Friendship: Good, Pleasant, and Useful

Having a friend who regards you as a living growing criatura… having friends who look at you as a true living breathing entity, one that is human but made of very fine and moist and magical things as well… these are the people you are looking for.  They will be the friends of your soul for life.  Mindful choosing of friends, not to mention teachers, is critical to remaining conscious, remaining intuitive, remaining in charge of the fiery light that sees and knows.  (Real friends, true friends) guide you, and burst with pride over your accomplishments… their purpose is to help you, to care about your art, and to reattach you to your instincts, and to elicit your original best… the most valued friend is the one who wishes to learn… (all quotes in italics in this post are by Clarissa Pinkola Estes).

These kinds of friends are rare and precious, and much work must be done not only to find them, but to cultivate the friendships with them.  These are the soul-friends whose gift to you is life, enlightenment, accountability, and becoming.  They are the kind of friends that honor who you are, just you for being you, that you become more of who you were created to be than ever before.  They are life-giving and strengthening.  They are the kind of friends with whom friendship grows, beyond geographical or time dimensional boundaries.  They are the kind of friends that help refine you as “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17).  They are not immediate friends, because there is something deeper than the flash in the pan.  They are not intense friends, though your friendship encounters may be intense, because they are intimate friends – and intimacy is far more precious than intensity.  Intensity is like gun powder, barely stable and things can go very wrong very quickly, but intimacy is a deep knowing and a holding sacred.  Intimacy is the garden that is nourished, watered, and cultivated; it is the fire that is tended to and built up, with plenty of room for air between the pieces of wood, and its ability to burn brightly without burning you.

I have always struggled with choosing good friends.  My mother says I have always brought home strays, that since I was a child I wanted to rescue people, fix them, make them happy.  It’s not necessarily a noble trait, for when misguided it has gotten me into all kinds of messes and is super annoying to all the people around me who don’t want my help, don’t want any fixing, and don’t want to grow.  But it’s so big in me that I cannot just ignore it.  It is a part of me.  So I have to try and channel it in good and appropriate ways, like getting trained as a therapist and working only with people who sign up for help.  That’s a healthy and appropriate way to channel that drive.   So is writing these kinds of blogs, because no one is going to read a long Emily essay that does not want to be changed by it, which means it won’t intrude on anyone who doesn’t want to learn.  It just sits here in cyber space, waiting for those who do.  Or else gets it out of me, so I leave people alone, which may be as helpful sometimes!

We moved around a lot when I was growing up, really very often, so I was exposed to all kinds of people, all kinds of cultures, and all kinds of friendships.  Sometimes the friendships were quick because we didn’t live there long, and sometimes the friendships were long, like my friends that I have known since elementary school.  Sometimes the friendships were just because we did something together, and so died out after I moved.  Other times the friendships were real, and so remained even after years of being apart, though we were not connected at all after I moved.  Other friendships were long and deep, like with Masae Okuda, my friend from Japan that remained my pen pal through all the moves of my childhood and adolescence.

Most recently, the biggest shift has been with my cochlear implants.  My Deaf friends and I share a heart language that is beautiful to behold.  My new hearing friends are patient with me, and celebrate sound discoveries with me.  I am skilled in writing because my mother was an English-genius, a professor, pounding grammar into me since I was a child.   She was a librarian, and so I had access to “the best books“, and learned the art of creating words into images and making prose poetic (that’s in the app description, wait till you see, it is embarrassing and hilarious).  But my weakness is in direct, declarative communication, which to me is not in words but in visual images of handshapes and signs and a whole different grammar – until the reality of cochlear implants slammed me into the hearing world, with an odd gap between how I am able to play with words to paint images and my lesser ability to use words to process declarative and imperative conversation.  It makes a bumpy road, because I do not like not understanding, and others don’t understand why I don’t understand.  Those who knew me before are in awe of the technology, but those new to me since getting cochlear implants can sometimes take them for granted and forget how hard it is for me to process language, spoken or written, when words only stand for themselves instead of painting a picture.

Even without the cochlear implant issue, I am a girl who is hungry to know, to understand, to become.  When I don’t understand something, I work at it until I do.  Not to complicate it or stir things up, but for my own accountability and my own progress.  I need to integrate the information if my perspective is to be changed, if I am to have compassion, if I am to become.  While I believe in personal revelation, in spiritual inspiration, and moments of “pure knowledge” being given to us, the majority of what I know is not because I am intelligent by any cause or measure, but because I wrestled with what I did not understand until I did. What I do not understand, I study until I do.  What I am not able to do, I practice until I am.  I am hungry to learn, but if I want to learn, I must do the work to learn.

