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Friendship: Chapter 4 - The Choice of Friendship

By Hugh Black

      If thou findest a good man, rise up early in the morning to go to him, and let thy feet wear the steps of his door.

            Whereof the man, that with me trod
            This planet, was a noble type,
            Appearing ere the times were ripe,
            That friend of mine who lives with God.

            - TENNYSON.

      The Choice of Friendship

      Our responsibility for our friendships is not confined to making sure that our influence over others is for good. We have also a duty to ourselves. As we possess the gift of influence over others, so we in turn are affected by every life which touches ours. Influence is like an atmosphere exhaled by each separate personality. Some men seem neutral and colorless, with no atmosphere to speak of. Some have a bad atmosphere, like the rank poisonous odor of noxious weeds, breeding malaria. If our moral sense were only keen and true, we would instinctively know them, as some children do, and dread their company. Others have a good atmosphere; we can breathe there in safety, and have a joyful sense of security. With some of these it is a local delicate environment, sweet, suggestive, like the aroma of wild violets: we have to look, and sometimes to stoop, to get into its range. With some it is like a pine forest, or a eucalyptus grove of warmer climes, which perfumes a whole country side. It is well to know such, Christ's little ones and Christ's great ones. They put oxygen into the moral atmosphere, and we breathe more freely for it. They give us new insight, and fresh courage, and purer faith, and by the impulse of their example inspire us to nobler life.

      There is nothing so important as the choice of friendship; for it both reflects character and affects it. A man is known by the company he keeps. This is an infallible test; for his thoughts, and desires, and ambitions, and loves are revealed here. He gravitates naturally to his congenial sphere. And it affects character; for it is the atmosphere he breathes. It enters his blood and makes the circuit of his veins. "All love assimilates to what it loves." A man is moulded into likeness of the lives that come nearest him. It is at the point of the emotions that he is most impressionable. The material surroundings, the outside lot of a man, affects him, but after all that is mostly on the outside; for the higher functions of life may be served in almost any external circumstances. But the environment of other lives, the communion of other souls, are far more potent facts. The nearer people are to each other, and the less disguise there is in their relationship, the more invariably will the law of spiritual environment act.

      It seems a tragedy that people, who see each other as they are, become like each other; and often it is a tragedy. But the law carries as much hope in it as despair. If through it evil works havoc, through it also good persists. If we are hindered by the weakness of our associates, we are often helped by their goodness and sweetness. Contact with a strong nature inspires us with strength. Some one once asked Kingsley what was the secret of his strong joyous life, and he answered, "I had a friend." If every evil man is a centre of contagion, every good man is a centre of healing. He provides an environment in which others can see God. Goodness creates an atmosphere for other souls to be good. It is a priestly garment that has virtue even for the finger that touches it. The earth has its salt, and the world has its light, in the sweet souls, and winsome lives, and Christ-like characters to be found in it. The choice of friends is therefore one of the most serious affairs in life, just because a man becomes moulden into the likeness of what he loves in his friend.

      From the purely selfish standard, every fresh tie we form means giving a new hostage to fortune, and adding a new risk to our happiness. Apart from any moral evil, every intimacy is a danger of another blow to the heart. But if we desire fulness of life, we cannot help ourselves. A man may make many a friendship to his own hurt, but the isolated life is a greater danger still. Societas est mater discordiarum, which Scott in his humorous pathetic account of the law-suits of Peter Peebles versus Plainstanes in "Redgauntlet," translates, Partnership oft makes pleaship. Every relationship means risk, but we must take the risk; for while nearly all our sorrows come from our connection with others, nearly all our joys have the same source. We cannot help ourselves; for it is part of the great discipline of life. Rather, we need knowledge, and care, and forethought to enable us to make the best use of the necessities of our nature. And foremost of these for importance is our choice of friends.

      We may err on the one side by being too cautious, and too exclusive in our attachments. We may be supercilious, and disdainful in our estimate of men. Contempt always blinds the eyes. Every man is vulnerable somewhere, if only like Achilles in the heel. The true secret of insight is not contempt, but sympathy. Such disdain usually means putting all the eggs into one basket, when a smash spells ruin.

