Friends in Part: A Realist Approach to Relationships

There still persists in our popular American culture the rather sentimental notion that “somewhere out there in the great world is your soul-mate or soul-twin who is simply waiting for you to find them,” and when you do you will find that you have “everything in common,” “that you can talk about everything with each other,” that you find the other “endlessly fascinating,” and that “you will find true happiness in the arms of someone who knows, understands and loves you totally.” They and they alone will “complete you.” Without them you are but half a person. This sentimental notion is the theme of many popular romantic movies and adolescent novels.

We want to believe it. But at the same time our everyday life experience tells us something entirely different. It tells us that it is more healthy, honest and realistic to accept that we can be “friends in part” without having to have “everything in common.” There is always a necessary “distance” in even the best of relationships. Contemplative solitude and even times of profound loneliness are as important to human development as experiences of closeness and intimacy.

As we grow into ever more complex and many-sided individuals, it is likely that we will come to appreciate and enjoy many different kinds of people without expecting that they be only mirrors of ourselves. Freud said “we love ourselves in each other.” Maybe so. But there is more to us than this. We can learn to value otherness as much as sameness, the strange as much as the familiar. And so some of our friends will be introverts and some extroverts, some intuitive types and some sensory types. Some will be feeling oriented and some thinking oriented. Some will be aesthetic perceivers and some ethical judgers. And of course many will be different combination of these four sets of Jungian temperamental tendencies, just as we are. We are likely to find both sameness and difference in our circle of friends.

When we are living with those whose temperamental predisposition, beliefs, values, interests, tastes and concerns are extremely different than our own, it is not surprising that we will feel existentially lonely and out of place, as if we were born to the wrong family or tribe. Naturally we will look for those who are more like us temperamentally, socially, and in other ways. In my experience it was largely during the college and post-graduate years of the ’60s and ’70s that I first found such like-minded friends. I had a strong general interest not only in philosophy, religion and literature, but also in music and the arts, science and technology, psychology and sociology, ethics and politics. I was fascinated by high culture, pop culture and folk culture.  In particular I discovered the joy of learning and the life of the mind within the context of the university world. My “quality life” would never be the same. I eventually recognized myself to be an instinctual “generalist” in a society that rewards its “specialists.” And so it was through broad reading that I eventually stumbled upon “polymaths” — historical and contemporary — who shared a passionate general interest in many fields of human knowledge and life experience. These would be my secret society of “soul friends” and “wisdom community.”

But having found my own “tribe of generalists” I gradually came to appreciate people who were quite different from myself, including specialists of many kinds. These came to include persons who had specialized in the particular realms of the arts, the sciences, human and social services, theological reflection and spiritual guidance, leadership and enterprise, office management and administration, and the various crafts and trades.

I also became aware that I had grown up successively among people of different social, economic, educational and cultural classes, and that I had had to learn to relate to persons across the entire American social class system, whether welfare class, working class, lower-middle-and upper middle class, and upper class. Spending my adult career primary in ministry and education as well as human services and leadership development gave me this opportunity to broaden my range of adaptability to different kinds of people. In retirement I have had the opportunity to expand my range of interests and appreciation for different kinds of persons in many walks of life yet again.

I have also found that those with only an elementary or high school level education naturally tend to think about human and social problems in basically black-or-white dogmatic and confrontational ways, while those with college and post-graduate levels of education tended to value a greater measure of creative tension, dialectic, compromise and dialogue. This has to do with the various “stages” and “processes” of cognitive, emotive, social and moral development. The more highly and generally educated seem to be more at home in the presence of mystery, complexity, ambiguity and paradox rather than needing to be absolutely and exclusively right while insisting that all those who disagree with them are totally wrong. They tend to move toward epistemological and cultural pluralism and away from authoritarian dogmatism. Also, they tend to value thoughtful, reflective, temperate and respectful discourse rather than a slugfest of name-calling, insults, accusations and feuds. They generally get along with other people, and bring out the best in the people they meet.

I am not saying that after we have passed through our adolescent and young adult “rites of passage” that we will attain such broad knowledge and diverse experience that we will be able to relate to all kinds of people equally well. In fact, we will find some people quite distasteful and annoying, rude and vulgar, dull and clueless, tabloid and trite,  brutish and boorish, pedantic and arrogant. Choose your adjectives. But we will also learn to cut others some slack, to make allowances for differences, to understand the divergent temperaments and social conditions under which various persons have lived their lives.

Finally, we will learn that it is “good enough” to be “friends in part.”



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