There are plenty of people who look like good friends – but are not; and therefore many of us who don’t feel we should be lonely – but deep down very much are. When it comes to friendship, it is desperately easy to confuse the genuine with the ersatz article; both the real and the fake friend may show up for dinner, both may seem outwardly kind, both will claim to be loyal – but only one will live up to the true calling of the word ‘friend’ and so stand any chance of sparing us the ravages of loneliness.
Here is some of what makes a genuinely good friend:
1. They have suffered
It sounds odd to demand it but it is a fundamental prerequisite that they need to have suffered. Quite a lot. However convenient it would be if people could be born friendly and empathise spontaneously with the pains of others, the awkward truth is that the human mind is too sluggish and selfish an instrument properly to imagine what suffering might look like for someone else until it has been energetically goaded on by its own agonies. Empathy can solely be forged by personal suffering.
To be a good friend, one has no option other than to have had close-up, personal experience of terrible times. One needs to have known at least a few of the following: illness (bodily and mental), humiliation, reversal, bullying, financial disaster, public shaming, childhood neglect, isolation, defeat and panic. One needs to have wept all night, raged at oneself and thought one’s very existence an error. Happy people unmarked by life can be many things: a good friend is not one of them.
2. It was their fault
However, suffering on its own is not enough, for it may – at its worst – simply lead to indignant self-righteousness, whereby the sufferer is convinced that it was everyone else’s fault, that they are pure and the world is bad; in other words, to being a prig. The truly kind friend, however, is someone who has been inducted to a more sombre, important and painful truth still: the knowledge that a lot of what went wrong was their fault. Part of their calamities came down to their idiocy, their narrow-mindedness, their foolishness.
They aren’t focused on hating anyone else, they’ve given up pride and blame. They’ve been blunderhead and they know it. This is what makes the good friend so sympathetic to your errors and slips. They know from the inside how one can be a decent person and yet still unleash disaster. They don’t believe in their own innocence and nor do they in any way demand yours: they just know from experience how much everyone of us stands in need forgiveness and they’re ready to give it to you in spades.
3. They know the world isn’t fair
One of the fastest ways to turn into a monster is to believe that the world might be fair. If it’s fair, there’s no need to think kindly or imaginatively about the tramp, the prisoner and the outcast. They entirely deserve their fate and damnation. Nor is there any need to be skeptical about what the papers say and who is being lauded as ‘righteous’ or noble, the established value system is obviously correct – and need only be followed in its entirety. The mob have it right.
But the moment one realises that the world is in fact hideously random and unfair, that judgements can be corrupt, that rewards don’t neatly track goodness, then everything at once gets a lot more complicated – and a lot kinder too. Suddenly, the beggar and the outcast might deserve your sympathy and the self-righteous crowd might deserve your scepticism. Good people can end up in trouble. Sinners can be worthy of another chance. The true friend is ready to give unconditional love, because they know how absurd and cruel many of the conditions currently placed on love can be.
4. They’re beyond Ambition
Ambitious people are evidently a huge asset to humanity, they get things done, their self-importance powers history and the progress of society depends on their acute self-regard. When they meet with you for dinner, they’re always subtly keen to let you know how things are advancing for them – and they keep the score, as though the whole of life were a gigantic school exam and there was a big tick waiting for the winners on the other side of death. What these people can’t be, however, is a good friend for what that means is surrendering on shining in the eyes of an imagined fancy audience.
Good friends don’t give a damn about ‘what people think’ any more (even if they might have done when younger). They’re out of the ‘game’ (probably pushed out of it by their own mistakes), and they don’t go after claps or gongs. What they’re interested in, in the time that remains, is sincere communion. They want to hang around with other broken honest people and, without airs and graces, exchange kindness and support. They care about you because – remarkably, in one of the greatest achievements any human is capable of – they’ve outgrown any shred of preening fascination with themselves.
To summarise, the good friend has been humbled, they’ve given up pride, they’ve messed up – and they’ve drawn all the right conclusions from their troubles: that the only thing that counts is kindness. That’s why they’re going to be so patient with you, that’s why they’ll understand all the things you worry about and that you regret, that’s why they’ll be on hand with compassion, gentleness and plenty of rich dark laughter.
An ideal group of friends is unlikely to have obvious prestige: they might include ex-convicts, junkies and those who’ve had tumultuous private lives, people who may think that they have little left to contribute, that their slips and misdeeds have placed them far outside of useful society but who – unexpectedly, by virtue of their histories – are world champions at the art of friendship and non-judgemental generosity. Of course everyone tries to be nice from the start (or at least most of us do). But only those among us who’ve properly suffered truly are nice. If one meets with just one or two such people in a lifetime, one will have been properly blessed.