      The other extreme is the attitude, which easily makes many friends, without much consideration of quality. We know the type of man, who is friendly with everybody, and a friend of none. He is Hail fellow well met! with every passing stranger, a boon companion of every wayfarer. He takes up with every sort of casual comrade, and seeks to be on good terms with everybody. He makes what is called, with a little contempt, good company, and is a favorite on all light occasions. His affections spread themselves out over a large expanse. He is easily consoled for a loss, and easily attracted by a new attachment. And as he deals, so is he dealt with. Many like him; few quite trust him. He makes many friends, and is not particular about their quality. The law of spiritual environment plays upon him with its relentless force. He gives himself away too cheaply, and opens himself to all sorts of influence. He is constantly laying himself in the way of temptation. His mind takes on the opinions of his set: his character assimilates itself to the forces that act on it. The evil example of some of his intimates gradually breaks down the barriers of past training and teaching. The desire to please a crowd means that principle is let slip, and conscience ceases to be the standard of action. His very friends are not true friends, being mostly of the fair-weather quality.

      Though it may seem difficult to avoid either of these two extremes, it will not do to refuse to choose at all, and leave things to chance. We drift into many of our connections with men, but the art of seamanship is tested by sailing not by drifting. The subject of the choice of friendship is not advanced much by just letting them choose us. That is to become the victim, not the master of our circumstances. And while it is true that we are acted on as much as we act, and are chosen as much as we choose, it is not permitted to any one merely to be passive, except at great cost.

      At the same time in the mystery of friendship we cannot say that we went about with a touchstone testing all we met, till we found the ore that would respond to our particular magnet. It is not that we said to ourselves, Go to, we will choose a friend, and straightway made a distinct election to the vacant throne of our heart. From one point of view we were absolutely passive. Things arranged themselves without effort, and by some subtle affinity we learned that we had gained a friend. The history of every true friendship is the brief description of Emerson, "My friends have come to me unsought; the great God gave them to me." There was an element of necessity in this, as in all crises of life.

      Does it therefore seem absurd and useless to speak about the choice of friendship at all? By no means, because the principles we set before ourselves will determine the kind of friends we have, as truly as if the whole initiative lay with us. We are chosen for the same reason for which we would choose. To try to separate the two processes is to make the same futile distinction, on a lower scale, so often made between choosing God and being chosen by Him. It is futile, because the distinction cannot be maintained.

      Besides, the value of having some definite principle by which to test friendship is not confined to the positive attachments made. The necessity for a system of selection is largely due to the necessity for rejection. The good and great intimacies of our life will perhaps come to us, as the wind bloweth, we cannot tell how. But by regulating our course wisely, we will escape from hampering our life by mistakes, and weakening it with false connections. We ought to be courteous, and kind, and gentle with all, but not to all can we open the sanctuary of our heart.

      We have a graduated scale of intimacy, from introduction, and nodding acquaintance, and speaking acquaintance, through an endless series of kinds of intercourse to the perfect friendship. In counting up our gains and our resources, we cannot give them all the same value, without deceiving ourselves. To expect loyalty and devotion from all alike is to court disappointment. Most misanthropical and cynical estimates of man are due to this mingled ignorance and conceit. We cannot look for undying affection from the crowd we may happen to have entertained to dinner, or have rubbed shoulders with at business resorts or at social gatherings. Many men in life, as many are depicted in literature, have played the misanthrope, because they have discovered through adversity how many of their associates were fair-weather friends. In their prosperity they encouraged toadying and sycophancy. They liked to have hangers-on, who would flatter, and when the east wind blows they are indignant that their circle should prefer to avoid it.