I have been thinking about friendship, since my lesson on Abram and Lot last week.  It was interesting timing, as I have re-connected with several friends in the last few months, and I am glad for them (glad of them, in English? Grateful for them and glad of them?).  There are friends I have just not seen since cochlear implants, there are friends from a place I used to work that found me online, there is my best friend from when I first moved to Tulsa, and there is even my brother’s ex-wife (whom I have not seen since high school).  I am dancing again, so reconnecting with my dance friends.  Now that I have done the work of learning to use my cochlear implants, I am reconnecting with my Deaf friends.  There are also my current friendships, of all kinds, that shift and change as we grow through life and circumstances change.  Then there are also those, who like the strays from my childhood, that I so want to be friends with but they are just not friendly, and I have learned enough (finally) to understand you cannot have a friendship with someone who is not friend-ish.

That brings me back to Abram and Lot, my studies this week in Hebrew school.   In Genesis 19:29, we have this:

Vah’y’hee b’sha’chet El’oh’keem eht ah’ray ha’kee’kar, va’yizkor El’oh’keem et Avraham, vah’y’sha’lach et Lot mee’toch ha’ha’fay’chah, ba’ha’fohch et heh’ah’reem ah’sher yah’shav ba’hain Lot.

God is again sending Abraham to save the life of his friend Lot, who again chose poorly.  The “et” is important, and we would realize that Lot was only saved – only blessed as much as he was – because of the prayers and faith of Abraham.  Lot has been moved into a position of favor because of Abraham’s intercession on his behalf.   Yet still, when Abraham once again saves Lot’s life, just when we would expect Lot to humble himself and return to Abraham and live with the people of the covenant, he takes his daughters and goes to live in a cave instead.  We see Lot not breaking his covenants, but pushing the limits of them, and so still not honoring them, dancing with danger by remaining on the outskirts of these cities being destroyed for iniquity.  This is the final separation between Abraham and Lot, when Abraham sees that Lot really thinks he is fine-and-dandy with no need to repent, when Abraham realizes that Lot thinks he is keeping his covenants (though he does not honor or magnify them), when Abraham watches Lot choose Sodom over the Temple.  This is their final-break-up, and Abraham lets Lot go because there is nothing he can do to help if Lot does not want to learn, does not want help, and does not want to progress.  Abraham goes on to become the father of faithful and covenant keeping people, while Lot goes on to sexual sin and becoming the father of licentious people (Moabites and Ammonites).  In Bereishith Rabbah 45:4, Rav Channiah ben Tazi compares also their wives as well in the same way.  Abraham’s wives became mothers by hard preparation, hard work, deep pain, with much travail and anguish before ever conceiving, the way a garden is planted and worked before the harvest comes.  But Lot’s children were like thorns and weeds that just grow without being planted (out of bounds, out of Order, and without authority).  They each reaped their own consequences based on the choices they made, and the time finally came for Abraham to let Lot make his own choices and reap his own consequences.

It struck me as a parallel to Abraham’s other sacrifice, the one where he prepared to offer up his son Isaac as commanded, but then didn’t have to do it because a sacrifice was provided (so the experience was really both a foreshadowing of Christ to come, and also his own healing for his own experience of being offered on the altar as a child by his own non-covenant father – a healing necessary if he himself was going to move forward into his own role of a covenant father).  In this lesson, Abraham offers his friendship to Lot, but Lot declines the friendship.  He doesn’t mind having his life saved, and likes what he gets out of the friendship, but he declines the deeper knowing, the covenant kind of friendship.  This grieves Abraham, both because he wants Lot to be faithful in the covenant and because he sees the potential friendship in Lot.  But the offer is declined, and so Abraham lets him go.  Yet like his sacrifice, an alternative is provided.  His friendship needs are still met, the friendship is still provided, but from another place: even by the Lord himself.

This is what I was thinking about yesterday, when thinking about both differences in friends and different kinds of friendships.  Like the Lord being there to nourish and nurture Abraham, strengthening him to be faithful, we are given such life by friendships that are good, pleasant, and useful.   The “good, pleasant, and useful” comes from Aristotle, whom I looked up again yesterday while I did my favorite six mile trail (that ends with my favorite six veggie wrap!).  I had to go all the way back to 330 BC, to Aristotle‘s ethics on friendships, but staying in the present with Clarissa (author of the quotes in italics).  Aristotle wrote that no one would choose to live without friends, because we need people who love us for ourselves.  We need to love and be loved, and we need help from those who love us – to care for us in times of need, to help us avoid making mistakes, to encourage us to live good lives, and to do things for us we cannot do for ourselves. In his Politics, he says human beings are social beings.  We need each other.

