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A couple of months ago I had a discussion about friendship versus family. In that discussion the argument was raised that family means more than friendship. That family is more solid, more reliable. I vehemently disagreed. Just like I always do when this topic comes up. Just like I do when the same topic comes up in the constellation friendship versus romantic love. I truly value friendship. In fact, it is quite possible the most important thing to me.
I don’t know if I have a lot of friends, I don’t know what constitutes normality in the number of friends you have, but I have a bunch of people in my life that I call friends. People who are dear to me, people I love. That’s how I define friendship, as a special kind of love. Essentially a friend is someone you forgive for being who they are. A love that is, in that sense, unconditional. It has nothing to do with demands and duties. Friendship just is. Of course you have expectations, but it’s only when those expectations get completely adjusted to the character of a person that friendship emerges. The expectations become realistic. That’s how the love is sustained. Loving exactly what you have and accepting what you can expect.
Some of my friends live far away from where I live. In other countries, in other parts of the world. That’s makes it difficult to just hang out and chill, the way I do with the friends who live close by. And that’s sometimes really painful. Because I miss them. Not in the sense that they are not in my life, because they are, but because I can’t see them as often as I like. I can’t have them as closely involved in my life as I would like. And I can’t be as closely involved in theirs as I would like. But I value the times we do meet. Even if it is just once a year or even less. It’s not the quantity but the quality that matters. That feeling of being on common turf, of being able to relax and just exist. That’s what I have with these people. It doesn’t matter if we haven’t seen each other in a long time, you just pick up right where you left off. No need to beat around the bush with superficial phrases, you just get right down to business. To life. To just hanging out and letting the conversation flow as it wants to. You just start talking. About what ever is on your mind. No topic is too big or too small.
With the friends that live closer there’s of course even less of a limitation. With them I can have regular contact, I’m up to date on what’s happening in their lives and they have the same insight into mine. We’re in each others business on an almost daily basis. But the set up is the same. You just ease in and start talking. Or not. Sometimes it’s just about being each others silent company while watching a movie. Just existing in the vicinity of one another with no demands. That’s the difference between friends and acquaintances. With friends there’s no need to keep up appearances. If I feel like shit I don’t have to pretend I’m feeling great or even that I’m in a good mood. Not only is there no need, it’s also not even part of the contract. Friendship is about honesty, about accepting the whole deal, good and bad. And it’s very much a two-way street but without obligations. You care because you want to. Because you have chosen to. You love them just the way they are.
And I’m sure the same can be true for family, but it doesn’t have to be. The liberty aspect isn’t there. You don’t have the same freedom to choose with family, you have them whether you like it or not. And that can of course function in a reassuring way, but it can just as well be the complete opposite. The point is that there’s very little active choice involved. If you are lucky you have a family you love and that functions as a safety net in you life, you have people who love you and who are there for you when you need them, and vice versa, but if you’re less lucky you have a group of people who cause you pain and suffering and who you can’t really get away from even if you want to. It’s a lot more complicated to break with your family than it is with a friend, especially since most countries actually have legislation that makes it very difficult to do so. Even if you haven’t spoken to your parents in decades you might still end up having to sort them out when they get old and sick because that’s the law. And it’s the same with children, in a lot of countries you can’t actually deny them an inheritance when you pass away. There’s very little room for choice when it comes to family.
Our society is constructed around the concept of family, the whole set up is done on the assumption that this is how we organize our living situation. In a traditional heterosexual nuclear family way. Trying to live your life according to a different set up will give you problems, some immediate, some repercussive. And from an organizational point of view the family concept obviously makes it easier to organize society, but it doesn’t exactly promote individual freedom. On the other hand that’s not necessarily on the agenda when it comes to society. It’s often claimed, but in reality it’s probably one of the biggest threats to the whole concept. If people start thinking for themselves and making their own choices based on free will rather than pre-constructed norms, where would that lead? Maybe away from thinking in terms of us against them, away from the troglodyte, nationalistic, racist bullshit that has infested almost every corner of this planet… No, I’m not saying family is the only cause of this, I’m just saying it’s bizarre to claim that family is an a priori good thing. I can be good, but it doesn’t have to be. Especially if you take into consideration the fact that the family, the own home, is the most dangerous place to be for women and children. That’s where they run the largest risk of being subjected to abuse or murder. And that’s a globally valid truth. But apart from the sheer danger factor there’s also the guilt and control aspect. The whole social heritage. Be it in the form of taking over the family business, marrying the person your parents find suitable or just not wanting to cause disappointment, it all hinders and precludes individual choice. Some claim this is a good thing, that’s it’s a stabilizing factor, but is it really? Do we really want stability more than freedom?
I actually do love my immediate family, but I love my friends just as much and they are just as important to me. I make no difference between the two but I know that the law does. I can take measures to regulate some aspects of this, such as writing a will, but I can’t free my family of legal obligations to me just as little as they can free me from legal obligations to them. If given the choice we might not even change this, but the choice is never given. There is absolutely no choice involved and as individuals there’s very little we can do about this. We can, if we are in a situation where we can actually act out of some sort of free will, chose to enter into a new family constellation, i.e. get married, but the effect of this is only a further enforcement of the status quo.
So what am I really saying? Well I’m not suggesting that friendship should get legislation tied to it, absolutely not, but what I am suggesting is that the heterosexual nuclear family as an organizing principle for society should be revisited and reconsidered. That we might need to rethink the whole idea that family is a value we should try to uphold at any cost. Just because you are related it doesn’t mean you actually have anything in common, but even more important, just because you are related that doesn’t actually mean that you’re even good for each other. Blood may be thicker than water, but on the other hand we did away with most monarchies in the last century and there seems to be at least some consensus that family relations shouldn’t be a basis for political or economical decisions on a society level, the word we use for that is nepotism and it’s considered an offense in most legislative systems. And in light of that it does seem a tad absurd that we should so firmly hold on to family as a regulatory principle in the way we organize civil society.
Friendship is all about freedom, all about making active choices. The outcome is pretty much the same experience you have with a good family, love and mutual support, but based on an active and free choice. Some friendships end and some last a life time. People change and in friendship that’s allowed, you can choose to move on or you can choose to stay. Nothing binds you except your own decisions. Loyalty generated by free will. A consensus based constellation founded in common interests with no insight or regulations from society or the government. Friendship is potentially the most subversive form of organization there is. And I think that’s a big reason why friendship is so important to me, because it’s so powerful and so fundamentally positive. A love without regulations or restrictions based solely on free will. That’s truly a subversive force. A force to cultivate and honor. And that’s what I mean when I say friends are the family you chose. People you can rely on in thick and thin but that are there for you because they actually want to rather than out of obligation or guilt. That is friendship.