      Shakespeare's Timon of Athens is a typical misanthrope in his virtuous indignation at the cat-like love of men for comfort. In his prosperity crowds of glass-faced flatterers bent before him, and were made rich in Timon's nod. He wasted his substance in presents and hospitality, and bred a fine race of parasites and trencher-friends. When he spent all and began to be in want, no man gave unto him. The winter shower drove away the summer flies. He had loved the reputation for splendid liberality, and lavish generosity, and had sought to be a little god among men, bestowing favors and receiving homage, all of which was only a more subtle form of selfishness. When the brief day of prosperity passed, men shut their doors against the setting sun. The smooth and smilling crowd dropped off with a shrug, and Timon went to the other extreme of misanthropy, declaimed against friendship, and cursed men for their ingratitude. But after all he got what he had paid for. He thought he had been buying the hearts of men, and found that he had only bought their mouths, and tongues, and eyes.

      "He that loves to be flattered is worthy of the flatterer." For moral value there is not much to choose between them. Rats are said to desert the sinking ship, which is not to be wondered at in rats. The choice of friendship does not mean the indiscriminate acceptance of all who are willing to assume the name of friend. A touch of east wind is good, not only to weed out the false and test the true, but also to brace a man to the stern realities of life. When we find that some of our intimates are dispersed by adversity, instead of raving against the world's ingratitude like Timon, we should be glad that now we know whom exactly we can trust.

      Another common way of choosing friends, and one which also meets with its own fitting reward, is the selfish method of valuing men according to their usefulness to us. To add to their credit, or reputation, some are willing to include anybody in their list of intimates. For business purposes even, men will sometimes run risks, by endangering the peace of their home and the highest interests of those they love; they are ready to introduce into their family circle men whom they distrust morally, because they think they can make some gain out of the connection.

      All the stupid snobbishness, and mean tuft-hunting so common, are due to the same desire to make use of people in some way or other. It is an abuse of the word friendship to apply it to such social scrambling. Of course, even tuft-hunting may be only a perverted desire after what we think the best, a longing to get near those we consider of nobler nature and larger mind than common associates. It may be an instinctive agreement with Plato's definition of the wise man, as ever wanting to be with him who is better than himself. But in its usual form it becomes an unspeakable degradation, inducing servility, and lick-spittle humility, and all the vices of the servile mind. There can never be true friendship without self-respect, and unless soul meets soul free from self-seeking. If we had higher standards for ourselves, if we lived to God and not to men, we would also find that in the truest sense we would live with men. We need not go out of our way to ingratiate ourselves with anybody. Nothing can make up for the loss of independence and native dignity of soul. It is not for a man, made in the image of God, to grovel, and demean himself before his fellow creatures.

      After all it defeats itself; for there can only be friendship between equals. This does not mean equals in what is called social position, nor even in intellectual attainments, though these naturally have weight, but it means equality which has a spiritual source. Can two walk together, except they be agreed? Nor does it mean identity, nor even likeness. Indeed, for the highest unity there must be difference, the difference of free beings, with will, and conscience, and mind unhampered. We often make much of our differences, forgetting that really we differ, and can differ, only because we agree. Without many points of contact, there could be no divergence from these. Argument and contradiction of opinion are the outcome of difference, and yet for argument there is needed a common basis. We cannot even discuss, unless we meet on some mental ground common to both disputants. So there may be, nay, for the highest union there must be, a great general conformity behind the distinctions, a deep underlying common basis beneath the unlikeness. And for true union of hearts, this equality must have a spiritual source. If then there must be some spiritual affinity, agreement in what is best and highest in each, we can see the futility of most of the selfish attempts to make capital out of our intercourse. Our friends will be, because they must be, our equals. We can never have a nobler intimacy, until we are made fit for it.

      All connections based on selfishness, either on personal pleasure or on usefulness, are accidental. They are easily dissolved, because, when the pleasure or the utility ceases, the bond ceases. When the motive of the friendship is removed, the friendship itself disappears. The perfect friendship is grounded on what is permanent, on goodness, on character. It is of much slower growth, since it takes some time to really find out the truly lovable things in a life, but it is lasting, since the foundation is stable.

      The most important point, then, about the choice of friendship is that we should know what to reject. Countless attractions come to us on the lower plane. A man may be attracted by what his own conscience tells him to be unworthy. He may have slipped gradually into companionship with some, whose influence is even evil. He may have got, almost without his own will, into a set which is deteriorating his life and character. He knows the fruits of his weakness, in the lowering of the moral tone, in the slackening grip of the conscience, in the looser flow of the blood. He has become pliant in will, feeble in purpose, and flaccid in character. Every man has a duty to himself to be his own best self, and he can never be that under the spell of evil companionship.

