Diary: Nature teaches beasts to know their friends

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Title credit courtesy of Shakespeare (Coriolanus).

During The Edge’s and Bono’s recent Tiny Desk Concert at NPR, Bono introduced the U2 song “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” with reference to friendships, both in general terms (longtime friends and how these friendships change over time) and more specifically, his own friendship with the late Michael Hutchence, singer for INXS, who committed suicide in 1997.

Bono referred to the song as an “argument,” presumably something he wishes had occurred between himself and Hutchence, but did not. It might be noted that this is nothing new; since the song’s release in 2000, Bono has always intended it as a comment about Hutchence. What makes it noteworthy in the year 2023 is that many of those in the audience might not know who Hutchence was.

Mulling all this, I believe Bono is using the word “argument” in its original classical sense, as a collection of points building to a conclusion, with the intent of persuading others.

In modern times we’ve tended to assume, mistakenly in my view, that all arguments must be heated or violent: “An argument ensued, and police were called.” It seems to me that Bono is expressing reret at never having an “argument” with Hutchence, not because he intended to pelt his friend with intemperate abuse out of a misplaced belief that aggression somehow would be convincing, but as a means of persuading him to hold on.

What are friends for, anyway?

Precisely. It occurs to me that a further defining of terms is required. What exactly is the nature of friendship? What does it mean to be friends? My customary answer over the years goes something like this: “I’m not sure, although I know it (and feel it) when it occurs.”

And, by extension, shouldn’t we know what friendship is not? What are the dealbreakers, and the lines that can’t be crossed?

“We know that friendship is necessary,” writes Robin Dunbar, Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Oxford.

“It turns out that the single-most-important factor that predicts your psychological health and wellbeing, your physical health and wellbeing, even how long you live, is the number and quality of close friendships that you have.”

At iresearchnet.com in the category of psychology there is an entry about friendship. Sources are listed but the author is not identified.

  • First, friendship is a dyadic relationship, meaning that it involves a series of interactions between two individuals known to each other.
  • Second, most experts contend that friendship involves a reciprocated, affective, or emotional bond. In other words, friendships are recognized by both members of the relationship and are characterized by a bond or tie of reciprocated affection.
  • Third, these relationships are voluntary. Friendship is not obligatory; two individuals choose to form a friendship with each other.
  • Fourth, friendships are typically egalitarian in nature. Unlike parent-child relationships, for instance, each individual in a friendship has about the same amount of power or authority in the relationship.
  • Fifth, almost all friendships are characterized by companionship and entail engaging together in shared activities.

It appears that lessons we learn in childhood are important precursors to adult attitudes toward friendship, especially when it comes to how others feel. Holly Tiret, Michigan State University Extension, provides an example.

“Building friendship skills starts early. Zero to Three recommends that young children need opportunities to practice sharing, taking turns and resolving conflict as they begin enjoying budding friendships. They learn best through adult coaching skills like helping others, noticing other’s feelings and pointing out how their actions affect others. ‘I see you took the car away from Mario. I wonder how that made him feel?’”

Returning to the aforementioned psychology article, we see that friendships evolve differently during adulthood.

“Friendships among older adults take place in different contexts than friendships in middle and young adulthood. This age and life stage is often characterized by events such as retirement, relocation, widowhood, and deteriorating health. These transitions produce some increases and some decreases in older adults’ ease and ability of forming and maintaining friendships.”

The unknown author adds: “Across individuals of all ages, friendships form, evolve, and sometimes dissolve over time. The length and duration of the various phases of a friendship vary across individuals and across different circumstances.”

Our childhood experiences play a huge part in establishing patterns that we carry into adulthood. It’s sobering to contemplate the way that decades-old traumas, triggered decades later as adults, might precludes the successful management of conflict between friends. Imagine triggering your friend without even knowing why, then absorbing your friend’s unresolved anger, which of course has nothing specific to do with you.

As such, it is both unexpected and fascinating to learn that conflict can be useful in adult friendships.

“Whereas joint satisfaction in the relationship is a part of maintaining friendship, another important component of friendship is managing and resolving conflict. Although the amount and intensity of conflict varies across individual friendships, conflicts do arise in most friendships. In general, conflict is infrequent in the early stages of forming a friendship, but actually tends to increase as individuals become closer friends over time. Some evidence suggests that conflict can potentially serve to strengthen the emotional tie between friends. Because conflict involves self-disclosure and exposing one’s own vulnerabilities, successful negotiation of disagreements that arise between friends can actually foster increased trust between friends.”

This is certainly hopeful, although maintaining a realistic perspective is always advised.

“Whereas some friendships will be maintained indefinitely or forever, other friendships will dissolve or break up. Friendships dissolve for multiple reasons and under multiple circumstances. Sometimes the reason can be attributed to circumstances; a friend may move away, and contact becomes harder to maintain. Sometimes friendships may end abruptly. For instance, friends may have a major disagreement that is not resolved.”

In the case of Bono and Michael Hutchence, the latter’s death ensured there would be no intervention, although it’s important to state clearly that there is no prevailing evidence of conflict or an overt rupture between the musicians. Statistically, far fewer 37-year-olds die than older persons, and so Bono can be forgiven for having imagined there’d be a future chance to instigate the necessary “argument.” Hutchence, while beset with personal issues, exercised a choice almost entirely unforeseen by those around him.

I’m obviously not a psychologist, and I’ve yet to play one on TV, although anyone who has bartended will have been made aware of the human condition in all its permutations. Consequently there’s a lot to consider when it comes to the nature of friendship, and one size doesn’t fit all in spite of the preceding parameters.

A few hundred words ago I suggested it’s possible to know friendship when you see (and feel) it, and by and large, it has been my tendency over the decades to be loyal to my friends, to support and listen to them, to be there when they’re having tough times, and basically, to try to help out.

The various accompanying activities, beers, meals, music, conversation and other manifestations of friendship are wonderful, of course, and yet they all arise from a deeper bond, which we’d all like to think is durable and lasting, except we all also know that the only constant is change.

We must be prepared for change, which makes the sadness it engenders no less pervasive, or painful.

It’s just a momentThis time will pass