In Lysis, the Dialogue on Friendship, Plato and Socrates (Plato’s teacher) discussed friendship and concluded that we can know when we are friends, but we cannot know what friendship actually is.  They said that if you define it too closely, you risk destroying it.

Aristotle disagreed.  He liked definitions, and was determined to define even friendship.  He decided that at the very least, we could at least describe why it happens and why we need it.  In this attempt, he identified three qualities of friendships: they are good, pleasant, and useful.

Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle did agree that friendship cannot exist without friends valuing each other.  Aristotle said that friendship cannot exist without goodwill (good, pleasant, and/or useful).  Further, if a friendship is going to last, there must be reciprocity of that goodwill.  This would connect to the gospel principle of “mutual edification”, which is the only way for peace to conquer contention (see Romans 14:19; Ephesians 4:12; Ephesians 4:29; 1 Thessalonians 5:11; D&C 50:22; D&C 50:23; & D&C 136:24).  To be friends, both friends must be friendly.

There are three kinds of friendships, Aristotle said.

One kind of friendship is utility friendship, in which you are friends because of what you get out of the friendship.  One might love another’s intellect because they are not as clever, he said, or another’s wit because they themselves are rather dull.  It is a useful kind of relationship, in which you do not love the person but love what you get out of the friendship.  This can be a healthy and good type of friendship when both people agree on the terms, like a contract.  But the friendship only lasts as long as it is useful.  If the friends cannot adjust to changing needs and circumstances, they will feel the friendship is no longer useful to them.

Another kind of friendship is the activity friendship, in which friends enjoy specific activities together.  It is a pleasure based friendship, and thrives only as long as the pleasure continues.  This is an emotional friendship, such as with teenagers, and the shifts are quick.  If the shared activity (water cooler friends at work, a hobby like dancing, a project like the tornado cleanup) does not continue, the friendship is not able to survive.  This kind of friendship is quick to develop, but also quick to dissolve.

Those two kinds of friendships share the same risk, that when the usefulness or pleasure changes, the friends must either adapt or the friendship ends.  This is especially true if one or both friends are not pleasant.

Do not cringe and make yourself small if you are called the black sheep, the maverick, the lone wolf… it has been proven over the centuries, that being different means standing at the edge, means one is practically guaranteed to make an original contribution, a useful and stunning contribution to her culture.   When seeking guidance, don’t ever listen to the tiny-hearted.  Be kind to them, heap them with blessing, cajole them, but do not follow their advice.

The third kind of friendship is a higher kind of friendship, and the rarest kind of friendship.  It is less casual and longer lasting.  It is the kind of friendship when you are friends because you love the person for who they are in and of themselves, and they love you for you who you are.  You may appreciate their passion for life, their intellect, their wit, or their humor, but those are character traits of the person as a whole.

A high quality friendship requires high quality people.  Aristotle said that the better the individuals, the better quality of friendship.  This is why good people make good friends, and those working on becoming better people deepen friendships, and those who don’t want to grow lose friendships.  This kind of friendship sets a standard, and takes time to develop.  It requires nourishment, and that is hard work.  He said, “a wish for friendship may arise quickly, but friendship does not.”  This is why goodwill for the other is always a requirement for any kind of friendship.  Higher friendships are about more than just being friendly; they are about deep knowing of another, and being deeply known.

We want to put ourselves in a situation where, like the plants and trees, we can turn toward the sun…. Friends who love you and have warmth for you are the very best suns in the world.  Even if one has friends, those friends may not be suns.  They may give comfort instead of informing.  They comfort – but that is far from nurture.  Nurture moves you from one place to another…. The difference between comfort and nurture is this:  if you have a plant that is sick because you keep it in a dark closet, and you say soothing words to it, that is comfort.  If you take the plant out of the closet and put it in the sun, and give it something to drink, and then talk to it, that is nurture. 

In discussing this higher kind of friendship, Aristotle said that the best friends, the longest lasting friendships, get the same thing out of the friendship.  This equality must be in type, quality, and quantity.  So it must be a higher kind of friendship for both (both people love the other for who they are), both receive the same quality of friendship (both people are working hard to nourish the relationship), and both receive the same amount (the friendship is healthy and both receive what they need, even when those needs are different for each individual).

If the friends cannot adapt to different needs (I do not need the same things my friend needs, you need different things than your spouse needs), or if the friends cannot adapt to changing needs (I have different needs while I am caring for my parent than when I had brain surgery than when I am healthy and well), then the friendship will not last.