      Some men mix in doubtful company, and say that they have no Pharisaic exclusiveness, and even sometimes defend themselves by Christ's example, who received sinners and ate with them. The comparison borders on blasphemy. It depends on the purpose, for which sinners are received. Christ never joined in their sin, but went to save them from their sin; and wickedness could not lift its head in His presence. Some seek to be initiated into the mysteries of iniquity, in idle or morbid curiosity, perhaps to write a realistic book, or to see life, as it is called. There is often a prurient desire to explore the tracts of sin, as if information on such subjects meant wisdom. If men are honest with themselves, they will admit that they join the company of sinners, for the relish they have for the sin. We must first obey the moral command to come out from among them and be separate, before it is possible for us to meet them like Christ. Separateness of soul is the law of holiness. Of Christ, of whom it was said that this man receiveth sinners, it was also said that He was separate from sinners. The knowledge of wickedness is not wisdom, neither is the counsel of sinners prudence. Most young men know the temptation here referred to, the curiosity to learn the hidden things, and to have the air of those who know the world.

      If we have gone wrong here, and have admitted into the sanctuary of our lives influences that make for evil, we must break away from them at all costs. The sweeter and truer relationships of our life should arm us for the struggle, the prayers of a mother, the sorrow of true friends. This is the fear, countless times, in the hearts of the folks at home when their boy leaves them to win his way in the city, the deadly fear lest he should fall into evil habits, and into the clutches of evil men. They know that there are men whose touch, whose words, whose very look, is contamination. To give them entrance into our lives is to submit ourselves to the contagion of sin.

      Friends should be chosen by a higher principle of selection than any worldly one, of pleasure, or usefulness, or by weak submission to the evil influences of our lot. They should be chosen for character, for goodness, for truth and trustworthiness, because they have sympathy with us in our best thoughts and holiest aspirations, because they have community of mind in the things of the soul. All other connections are fleeting and imperfect from the nature of the case. A relationship based on the physical withers when the first bloom fades: a relationship founded on the intellectual is only a little more secure, as it too is subject to caprice. All purely earthly partnerships, like all earthly treasures, are exposed to decay, the bite of the moth and the stain of the rust; and they must all have an end.

      A young man may get opposing advice from two equally trusted counsellors. One will advise him to cultivate the friendship of the clever, because they will afterward occupy places of power in the world: the other will advise him to cultivate the friendship of the good, because if they do not inherit the earth, they aspire to the heavens. If he knows the character of the two counsellors, he will understand why they should look upon life from such different standpoints; and later on he will find that while some of his friends were both clever and good, not one of the purely intellectual friendships remains to him. It does not afford a sufficient basis of agreement, to stand the tear and wear of life. The basis of friendship must be community of soul.

      The only permanent severance of heart comes through lack of a common spiritual footing. If one soul goes up the mountain top, and the other stays down among the shadows, if the two have not the same high thoughts, and pure desires, and ideals of service, they cannot remain together except in form. Friends need not be identical in temperament and capacity, but they must be alike in sympathy. An unequal yoke becomes either an intolerable burden, or will drag one of the partners away from the path his soul at its best would have loved to tread.

       If you loved only what were worth your love,
       Love were clear gain, and wholly well for you.

      If we choose our friends in Christ, neither here, nor ever, need we fear parting, and will have the secure joy and peace which come from having a friend who is as one's own soul.

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See Also:
   Chapter 1 - The Miracle of Friendship
   Chapter 2 - The Culture of Friendship
   Chapter 3 - The Fruits of Friendship
   Chapter 4 - The Choice of Friendship
   Chapter 5 - The Eclipse of Friendship
   Chapter 6 - The Wreck of Friendship
   Chapter 7 - The Renewing of Friendship
   Chapter 8 - The Limits of Friendship
   Chapter 9 - The Higher Friendship


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