In Aristotle’s Ethics he discusses Friendship at great length. I read it as a freshman in college, and I’ll admit I was pretty overwhelmed. I was provoked last night to read that particular section of the text again.
In that section Aristotle looks at the phenomena of “philia” which is one of the Greek words for “Love.” Now it is used here to express the kinship between Friends, but is not restricted to use of voluntary relationships. In this particularly segment he is looking to draw the connection between Friendship and Virtuous living, which he believes is largely the basis of Happiness. He believes there are three reasons to “like” or “love” (words that have no connection to feelings) someone.
A person is Good. This, Aristotle suggests, is the only way to a Perfect Friendship. Friendships that are established because both parties are Good will create a perfectly rounded relationship. Equal give and take. Though the taking only comes from pure reception of a truly good giving.
A person is Pleasant. He does not necessarily use the word “Pleasant” to mean amiable, but that the person is someone from which one can derive Pleasure. He is entertaining. She is smart. He is funny. She is outgoing. This relationship is to Aristotle Imperfect. It becomes a relationship with little trust. It opens a door to arguments. These relationships can be broken easily. In fact, he suggests that to call them “Friendships” at all is pretty unfair to the word.
A person is Useful. He offers an ear for venting. She offers company when there is none. He drives miles and miles to provide company. She bakes things. He edits your papers. She tells you that you look nice. He buys you gifts. These, like those based on Pleasure, are Imperfect for all of the same reasons.
He does say though that those that do those things not for their own benefit but for the benefit of others are truly Friends. To quote exactly, “Those who wish good things to their friends for the sake of the latter are friends most of all, because they do so because of their friends themselves, and not coincidentally.”
It’s a tricky line. At what point does the provision of Support and Virtue change from purely about the other to the need in myself to have it reciprocated. I have a propensity for setting myself into one-sided relationships. Not strictly the Imperfect Friendships Aristotle addresses. I have a strong willingness in me to do whatever is asked of me, even if it is well-beyond my means or capabilities. It always starts off as genuinely as I can offer. It’s something I want to do strictly for the benefit of the other. I listen. I drive. I bake. I’d learn to declaw cats probably if I was asked, but there still comes in me a very human breaking point.
There is a line. There are months of lines. I talk myself down from my anger. I yell at God for a while. I yell at myself a while longer. “But who will take care of me?” I cry. When I’ve finally remembered why I make sacrifices I let it go. I’m not a good Friend. I’m a very selfish Friend. I want, like everyone, to be loved.
See there comes this moment. There’s an even exchange. We lay it out. Your Garbage on the Table. My Garbage on the Table. We spread our arms out over the filth and pull back whatever it is that comes back. It’s a Perfect Friendship. Until something hits. Maybe you picked up too much Trash. Or maybe I did. We find ourselves carrying heavier and heavier bags. We got stuck under a Garbage shoot, I think. It starts pouring in, and we stand there and catch it. We clean it off. We give it back better than it was before. We give it back when the other most needs it. But we find that as we diligently maintain the Garbage of the other our own Filth piles up around us. We try to pawn it off on someone else, but that results in taking on their Filth too. Maybe they take ours, maybe they don’t. The Filth stacks up. It’s hard to maintain, but this is what we want to be doing. We’re called to carry each other’s Burdens, and it doesn’t seem fair to hand this back to someone. So we carry it. We almost pry sorting through the Trash. Digging beyond what we thought we’d have to. Taking on more. It hasn’t ever been that we don’t want to work with it. We simply thought it was a trade. Shit for Shit.
We find ourselves staying on top of the Pile. We aren’t consumed. We aren’t lost in it. Not in their Pile. Our own Pile is what drowns us. And it feels too heavy for anyone. We won’t let someone else carry it, because we don’t want them to feel the weight of our Pile. But at that Table, even if it isn’t being maintained, some of it was taken. And maybe some more of it should be let go.
Perhaps it’s easier, or somehow more comfortable, to hold on to the Trash of the past than to ever see it go. Or maybe the relationship has become skewed. Or maybe it’s just our perspective, under the Garbage.
Still, when it becomes one-sided, I feel myself with rumblings deep in me waiting to scream, “I want my Shit back!”