Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On Friendship

"...to a friendship of good men all the qualities we have named belong in virtue of the nature of the friends themselves; for in the case of this kind of friendship the other qualities also are alike in both friends, and that which is good without qualification is also without qualification pleasant, and these are the most lovable qualities. Love and friendship therefore are found most and in their best form between such men." --Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

"And yet. Isn't the main reason we love this sport because it gives us an excuse to idle away an hour (or more) a day with the other skinny social rejects talking about who knows what and god knows why all the while fooling the rest of the world (and, admittedly, sometimes ourselves) into thinking that what we are really doing out there is suffering mercilessly and ascetically towards some impossible goal?"
--Some dude on a message board

In a world in which facebook is reconstructing the concept of friendship, it is interesting to return to Aristotle's writings on friendship. For the Greeks, friendship was the ideal form of association; it was at the heart of the good life of individuals, and it also gave shape to the ideal form of community. For Aristotle, particularly, the Good with a capital "G", had as its material earthly condition the qualities of friendship.

For the Greeks, friendship was a relationship that was always outward looking. Friendship was a name for the sort of relationship that pursued ends that were higher and nobler than the individuals who entered into that relationship. For the Greeks, friendship was not a state or a feeling or a title. It was essentially transformative, a relationship of growth towards the good. It was an activity: a name for a relationship that brought out a shared pursuit of the good life.

For the Greeks friendship was rare. It is the sort of relationship that points us towards our best qualities and teaches us how to become our ideal self.

I think Aristotle is essentially right in his conception of friendship, but sweet jesus he can make friendship sound as if it's such a drag, especially if we import our 21st century American vision of "the good life," which has basically come to mean racing around in an overcaffeinated blur trying to earn enough money to buy the one million things we are absolutely sure we need in the moment but turn out several weeks later to be outdated and, frankly, drab.

Plato and his buddy Aristotle regularly ripped off sub 60 ten milers back in the day like nothing.
What we need from our friends today more than anything is help imagining a more expansive notion of the good life, one that includes not just working your ass off in a job that doesn't make much sense on good days and may actually be morally reprehensible on bad days but also things like laughter, leisure, pleasure, meaning, sunshine, and fresh air. Those things have more than a lot to do with excellence and achievement in life, especially if you are looking for the kind of life that's worth living.

We runners, being goal oriented and driven sorts of folk, have a tendency to get caught up reducing life to a very narrow set of goods. Like, say, the ability to run a 2:30 marathon. We pile all the eggs into that basket, not because there is much that is remarkable about that basket outside of its ability to hold a lot of eggs. This makes things simpler, you know, than having eggs all over the damn place. Who knows what might hatch?

So we need friends. We especially need the sort of friends who can laugh at our goals. The sort of friends who are not afraid to tip over the basket and break a few eggs. Let's face it, endurance training when it's done right is boring. The trial of miles has more to do with the relentless molecular grinding of shoe soles than anything else. We like to talk about the effort and the brain-bending fatigue of a hard interval session, but most of the work of training is as easy and simple as putting one foot in front of the other, getting it on down the road.

Running friends, training partners, remind us that life happens out there in those training runs, too. Their value is larger than the race they point towards, measured not only in minutes, miles, and average pace, but also in laughter, memories, tall tales, and big dreams. The best training partners do what the best friends do--they make our narrow vision wider and show us goods and possibilities where we could only see shadows. They enlarge our vision of what is possible. They slow down when our legs are dead. Push the pace when we want to fly. And most importantly, they'll meet us late at night or early in the morning, in blinding heat, rain, or bitter cold. Friends show up.

Maybe showing up is not quite meeting the Greek bar for friendship of pursuing the good life, but in this distracted world, when we could always be doing something else--and usually are--showing up is no small thing. You show up, your training partner shows up, and the next thing you know you are running. No guarantees that the good life lies at the end of any single one of those runs. In fact, each of them taken alone is almost absurd in its insignificance.

But, if you show up, they add up.

5 comments:

  1. i had a running buddy like this once - a buddy who showed up in any weather and ran any course. we learned so much about running and about each other and about life and i miss her every day. i'm auditioning replacements, but so far no one has even come close. at first i thought all i was looking for was a running buddy, but after weeks and months of trying to run with other people, i have learned that it isn't that simple.

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  2. You coming to Boston in 2 weeks or what?

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  3. no, but it's so kind of you to ask.

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  4. I wonder how many of my "friends" on facebook would meet me at 6am for a ten miler on a Monday morning? Facebook friends should have a different description. Twitter has better categories: Follower, following.

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  5. Hey Daniel--thanks for continuing to read and comment! The answer is "few." I agree, facebook is more like following or watching. I have made so many friendships through running.

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