Recently I was having a conversation with a friend about the concept of love in American society, and how the modern definition has been shrunk and stripped of so much of its meaning. As most people has presumably heard of the Greek definitions of love (agape, eros, philia, storge), so I won’t go too into the history, but the point I’m aiming for should already be obvious - there is more to the human experience of love than what the mass media monarchs have decreed. I’m interested in discussing the concept specifically of the type of love reserved for friendships, a topic I’ve lately been mulling on, and I believe has stewed enough to be coherent.
Friendships are difficult animals to wrap the mind around. At first glance it seems obvious that most people will form bonds with their fellow human beings. we’re social animals, and we strive to build communities - it’s an in-built aspect of the animal brain that drives us to connect. Traditionally animals survive for longer if they exist within a herd structure, and humans are animals by nature - despite our ability to self analyze.
But striding away from the scientific, the question of actually forming friendships is not one easily grasped - or rather, the concept of love between friends is difficult to grasp. Friendships on a surface level are easier, but hardly qualify as much more than an acquaintance relationship. even here the definition becomes harder to deconstruct, as it seems that people can spend much time together, share most aspects of their lives, and still never realize a level of friendship which goes deeper than shared interests and exists on a level of mutual appreciation and respect.
Recently, in my own life, I’ve discovered a shallow pool of true friends who are not merely willing but actively demanding to enter my life. Certainly this has something to do with my personality and issues with depression and anxiety (subjects I plan on discussing later at length), but there is, i think, quite a bit more to it than that. For it seemed as if many of these friends and I had oodles in common with each other. We enjoyed many of the same films and television series, the same books, similar hobbies; we seemed to reflect similar views about the world, and yet I never felt connected to them on anything more than a superficial level. This came to me as quite the surprise, as I had always assumed that the main source of friendship was shared interests and activities. It made sense to me that if we both enjoyed, say, Star Wars, on roughly the same level, we’d likely have enough in common to maintain a friendship. Perhaps this is just naivete on my part (I’m severely lacking in many friendship-related social graces), but at the very least I’ve noticed similar levels of naivete in many other people, making it a widespread concern.
I realized that what I was lacking from these people was a deep, one might call it “spiritual” connection (though I don’t adore that term). We were lacking love the greek sense; lacking philia. Shared interests and activities are enough to maintain superficial friendships - as the friendships often acquired during highschool-type situations shows - but they are born primarily of proximity and that animal instinct to bond.
Philia however denotes a “mutual respect”; appreciation for the whole of another person. Thinking about this, I started to wonder what it might be that actually helps form that type of bond. Obviously harrowing experiences form a close bond - this is a proven social theory. However that is a relationship forged by an outside pressure, such as soldiers in combat, and does not necessarily need to apply to philia beyond the level of “ mutual trust”. Mutual respect, in a more common sense, seems to denote an understanding and connection deeper and more substantial - especially because it does not require outside pressure to coalesce (note here that my term “outside pressure” is a highly generalized and abstract idea, and could itself be subject to scrutiny within an essay format, but for the sake of my point, I’ll skip right along).
Then it occurred to me that I had already hit upon half the answer. In realizing what philia was not (mere sharing of interests and/or activities), I had gained an understanding of what it was. Philia is built upon the reasons an interest exists.
Everyone experiences life differently - this is the nature of individual consciousness. However, there are always going to be similarities in thought due to the way humans experience the world due to the nature of our innate perceptions. Here we find the basis for everyday human connection. Deeper in however, we have the personality individuals build based off of their lifetime of experiences, and this is where philia maintains its potential home.
I can love Star Wars, but my reasons for loving it will certainly be different than other people’s. My interest was formed based on my first introduction to the films, whether or not I played with the toys as a kid, how my friends and family reacted to my interest, and how that interest was perceived within the social setting of the culture I grew up in - which exerts some influence even if an individual is relatively cloistered. My experiences involving my interest shaped my interest, and formed the reasons why I connected to it in such a way. because of this, I might share an interest in Star Wars, but my interest is going to be based on different experiences than the wide scape of other fans. Philia comes in when people with similar interests and experiences come together, for then you have people who are sharing not the interest, but the underlying cause of the interest.
I think that this is one of the things people find very difficult to wrap their heads around, and is one of the principle reasons many friendships and relationships fail over time. A relationship built on shared interests is weaker than a relationship built on shared experiences. We still however have not reached an understanding of the concept yet though, for if the sharing of experiences - or similar experiences - was enough, than it would invalidate my earlier comment about highschool. More importantly, it wouldn’t be true. Experiences, like interests alone, does not create a bass for true mutual respect. What does? Well, I already mentioned it: shared reasons for an interest.
Experiences shape interests, but there is a step in between that needs to be looked at in more detail. I might love Star Wars because the person who introduced it to me didn’t ask my parents about it, allowing me to feel rebellious. Or maybe it was that I had been exposed to a very limited level of television up until that point, so Star Wars opened my eyes to a type of experience I had no previous knowledge of. As I grew older I formed more opinions about the world; because of experiences I had, I formed opinions about existence. Those opinions created further experiences, and were informed by further experiences, in a continuing cycle from cognitive awakening until death.
What I’m getting at here, slowly I think, is a realization that love between friends is a type of respect based upon mutual recognition of similar opinions. If interests are based on opinions formed by experiences, then a friendship with is focused solely on the interests will be weak, as will a friendship based only upon shared experiences. It is the reason an individual has for a particular interest that matters the most - not the product or the environmental source. What opinions do I have about Star Wars - why as I grew older, did I continue to find value in it. Why did I identify with it? That element is the true location of philia; that is the basis for a strong relationship: not similar beliefs or interests, or even the originating experiences driving those beliefs and interests, but the evolving reasons why those interests or beliefs exist in the first place.
This, I think, is the source of much of my woe involving friendships. Hopefully within this I can begin to alter the way I view friendships, and start aiming for the strong variety as opposed to the weak. Perhaps now I can begin to search for love in friendship. And maybe, after reading this convoluted mess, you can start thinking about your own friendships in a different light as well. Who knows what we’ll find.
Public project updates, author information, and the like. For more of Odin's thoughts, follow him on Twitter.