To most of us, friendship is valuable. It brings help and joy, endorses our identity, accepts our behaviour, shares our self back with us, and says we are OK. Or tells us when we’re not. It is a mutual mapping of ego onto alter, our self onto someone else. This may be simply utilitarian, an extension of ego, where ego’s wants are met by the friend. Friendship is then just a mutually advantageous trade.
Greater ego/alter mapping comes from shared interest, even shared purpose, but so far still remains instrumental. Resonance of personality leads to deeper friendship, since it begins to map who we are, rather than what we want, or what we do.
Friend means more than colleague, associate or acquaintance, since it requires greater intimacy and greater access, and therefore greater accountability. It results from encounter, since knowing someone has to precede befriending them. It is therefore contingent, since it could have been otherwise – it would not have been, had the friends never first met. How far is it contingent otherwise? Does friendship survive the loss of shared location, shared interest, and satisfaction of mutual needs? This depends on the balance of ego and alter, of self and other, in the ego/alter mapping which constitutes friendship. Where ego is dominant, then friendship becomes very contingent, is usually transient, and will not survive any loss of benefit to self interest. But where the ‘other’ is of greater concern than ‘self’, then friendship can and usually will survive.
Modernity, through its enabling technology and associated ‘atomisation’, has made us more independent. The paradigm has therefore become one of self rather than of other. We are self aware, self assertive, self promotional. Consumerism predominantly targets self. In such a world with such a Weltanschauung, friendship is likely to be diminished, or at least go virtual rather than be real, and so demand less commitment. The very concept is diluted.
There is a question of spirituality here. Humanity as ‘self’ may be alluring, the ultimate temptation. Instrumental friendship is merely its extension, a means to its end. But humanity which is ‘other’ in its orientation implicitly includes the free grace of gift, which is the corollary of self sacrifice. Friendship expresses, exemplifies, and incarnates ‘the gift relationship’, the title of Richard Titmuss’s famous book on the important social role of gift in blood donation.
John’s gospel in the Bible contains a phrase often engraved on war memorials, ‘There is no greater love than this : that a person would lay down his life for the sake of his friends’. This is ultimate extreme friendship, but it does express a principle, that friendship is about the other person, not about ourselves. Both atheist and religious spirituality are able to choose the priority of someone else over our self which makes such friendship part of the spirit of our humanity. It introduces the most sustaining basis for friendship – love.