Friendship is sealed by character.  Slander damages friendship, gossip kills friendship, and negativity smothers friendship.  If one says mean things about the other, then they are not providing a safe environment in which the friendship can grow.  If one tells secrets or personal things about the other, then one is not holding the friendship sacred and betraying the friend.  If one is so negative that the other can never succeed in their attempts at learning to be a friend, then they will no longer try.  These things destroy friendship instead of nourish it.

A woman must choose her friends… wisely…. One cannot keep the consciousness one has earned… if one lives with cruel people outwardly or inwardly.  If you are surrounded by people who cross their eyes and look with disgust up at the ceiling when you are in the room, when you speak, when you act and react, then you are with the people who douse passions – yours and probably their own as well.  These are not the people who care about you, your work, or your life.  A woman must choose her friends… wisely…  The destructive… must be avoided.  When (a) woman has an idea, the friend… will never say, “Well, I don’t know… sounds really dumb (grandiose, undoable, expensive, etc.) to me.”  A right friend will never say that.  They might say instead… “I don’t know if I understand.  Tell me how you see it.  Tell me how it will work.”  

Part of nourishing a friendship is doing the work of maintenance, which requires conversation.  If you cut off the talk, you cut off the relationship.  This is why mutual edification is so critical, and consistently responding to the other’s narrative is so vital.  Ignoring, silencing (cruel, fake, or superficial replies that do not allow a response), punishing (becoming oppressive instead of friendly), and apathy (including lack of interest or participation) will destroy any relationship. Maintenance work also requires a great deal of time.  If friendships are neglected, or time is not invested into them, they will diminish and dissolve until they disappear.  This is why people may have many different kinds of friends, but only a few close friends – because it takes a great deal of time and energy to develop profound friendships.

Aristotle specifically pointed out that sour people will not be able to keep higher friendships.  They may keep utility friendships that are useful for their work or meet other specific needs, and they may keep activity friendships based on shared religion, hobbies, work, or other activities.  But they cannot keep higher friendships because they are not pleasant people, even if they are good people.  Punishing, negative, disrespectful, and bitter people are careless with their friends, and their neglect and direct harm hurt the friendships often at the cost of losing them all together.

Plato said that friendship cannot exist except where there is only good in the “soul, body, or anywhere”; but, that if friends can rid themselves of evil, then friendship can remain.

There are always more opportunities to get it right, to fashion our lives in the ways we deserve to have them.  Don’t waste your time hating failure.  Failure is a greater teacher than success.  Listen, learn, go on.  We are learning about deteriorative patterns so we can go on with the strength of one who can sense the traps and cages and baits before we are upon them or caught in them.

Aristotle’s big talk about “quarrels and accusations” comes in Lecture 11 of this discourse.  He said that when a friend is always trying to pick a fight or accusing another, it means they are not putting up with much because they are thinking about what they are getting out of the friendship (being a tyrant, he says) instead of what they love about the other person.  This confirms it is a friendship of utility or activity, rather than a higher friendship because they either do not have the ability or desire to love you for who you are without getting something in return.

Winter brings the kiss of death – that is, a coldness – to anything it touches.  Coldness spells the end of any relationship.  If you want to kill something, just be cold to it.  As soon as one becomes frozen in feeling, thinking, or action, relationship is not possible.  When humans want to abandon something in themselves or leave someone out in the cold, they ignore them, disinvite them, leave them out, go out of their way to not have to even hear their voice or lay eyes upon them.

In contrast, the best friendships are based on excellence of character because the individuals themselves do their own work to be excellent.   Part of that excellence is learning to live well, and to love well.  For this higher friendship, those character traits of living well will help the friend to love well by also helping the friend to live well also.

Utility friendships work like a contract, so that both parties understand what they are getting from the friendship. This makes for smooth and intense fast friends, as long as the contract remains the same.  However, their roots do not go deep, and so if the contract changes – by circumstances, situation, needs, development, or one of the friends – then there are often quarrels.  Too much is asked of one, or one falsely martyrs themselves making sacrifices that are too much but never asked of them.  One expects higher payment for extra giving or service, or another has a change in needs and so feels their needs are unmet when the friend does not adapt to the changes.  Utility friendships depend on what one gets out of the friendship, and so it is susceptible to quarrels.  They are also susceptible to feelings of guilt, because if there are quarrels it is because someone has changed the contract (often without telling the other person).  So one person becomes a bully, an emotional tyrant, a violent offender, while the other person is distressed that and confused why they cannot be good enough, do enough, or do things the right way to please the other friend.

