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The Value of Friendship

When you're not sure where that smell came from

Recent events have forced me to re-evaluate what friendship means to me. I'll not go into all of the events leading to this quite necessary reconsideration; suffice it to say that I came to the conclusion that a person I had been a friend to was not, and possibly never had been, a friend to me.

This was a hard realization, as I've known this person for over a decade. I've helped him out several times. But when I needed him to put up with a minor inconvenience he couldn't be bothered. It was too much. He came up with all kinds of excuses why, but at the end of the day he simply didn't want to. I pointed out how hypocritical that was, considering all the things I'd done for him and he made out like I shouldn't have seen any of that as an inconvenience.

I must admit I became infuriated at that. I'd always been there when he needed help. I'd let this man sleep on my couch on two separate occasions for an accumulated total of 14 months, and I shouldn't have seen that as an inconvenience? I work overnights meaning he was asleep nearly all the time I was awake, but I shouldn't have felt put out? In the end I told him not to ask me for anything ever again. Not because he'd reneged on helping me the first time I'd ever asked for anything from him, but because he'd had the gall to complain about my feeling put out while helping him while complaining about the inconvenience of having to walk outside to his car.

But then I had to ask myself, is that all friendship is? Is friendship as simple as a quid pro quo system? Just favors being exchanged? That idea bothered me a little. It seemed . . . shallow. Materialistic. Petty.

But, if that isn't what friendship was about, then what was? I started thinking about the friends I did have. What made them friends? I looked at popular portrayals of friends (small 'f'). I started breaking down the various traits we often associate with friendship. For instance:

Was it just about being nice? I'd known plenty of people that would smile in your face while stabbing you in the back. That's certainly not what a friend is. And I'd known friends that were often downright rude to each other. But they were still friends.

Was it about sharing each other's views? Some of my closest friends share my views more often than not, but we certainly don't agree on everything. It doesn't make them any less of a friend. And really, who wants to surround themselves with people that think exactly like they do? Sounds like a nightmare to me, really.

It could be about sharing a sense of humor, yet I shared much of my sense of humor with certain stand up comedians. I certainly wouldn't consider them my friends; for one, I'd think an integral part of being my friend would be knowing I existed.

What about interests; could friendship be about shared interests? I mean, for most people, their best friend is no doubt someone that shares a great deal of interests with them. Could doing things together be the cornerstone of friendship? Most of my friends share multiple interests with me. But this man I'd so recently defriended shared several. I remember when I used to go to the card shop to play mtg. I regarded almost none of those people that shared my passion for that game as more than acquaintances. Hell, I'd spent the last three years playing Pathfinder with a man that I barely considered an acquaintance.

Could it be about caring about what happens to the other? This man often claimed to care about what happened to those around him. But when it was time to help he wasn't there. Had he been lying, or was there some step in the process one of us was missing? More to the point, caring about someone suggests a desire for that person to be happy. It suggests a desire to help them be happy. But doesn't that just roll right back under the heading of doing something for others?

As I chased this around my head I found myself thinking about the Stargate: Atlantis episode 'The Shrine'. In it Rodney McKay contracts a cerebral parasite that essentially causes him to regress into retardation. It was one of their best episodes, and one of the greatest stories about friendship in the corpus of film ever. But what made it great?

I began to focus more on the actions of John Shepard in particular. Was he always nice to Rodney? Most certainly not. Not regularly, and not even throughout that episode. They shared few interests, no humor, and disagreed often. It's not that helping Rodney wasn't, at the very least, an inconvenience for John. It was just an inconvenience he willingly took on. It never even crossed his mind to do anything less, to be anything less.

As I considered that I realized that there is a difference between the willingness to help each other and a quid pro quo situation. Friendship is not a one for one situation. It's not about counting how many times you help each other; there is no score. Its not about not feeling inconvenienced when you help each other. It's about the willingness to be inconvenienced for each other. It's not the act, but the motivation behind it that makes a person your friend.

I tracked that thought back to my own life and interactions with my friends. Not long ago a friend started having problems getting his car to start. He came to me because I knew . . . a decent amount about cars. I never even considered not helping him. I was free. He needed help; that's all there was to it. It was still an inconvenience, but one I considered worth it.

But there's a second part to this equation. I never considered payment of any kind. It never crossed my mind. But he did. He recognized that this was an inconvenience and insisted on buying me food. Not as payment, but as a thank you. He wanted to buy me food for the entire week. I talked him down to one meal.

Several friends helped us move. We bought about 60 dollars worth of sub stuff as a thank you for their help. One of our friends dropped her plans to help us get the rest of our stuff out of the house when this situation exploded. As a thank you we're taking her and her husband to a Halloween event.

But why was that okay? Why was it okay to help someone if you knew you could count on them, but not okay if you couldn't? One of my favorite science fiction authors once wrote that 'morality and practicality must be congruous; if they aren't there's something wrong with one or the other.'

So what about that was practical? I've long been a believer in the idea of cooperation. Shouldn't one be willing to help another, even without a reward? Doesn't that help everyone, even if only minutely?

As that question bounced around my head I realized that there were parallels to this behavior within nature. Specifically within the difference between parasites and symbiotes.

Parasites contribute nothing to the host organism. They consume resources for no real gain, nothing that comes close to what they take anyways. They can spread disease, weaken their host organism, and are often uncomfortable.

Symbiotes are different though. They work with the host organism. They consume resources, but offer services in exchange. In fact, without symbiosis humanity could not exist. Each makes the whole stronger.

And so it is with friendship. A friend helps friends, but can expect those friends to be there if they need help. It's not a quid pro quo system so much as a symbiotic one. It's not about the actual acts, but the willingness to perform them. But it's also about being grateful for that help, recognizing that other people were willing to inconvenience themselves for you.

It seems a meaningless distinction, but I don't think it is. Of course, I do have to consider the possibility that it is a distinction residing solely in my own brain for the benefit of my ego. But that's another topic.

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