Numb the pain, to cease the torment temporarily

John Ritchie Purnell was forty-four at the time we met (I’m shocked to think now how young he was, for I remember then thinking of him as an old man). In her world, this meant spending–an anesthetic pastime that balanced the scales in her mind, compensated for her deprivation, and bought off her unhappiness. Both felt mounting anger and frustration at not being understood, which led to alternating bouts of protest and retreat. The protest would come out in their flaring fights, which escalated as each tried to get heard. The retreat would take the form of a self-justifying decision to turn away. Neither Sam nor Willa had ever witnessed a couple constructively managing the tension between self-seeking and concern for the other. None of their parents had been able to think about what Sam or Willa needed apart from what the parents needed of them. As a result, neither Sam nor Willa believed that in their hour of need the other would make the leap of imagination to empathize, comfort, or help them. Under Sam and Willa’s emotional conditions of scarcity–and parenthood only intensified that scarcity–each decided that the best they could hope for was to care for themselves. Money became a substitute currency for care. Willa felt entitled to spend because she had to find some comfort in her depriving marriage. The trouble is that his is a measure that invariably finds actual friendship wanting. An alternative ethic of good friendship would substitute such unforgiving abstractions with more humane sentiments; the governing standard should be principled direction not tyrannical rule. Friendship as a school of love. Another way to translate the theological aspects of Thomas’s thought is to understand that his ethics tell a complete story of human life. For him, it is the individual’s journey to God that provides the overall frame. For us, it can be a conception of the ethical life that aims at human flourishing. Within philosophy, the school of thought that promotes this way of thinking is virtue ethics. The idea is that instead of thinking of moral philosophy as a series of problems that need to be solved by sets of rules or decisions, one thinks of moral philosophy as nurturing a way of life organised around certain virtues that nurture human potential.

This is, in fact, very much in the Aristotelian way of things. If earlier in the day I convinced a client to take our session outside for a long walk, I reported the number of minutes spent walking. If I stayed up late and woke up early, I reported my paltry sleep total. If I forgot to check in with Lyda that day, the answer to the last question was a flat no. The phone call never took longer than two minutes. Studying my list of questions in light of Kelly’s active/passive distinction, I realized many were phrased poorly, perhaps too passively. They weren’t inspiring or motivational. They didn’t trigger extraordinary effort out of me. They merely asked me to gauge how I had performed that day on my goals. If I scored poorly on watching TV, there was no self-recrimination or guilt attached to my answer, nothing to make me feel that I was slacking or letting myself down. I could do better the next day. I was twenty-eight. We had recognized one another. Now what? Well, after six months, we had worked our way up to the dialogue with which I opened this article. But that conversation actually went much deeper than the one I described at the beginning of this article. After we got into the topic, John had said, I watched you at lunch with your parents last week. I was really surprised, Steve, at the way they talked to you. As if they don’t know the person I know at all. And not only that.

I found your parents to be so different than you had described them. Her spending made Sam feel sucked dry and used, which made him more depleted and less giving. His detachment intensified her need, which found its way into the pursuit of ever more creature comforts. If he questioned her, she blamed him for her deprivation. That made him conclude she was selfishly pursuing what she wanted at his expense, with no regard for his feelings. A bit of perversity lurks in the financial corners of some marriages. As in creative accounting, people allow themselves leeway in holding incompatible ideas. A divorce attorney tells me about marriages that never seemed to be about much more than money, though not until the divorce does that become completely apparent. It might seem that the couple married for love, but love was indistinguishable at first from the feast of indulgence that attended courtship. Beauty in exchange for wealth, youth in exchange for paternalistic support (one woman called her husband Papa), marrying a catch and supporting her expensive tastes–a centerpiece of such arrangements is how often assumptions go utterly unspoken, and how little consciousness, let alone conversation, there is about any of it. Then there’s the primitive spectacle of marital arrangements that are about little more than monetizing gender. His Nicomachean Ethics includes friendship amongst a list of virtues that the individual should foster in order to have a happy life. Such an approach does not mean that all the ambiguities associated with friendship are automatically resolved. Indeed, most of Aristotle’s discussion of friendship is about them. But because friendship is placed high on the list of things that are necessary for a fulfilled life right at the outset of his moral philosophy, it does prevent friendship being marginalised in favour of more easily handled, though less humanly valuable, qualities – like, I would argue, neighbour-love. Trust is about making a judgement: will I place or refuse to place my trust in someone or something? If the place of friendship is to be restored, this is the decision that moral philosophy needs to make, namely, to trust friendship again. It needs to recognise that its motivations may be complex but they are not psychopathic; its affection may focus on just a few individuals but it need not be perniciously exclusive. What is more, if someone says they love humankind when they have no good friends it is right to think something is out of balance.