The vision a woman has for her own life can also be decimated in the flames of someone else’s jealousy or someone’s plain-out destructiveness toward her.  Friends are not supposed to be destructive if and when they feel envy, but some decidedly are, in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways.  No woman can afford to let her creative life hang by a thread while she serves an antagonistic friend…  If you are striving to do something of value, it is so important to surround yourself with people who unequivocally support your work.  It is both a trap and a poison to have so-called friends who have the same injuries but no real desire to heal them.  Anyone who does not support your art, your life, is not worth your time.  Harsh but true…

Aristotle said that it is not always that someone is “bad” (not good) that makes a friendship bad; it could just mean the friend is not pleasant or useful. He emphasizes that friendships will not survive if both people are not good, pleasant, and useful.

He also said that some of the deepest friendships (among those who do the work of friendship) are those between opposite gender people who converse and learn together.  He said this is “lovely to behold”.   However, this type of friendship must not be confused with emotional attachment that is out of bounds of the contracts of other relationships, or be manipulated into a different kind of relationship (other than friendship) unless both friends are free of other contracts (relationships) and mutually agree to a new contract between themselves.

He also said that it does not matter whether people are alike or different.  People who are alike in many ways may make for an easy friendship, or they may just annoy each other.  People who are different may provide more balance, but require more work.  Interestingly, he added that similarity of rules and order (such as religion or government) do not make friends, but rather, they make good contracts.  It is then the contract that provides a structure for friendliness, but work must still be done (and time invested) to build a friendship.

It is deadly to be without a confidante, without a guide, without even a tiny cheering section.  Hold out.  Hold on.  Do your work. You will find your own way.  At the end of the tale, the swans recognize the duckling as one of their own before he does.  That is rather typical of exiled women.  After all that hard wandering, they manage to wander over the frontier into home territory, and often don’t realize for a time that people’s looks have ceased to be disparaging and are more often neutral, when they are not admiring and approving… For a time, at least, the exiled woman is still terribly distrustful.  Do these people really regard me?  Am I really safe here?  Will I be chased away?  Can I really sleep with both eyes closed now?  Is it all right to act like… a swan?  After a time, these suspicions fall away and the next stage of coming back to oneself begins: acceptance of one’s own unique beauty; that is, the wild soul from which we are made… When we accept our own wild beauty, it is put into perspective, and we are no longer poignantly aware of it anymore, but neither would we forsake it or disclaim it either.  Does a wolf know how beautiful she is when she leaps?  Does a feline know what beautiful shapes she makes when she sits?  Is a bird awed by the sound it hears when it snaps open its wings?  Learning from them, we just act in our own true way and do not draw back from our hide our natural beauty.  Like the creatures, we just are, and it is right…. thriving means, now that the bad times are behind, to put ourselves into occasions (and friendships) of the lush, the nutritive, the light, and there to flourish, to thrive with bushy, shaggy, heavy blossoms and leaves.  That is thriving.  That is what was meant for us. 

About Emily

I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 2009. I serve as a Chaplain, and work as a counselor. I got bilateral cochlear implants in 2010, but will always love sign language. I choose books over television, and organics over processed. Nothing is as close to flying as ballroom dancing - except maybe running, when in the solo mood. I would rather be outside than anywhere else, especially at the river riding my bike or kayaking. PhD in Marriage and Family Therapy, and currently doing a post-doc in Jewish Studies and an MDiv in Pastoral Counseling. The best thing about Emily World is that it's always an adventure, even if (not so) grammatically precise. The only thing better than writing is being married to a writer. Nathan Christensen and I were married in the Oklahoma City temple on 13 October 2012, and have since fostered more than eighty-five children. We have adopted the six who stayed, and are totally and completely and helplessly in love with our family. Nathan writes musical theater, including "Broadcast" (a musical history of the radio) and an adaption of Lois Lowry's "The Giver". He served his mission in South Korea, has taught song-writing in New York City public schools, and worked as a theater critic for a Tucson newspaper. This is not an official Web site of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


Friendship: Good, Pleasant, and Useful — 3 Comments

  1. Wonderful! Again I’m grateful for your friendship Emily! You have nurtured me and helped me. It is hard to move and make new friends. I’m feeling strange about making smart decisions about choosing friends, as if it is unkind for me to take myself into consideration. I really needed this, thank you!

    • We can and should be friendly to all, but scriptures consistently teach the importance of choosing close friends wisely. So many examples! Add it to our list of forever discussions!

  2. Emily, you are fabulous! This was a fascinating read. And has been one of my struggles for the year. I can only emotionally handle 2-3 (that’s actually really pushing it) “close” friends at a time, and all of mine moved this year :(