Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 13, No. 6, 2014
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Bernard Dubé
  Contributing Editors
David Solway
Louis René Beres
Nancy Snipper
Farzana Hassan
Daniel Charchuk
Lynda Renée
Betsy L. Chunko
Samuel Burd
Andrée Lafontaine
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
  Music Editors Serge Gamache
Diane Gordon
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Chantal Levesque Denis Beaumont
Emanuel Pordes
  Past Contributors
  Noam Chomsky
Mark Kingwell
Naomi Klein
Arundhati Roy
Evelyn Lau
Stephen Lewis
Robert Fisk
Margaret Somerville
Mona Eltahawy
Michael Moore
Julius Grey
Irshad Manji
Richard Rodriguez
Ernesto Zedillo
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward




You shall know the truth,
And the truth shall make you odd.
Flannery O'Connor


During the past century that has seen divorce rates skyrocket from seven to forty five percent in most western countries, the once sacred institution of marriage has suffered a series of body blows from which it is still reeling and may never recover. In light of the discouraging numbers, and the suffering and cost divorce entails, more and more couples are asking themselves, “why bother,” and opt for the less complicated common law arrangement. Even among Catholics, who are considered adulterers and refused communion if they remarry, the divorce rate is still 28% (US stats).

What has gone very unnoticed in the mostly sensible criticism aimed at the self-discredited institution of marriage is that when compared to friendship, it enjoys a success rate that should make even its harshest critics stratospherically giddy.

Who among us, when we objectively look back in time, has not left in our wake a history of one busted friendship after another? Despite our stated intentions and best efforts, the black book that logs our breakdowns forces the conclusion that friendships don’t last, and to such a degree that according to a recent British study many people have given up trying; ten percent of people now admit to having no close friends. So if over a lifetime almost every friendship, as if subject to the laws of entropy, is destined to break down, marriage, which enjoys a fifty five percent success rate, is by far and away the more successful institution.

Despite the well known physical and psychological health benefits that friendship confers, why does it rarely succeed? What does its discomfiting failure rate tell about what kind of species we are as it concerns bonding, or, taking a page out of Somerset Maugham: “human bondage.”

Much more so than marriage, friendship brings into play two aspects of human nature that are in perpetual conflict. On the one hand, inscribed in our genotype is the instinct that compels us to bond around a common purpose which results in the formation of tribes and communities, while on the other hand, self-interest dictates that the individual is always “looking out for number one.”

Since until recently in human history, men in groups were much more likely to survive than even the most gifted and self-sufficient person, the group instinct, out of necessity, took precedent over self-interest.

But with the emergence of the Industrial Revolution, the individual discovers he can comfortably survive without having to sacrifice his freedom for the sake of the group. At this decisive moment in human history, in the absence of the necessity that underscored group cohesion, self-interest begins to flex its muscles, and the adhesive that was once a vital component in bonding and friendship begins to harden and crack. In the work place, especially in the corporate environment where hundreds of people are cooperating around a common goal, successful work relationships continue to flourish, but these relationships, almost without exception, fail at the friendship level.

The dictionary defines self-interest as: “Selfish or excessive regard for one's personal advantage or interest.” Most friendships cannot survive the cumulative blows inflicted by self-interest. And while we all enjoy friendship and ascribe to it the highest value and want it to endure, our conduct belies our best intentions.

What generally happens over time, even in the best of friendships, is that we often unconsciously end up exploring and then testing the limits of what we can procure or get away with. At the beginning, during the critical bonding period, we are very considerate and solicitous of the other, showing ourselves in the best light. But over time, we begin to take our new friend for granted. We exercise less reserve in our critical remarks, we abuse certain privileges in respect to property, money matters and personal space, and at some point we cross a limit of no return: the final insult has been delivered, another promise broken, another meal or favour not reciprocated, and one of the parties, in response to real or perceived affront, terminates the friendship.

