Categorical Friendship

hand reaching out

Friendship is a strange strange thing. People associate it with values like happiness, and love, and closeness and success. To have friends is a big social positive and to be friendless is to be an outsider, a misfit.

Like everything in the world, friendship is hierarchical. Best friends are seated at the top of the pyramid. The rest shift spaces in the levels below according to circumstances in life, as priorities change. There are close friends and old friends. New friends and groupies. School friends and colleagues. Then there are friends of friends and acquaintances. Pen friends and confidants. Facebook friends and LinkedIn friends.

The mentor and the roommate. The bus ride friend. The “special” friend. The clever friend, the goofy friend, the artistic friend, the funny friend. The talker, the listener. The whiner, the consoler.

So many titles. So many types. So little meaning.

Ever since we’re kids, we fill out slam books, or whatever they’re called today, and one of the first few questions is, “Who is your best friend forever?” I get asked so often, “How many friends do you really have?” Well, I have no best friend. And it’s way too naive to talk about ‘forever’ so loosely. And I don’t count. Putting a number on it reduces the beauty of an abstraction like friendship to a mere digit. The number doesn’t matter.

I have a few close friends. And others that are friends with a purpose. They may be neighbours, or they went to the same school or college as me, or we share the same interests. But they all are just that. Friends. People. This makes the world a lot more inclusive and open to show understanding, empathy and compassion towards others. Without categories and ranks and labels.

Labels inherently come with cognitive effects. The effects could be good or bad, strong or weak, but they’re immensely limiting. We are complex beings and to typify and label someone as one or the other is just plain wrong. Words have the power to define what we see in others. They potentially block the mind to see the other person as something else, something more or something the complete opposite of what we ignorantly make them to be. The labels become our lens of perceiving a thing or person.

Once, a friend of mine told me about someone she knew, who was going through a tough time at his office. It was a simple matter that could be sorted with some help. I urged her to help him out if she could. Maybe just listen to the problem and serve as a vent. And while she was sympathetic about the matter, she eventually said, “it’s not like we’re best friends or anything” with a wave of her hand, implying that she might’ve helped her best friend in a similar situation, but she didn’t care enough for this particular person, who is just a “colleague”, to go through the trouble. This is the kind of labelling that deprives us of seeing a person as a person. And not a best friend, or neighbour, or colleague or stranger. Or husband, or wife, or mother, or son. Or white or black or brown or straight or gay or rich or poor. Or man or woman.

We talk about people and things in an either-this-or-that manner, ignorant about the fact that they can be both. And much more. When we say, “he’s a rich white guy,” a stereotypical image takes form in our head. We see through the lens of race, colour, social status, political and economic standing, and gender notions. When a friend of mine said, “she’s too man-ish for a girl,” we ended up having a long, heated discussion on her judgement of a stranger whom she knew nothing about. That girl could’ve been extremely feminine in reality; or she could’ve worked really hard on her muscle strength to play her favourite sport. And who is to say what is right and what isn’t? But we refuse to lift that blanket of tags to see what is underneath.

I recently watched 2 really impressive talks by Ash Beckham at TEDx Boulder, one on having hard conversations, coming out of the closet (and not just the LGBTQ closet) and having the courage to open up, and the other on gender roles, duality and identity. (I recommend everyone to watch them. It’ll certainly make your life better. They’re worth several listens!) So, at one point in the talk, she says, “the opposite of polarity is duality.” It is not one extreme or the other. It can be both, in simultaneous, peaceful existence.

Language is so powerful in shaping someone’s identity. Labels aren’t always problematic. They help describe people and things and place them in a socio-cultural setting. We know who we are (Self) because we know that we’re not someone else (Other). But to stretch it too far, to chain our thinking and cage our behaviour is unfair and dangerous. Give people a chance. To amaze you. And to grow.

We could all do with a little more openness. I’m trying to rip off the tags that I and the society I live in have stuck to people’s heads. It’s possible and it constantly amazes me to be able to see the goodness around me. I’m slowly letting my guard down and opening up my world to you and everything you are.

Be my friend?

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9 thoughts on “Categorical Friendship

  1. This is so true. Labelling is kind of a human instinct. And it takes years and decades of work to not label people. Or at least lessen that habit.
    I liked how your post started with friends but graduated to labelling. It was very smoothly done.

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  2. The opposite of polarity is duality. Brilliant. i concur with your arguments. Wish a lot of other people did too.
    And Avani, its been a long time since I read your posts. You were one of my first contacts on Indiblogger, that’s how I remember. You work is very good, wish you’d write more often.

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    1. Hey Brendan!

      It’s nice to see your comment! Yes she is brilliant. A superwoman. And thank you, yes I remember our conversations on my old blog. I wish to write more too! I’m consciously working on it now after a long, dry spell.

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  3. Nicely described! FRIEND itself is a great label which does not need other prefixes! Giving some examples of some of the greatest friends from history e.g. Krishna and Sudama, with a brief narration would have made it even more interesting. Best wishes FRIEND.

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