I wasn’t sure where to begin with Emerson because he explored so many rich and powerful thoughts. In the end I’ve chosen a topic I’ve had many conversations about lately and one that also crops up in relation to modern life: Friendship.
A recent study into perceptions of friendships highlighted some of the challenges of social media and recognising reciprocity. To this I would add the greater mobility of our lives now – moving to new places, changing jobs more frequently, the overwhelm of things calling for our attention, and the practical inability to manage and maintain so many demands and friendships.
It’s an area of life that seems to have evolved of its own devices – life’s changed at a dramatic pace and existing notions of social etiquette seem to have been contorted to fit new realities. Work friendships are often circumstantial and indeed in any situation we find ourselves it is often expedient to create the illusion of friendship to smooth our experiences. There’s almost an unspoken code that we all know it’s an act.
Maybe that’s “modern life”, but to me such an instrumental approach seem a wasted opportunity to get to know another human being and quite a strange social reality. As with everything, there’s a balance, and the pace of life now may “demand” an economising of social connection in order to get things done, but the way Emerson spoke of Friendship resonates with me more strongly:
“Our friendships hurry to short and poor conclusions, because we have made them a texture of wine and dreams, instead of the tough fibre of the human heart. The laws of friendship are austere and eternal, of one web with the laws of nature and of morals. But we have aimed at a swift and petty benefit, to suck a sudden sweetness. We snatch at the slowest fruit in the whole garden of God, which many summers and many winters must ripen.”
“Love, which is the essence of God, is not for levity, but for the total worth of man. Let us not have this childish luxury in our regards, but the austerest worth; let us approach our friend with an audacious trust in the truth of his heart, in the breadth, impossible to be overturned, of his foundations.”
“Let him be to thee for ever a sort of beautiful enemy, untamable, devoutly revered, and not a trivial conveniency to be soon outgrown and cast aside.”
There’s a lot more to the Essay but, to me, it’s essentially describing a more fundamental perspective of knowing who you are and relating that to the mystery of others. Emerson seems to have been looking to what it means to be truly human, which seems an interesting challenge we are now facing.
I know that modern life and professional connections in particular don’t really lend themselves to that level of connection, but it would be nice overall if the social fabric of our times was a little more honest and authentic.
Reference: ‘Friendship’ in “Essays” by Ralph Waldo Emerson (Richard Clay & Sons, Limited, Bungay, Suffolk) originally published in 1841. A copy of this essay is available online at www.emersoncentral.com/friendship.htm.