If our exploration so far has grappled with one thing, it is that friendship faces pressures in many parts of modern life. Like most people who answer passive questions, I considered my mistakes more as a function of my environment than myself. As an experiment, I tweaked the questions using Kelly’s Did I do my best to formulation. Did I do my best to be happy? Did I do my best to find meaning? Did I do my best to have a healthy diet? Did I do my best to be a good husband? Suddenly, I wasn’t being asked how well I performed but rather how much I tried. The distinction was meaningful to me because in my original formulation, if I wasn’t happy or I ignored Lyda, I could always blame it on some factor outside myself. I could tell myself I wasn’t happy because the airline kept me on the tarmac for three hours (in other words, the airline was responsible for my happiness). Or I overate because a client took me to his favorite barbecue joint, where the food was abundant, caloric, and irresistible (in other words, my client – or was it the restaurant? I couldn’t believe it. This is so confusing to me, John went on. Because the story you tell about your life just doesn’t fit together. He had met the players. He had listened to my tale about my life. He had gotten to know me pretty well. He was confused by the discrepancies. I tried to breathe and take all of this in. But I could feel my hands clenching the arms of the chair.

I felt hot. The men are valued in their masculine capacity to earn big bucks, and the women get paid to perform femininity–with all the clothes and cosmetic surgeries that it requires. As the quintessential symbol–and asset–of domesticity, houses are a key arena where fiscal irrationality plays out in marriage. There’s the ill-judged purchase of a house that is too expensive for the couple, but which fulfills what one partner owes to the other or what the couple owe to themselves or to their future children, or what kind of house they really need. Only when the finances finally unravel do recriminations start flying about people being misled or duped. But at no point did anyone actually seek the truth. For a couple intent on financial self-deception, the market’s cycles will usually provide an opportunity for borrowing way too much money and entering the cultural swim of overspending, overreaching, and keeping up with the Joneses. One couple took advantage of the real estate market’s upward climb by moving from house to house, buying and selling for the purported reason of extracting equity needed to support his business. When the wife brought the husband to therapy to talk about how upsetting these moves were, and how she couldn’t take it anymore, it took me weeks of painstaking investigation to arrive at the reality that these upheavals came about primarily because of their lifestyle, on which she fully insisted. The support of that lifestyle depended on outlays derived from this constant selling of houses. The disconnect in their minds between their spending and their upheavals was stunning. The good friend is someone who can manage – and to some extend transcend – the pressures that work, sexuality, dissimulation, an online culture and the ethical demands that democratic values exert on it. That explains why friendship is an art not a science, and whilst friends frequently find themselves challenged, there are also ample opportunities for deepening relationships. With work, the threat comes from being used. In a utilitarian culture, such as obtains in many parts of our world, the problem is that people tend to be valued for what they do, not who they are; they tend to be thought of as means to ends, and when treated as such become, in Adam Smith’s word,unlovely’. And yet, when people do things together – share a common project or strive for goals – there is an opportunity of friendship. The key is to get to know your colleagues and peers for who they are in themselves, so that when the work or utility disappears the friendship does not. With sexuality, the competition between the urges of erotic love and the gentler affections of friendship can trouble relationships and, if it does, eros often seems to win out. But if a passionate, as opposed to a merely sexual element in a relationship gains the upper hand, and the desire to get to know the other person in mind and spirit takes root and grows, then the possessiveness of lovers can give way to the wider aspirations of friends.

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