you. Pointing out that you can choose what you pay attention to is what made David Foster Wallace household-name famous (as opposed to “just” in-the-literary-world famous) in his “This is Water” speech at Kenyon College’s ’05 graduation. It’s a good speech, but where he misses it, I think, is when he says that he’s not giving moral advice. The reason that he, the guy with the “glittering moral conscience” as his friend/rival Jonathan Franzen wrote of him, would say such a thing is because of what this culture has done with the concept of morality (which is, of course, a topic for another time).
But paying attention is a deeply moral act. If you get to choose what you pay attention to, per DFW, and that act of paying attention changes the thing you choose and/or you, how could it not have moral significance? The clearest way I can say it at this juncture is that the reason it is a moral act to pay attention is that we don’t get to choose what’s true. This is terribly unfashionable to say and will ironically sound “wrong” to many in my generation, but it is only coherent to reject moral (or any other kind of) relativism. So, if you get to choose what to pay attention to rather than letting your survival settings call all the shots, potentially you could be choosing to pay attention to the truth or you could be choosing to ignore it. This, of course, is why you’re going to need help. To go back to the friendship question for an instance, there are a lot of things we don’t, as a society, know about friendship anymore and there’s very little in our politics or economy that would nurture the development of what I think are life-giving relationships of the caliber we all need. The things that our culture does tell us about being a good friend – active listening, pursuing time together, being supportive, treating your friends well, even sacrificing greatly for them – are certainly not wrong. But how are you going to do any of that, how are you going to know what well means, since there is definitely no formula, how are you going to know what and when to sacrifice, how to support and what even to listen to, if you’re not paying attention?