At the beck and call of self-interest over which we apparently have little or no control, we end up steering the once highly valued vessel of friendship through treacherous seas where it eventually takes in more water than it can hold and sinks beneath our best wisdom like a stone. It seems that in the end human nature and not reason or common sense is calling the shots, and we are helpless to modify the outcome because the necessity that was once integral to friendship is no longer a factor in the age of individualism. Only in exceptional circumstances -- war and/or team sports -- is friendship on safe ground.

It can be argued that marriage and intimate relationships are significantly more successful than friendship because of the additional bonding impetus provided by conjugal life and children. Prior to women’s lib, which precluded participation in the work force, women were much more financially dependent on their husbands and thus more likely to endure an unhappy relationship. And in point of fact, as women have become less dependent on their spouses, the divorce rate has proportionately risen. But even in marriage, despite the added sexual incentive and shared burden of raising children, self-interest often ends up undermining intimate relationships.

The three most stress producing events in life are death of a loved one, divorce and changing of address (moving): to that list, we can add the dissolution of friendship. Since the behaviour sanctioned by self-interest is observably responsible for the declining success rates of both marriage and friendship, what can be done to stall or even reverse this trend?

So long as we leave unexamined the philosophical and practical benefits of friendship, self-interest will always have its way over our best intentions -- and the numbers back that up. If there is a stop gap to be applied, it will have to come from within, as an act of will, of willing ourselves to assume responsibility for the meaning and value we assign to friendship -- not unlike the import some of us assign to our physical well being and the strenuous physical exercise we willingly undertake for its sake. In other words there can be no letting up in developing and strengthening the mental muscle that is required to not only disclose the value (pragmatic and metaphysical) of friendship, but to ensure that these hard-won values are not vitiated by self-interest.

However rare is a life-long friendship, it is never fortuitous. Both parties must share equally in its development and appreciation while cultivating the necessary vigilance and attention to detail every successful friendship requires.

In absence of due (and sustained) diligence, enduring friendship is as likely as a Havana Moon over the Hudson.

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Unbridgeable differences of opinion and religious beliefs are also a major factors.
Agree self interest, but also greater existing cultural gaps than before. Heterogeneous societies generate more instanteneous "friends" if only out of curiosity, but inevitably the very same "differences" which engendered the attractions in turn prove to be cause of the falling apart..In homogeneous societies less immediate appeal for contact but similarities make for truer and longer lasting bonds, most of the time.

The decline in friendship (and I think there is one) may well be in part due to the fact that so many 'friendships' are not real, but electronic. These are sanctioned by pure self-interest, and have little to do with the real value of friendship, which takes effort and caring, not merely the depression of a button on a stupid little phone.
The mind that believes in quantifying relationships, or even attributing importance to pollsters and others who do, is not only not going to have any close friends, he probably won't even have any enemies. "Vigilance?" "Attention?" Clearly, the Patriot Act isn't the only scary excuse for demanding security in all things.
I enjoyed your well written thought-provoking reflection on friendship. I do not agree with you, but your thesis is a valid one. If one could only content oneself with just enjoying a person's company due to their personality and ability to make one feel at peace or burst into laughter, and the other one taking this all in also gives back, then generally friendship works out.
I have found sharing things in common binds people. As I have a great love of people and am ever-mindful that skin is not that thick, we must always put the other person first.
Dumping on others seems to be what many think friendship is about - spilling the beans and over-analyzing. Can't we go back to innocence and the joy of just rubbing shoulders with a person who is appealing to be in the presence of?


also by Robert J. Lewis:
Om: The Great Escape
Actor on a Hot Tin Roof
Being & Self-Consciousness
Giacometti: A Line in the Wilderness
The Jazz Solo
Chat Rooms & Infidels
Music Fatigue
Understanding Rape
Have Idea Will Travel
Bikini Jihad
The Reader Feedback Manifesto
Caste the First Stone
Let's Get Cultured
Being & Baggage
Robert Mapplethorpe
The Eclectic Switch

Philosophical Time
What is Beauty?
In Defense of Heidegger

Hijackers, Hookers and Paradise Now
Death Wish 7 Billion
My Gypsy Wife Tonight
On the Origins of Love & Hate
Divine Right and the Unrevolted Masses
Cycle Hype or Genotype
The Genocide Gene


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