I've changed somewhat in the handful of years since I wrote the Firestarter titled "What is Friendship?" I like to think my opinions have grown and matured somewhat as well. This is, therefore, a sort of musing friendship redux.

In retrospect, my writing seems a bit rough to me, and the article itself is pretty short, both in length and in actual content. I suspect I was a bit too directly addressing a particular issue in my life at that time; I find I usually learn more when I try to branch out while researching a subject. Also, the sole incident I mention in the Firestarter is so vague as to be meaningless to the reader. I may take this opportunity to clarify it further, but for now I'm simply musing on what I've concluded since then regarding friendship.

Perhaps the most important thing I've learned over the past five or so years is that friendship is not assuming control over someone, and it's not a list of demands. Expecting others to live up to your unstated expectations is a rather unfriendly act, and I know I would not appreciate someone expecting me to jump through constant and unpredictable mental hoops for them. The people you (generalized "you") call friends are emphatically not expressions of your self-worth, after all. Further, for me at least, someone worth having as a friend will not allow the discourtesy of incessantly testing them so.

What is Trust?

An indefinite time ago, while I was trying to cope with excesses of stress in my life, I found a book by the Dalai Lama which I decided to read in order to make myself feel better. In a sense I had already mentally plotted out what I would do with this book when I bought it: implement the book's checklist of things I need to do, and presto! Instant peace.

If only. The Dalai Lama defined the main ingredient in internal peace as compassion, which was defined as trust in others. Frankly, I'm not a very trusting person. To be told flat out that I needed to relax and trust was rather jarring. Just… trust people — random strangers, even? Uh… hell, no! I had to put the book aside for a while to think about it.

I did think about it, and it took quite a while, but eventually I started trying it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, learning to trust has been enormously hard for me to learn; I'm still working on it. However, I mention this because I feel trusting has not only helped me decrease some of the stress I myself had put into my life… but also helped me realize two other important things. They are, of course, blindingly obvious once you think about them, but in the noise and mental clangor of quotidian life they're easy to overlook:

  1. I really shouldn't bother trying to maintain rigid mental walls between the categories of "friend" and "acquaintance." Doing so means I'm in effect setting up a mental hierarchy of "Usefulness to Me" for people to unwittingly compete against — never a good idea — and is an expenditure of both mental energy and self-righteousness which really doesn't benefit me much. It also entails that unpleasant previously mentioned list of demands, i.e. "if you don't live up to my friendship standards, you'll get downgraded to 'acquaintance' — or worse!" Refusing to rank and de-grade friends has led me to not be quite so demanding of them, which I consider a very good thing.

  2. Friendship is based in mutuality — you cannot apply beneficial double standards to your behavior, as opposed to everyone else around you. Put simply, if I expect to be treated with respect, I must also grant respect. If I am looking down my nose at someone who is always late, I should check and make sure I am not myself always late as well.

Curiously, due to these thoughts I find myself wondering if the defensive mechanism of psychological projection (also known as Freudian Projection) is far, far more common than we realize. I know I've been shocked and dismayed to spot it in myself, as I worked out some of my trust issues. Here's the definition:

…the operation of expelling feelings or wishes the individual finds wholly unacceptable — too shameful, too obscene, too dangerous — by attributing them to another.

Projection concerns our externalizing issues that we need to deal with ourselves, or are unable to manage properly. We irresponsibly dump our emotional issue onto someone or something outside ourselves, then justify the behavior by blaming them for the disappointments and problems we do not want to feel; it somehow becomes their fault. Ultimately it is the person projecting who loses, however, as they never really sort out their own problems.

More unpleasantly, there's the following:

Strong expectations concerning other people are also a form of projection. We project our own wishes, desires, and aversions onto them and then become disappointed when they will not, do not, or cannot live up to them.

Bingo. Ouch.

In the end, that's the real issue for me: I don't intend to carry emotional baggage around for all my life. If psychological projection is a short-term gain for long-term loss… then it must go. So once I recognized I was doing that, I tried to see what it was I was projecting onto others, then stop doing that — while simultaneously dealing with the insecurity of the emotional issue within myself.

In Conclusion

I sometimes wonder if this relatively newfound calm acceptance of the foibles of others is me finally learning to embody compassion rather than projection. Am I actually able to be a good friend now, for having worked at this? Was my previous somewhat… fanatical level of internally insisting others always live up to my self-aggrandizing standards really useful? Or is this current emotional state of mind just me being too tired to care fiercely anymore?

I don't know what's completely right; I wish I did. Perhaps in the end it's simply my realizing I have plenty of foibles of my own which will also need forgiving. If that makes me a better friend, then I guess I've succeeded.

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