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Friendship is not always the best choice to make

In the 1920s, a new idea arose: pen friends. You could have a friend the other side of the globe just by writing back and forth. 

The Scouts made an international pact to all be friends. 

Following WWII, whole countries went out of their way to declare friendship for those who had stood together: Britain became the friend of America and vice-versa. Argentina liked Britain and America. The Philippines was the friend of the U.S., and so on. 

In the following years, Presidents went out of their way to declare friendship, even with previous enemies. Kennedy famously declared our friendship for the German people (note, he did not go so far as to say Germany), especially those in Berlin. Mitterrand declared France’s friendship with Algeria even after all the bloodshed there. Our current incumbent, following Bush 43’s initiative, declared U.S. friendship with Saudi Arabia and danced around a globe.

Friendships are different from alliances between nations. Alliances can relate to diplomatic and trade issues, and those can be defined and limited. The concept of friendship is unlimited in tolerance and unlimited in a desire to do no harm. In doing no harm, we often stray from core values on every side.

Often this charge to promote friendship around the world was led by the churches. Indeed, before WWII, several American evangelical preachers went all across the world lecturing on the need for friendship, Christian or not. At the time, this was a radical concept. 

Some men and women, for example, made friends with Mahatma Gandhi and, through his teachings, with the homeless in city centers. Friendship was a concept that was seen — and is still promoted — as a unifying force in the face of serious unrest and division.

Some psychologists, in studying the phenomenon, have begun to feel that such friendships are both papering over serious cracks and allowing us to be more vulnerable. 

This works on a national level in the same way it works on a personal level. If you are friends, you tolerate and you seek to do no harm — compromising your very ethics and true feelings. That compromise you have to make to maintain a friendship can be painful and, what’s worse, can lead to serious conflict and unrest. With nations, a crack exposed can lead quickly to wars or, as in the case of Britain, Brexit.

I have to admit that I have been hurt by several such friendships in the past year. People who I was happy to have as acquaintances, and who I have been friendly and open to, have exposed a moral equivalency that has become intolerable for me to support. Yet, without the trendy familiarity of friendship — the new behavior expected of us, used as a placebo in place of social graces and manners we used to employ — I could have remained an acquaintance, polite, friendly but not friends (and all that that vulnerability implies). 

In short, I was foolish to make myself vulnerable to acquaintances, allowing them more social impact on me than our real separate values indicated. In fact, I realize I acted as a child does, assuming the best because I liked them. Liking is not friendship.

Manners are useful, both between people and between nations. We don’t have to love, like, cuddle up to or familiarize ourselves with everyone we meet — such behavior is naïve at best and childish at its core. 

Yes, I am from that generation that says, “Love one another.” But what did we mean by love? Actually, what we meant, what I always understood, was don’t hate one another, keep an open mind, consider everyone equal. All good old-fashioned manners! 

The problem we have today is that we use the word “friend” and believe that permits acquaintances unfettered access to one’s innermost feelings and beliefs. 

Nations, similarly, declare friendship and then dispatch diplomats and commerce to open doors wide and share cultures as if they were unified. Really? That MacDonald’s on the Champs Elysees is still an American horror, no matter how friendly we are with France.

So in today’s world, where the morally messy definition of “friend” is bandied about, perhaps what we need to do is stop seeing the differences between us and, instead, realize that most of what we hear from allies and friends, national and personal, is none of our business. 

If they are so childish and sloppy to air their dirty laundry (or what we consider dirty laundry), then that does not mean we should reciprocate. Keep our opinions to ourselves, all the while remembering where an acquaintance’s weak areas are, if only to avoid them with good manners, without hate. 

Of course, if that knowledge of their weaknesses on a national level becomes a factor in survival, because they are not really friends, you can act properly to protect your own without guilt of destroying a friendship (that did not exist).

Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.