Flattery & Being a Good Friend

One of the essential qualities of a good friend is that they are honest. But, it is a particular kind of honesty, an honesty that respects our integrity and dignity as fellow human beings. Meaning, being prepared to say something that hurts, but not because it hurts.

Yet one of the hallmarks of our society is that it is awash in flattery, filled with people who will always be willing to tell us what we want to hear, not what we need to hear. There will always be people who will say our painting expresses next generation avant-garde art. Or that dress really does look supremely slimming on us. Or that it was entirely our ex’s fault that we broke up.

But being a good friend is not about telling your friend what they want to hear. While we might think we are being kind, there is nothing further from the truth. For it is the highest form of unkindness to withhold the truth from someone you consider your friend. To be a good friend is not about saying nice things, but about providing insights. It is often a delicate trapeze to walk.

Being a good friend involves providing sometimes unpalatable truths someone might not be able to tell themselves. It is about confrontation but also comfort. There is a right and wrong way to go about these things. We must hold two ideas simultaneously in our minds: to tell someone things that may be painful, while also trying our best to not intentionally hurt.

Being a good friend requires insight rather than compliments. Medicine might taste disgusting, and cake may taste delicious, but only one is good for us; and it is dangerous to mistake something pleasurable for something healthy. The good friend administers insight, that medicine for the soul, knowing full well that while it may hurt or leave a bitter taste in the mouth, it is, at the end of the day, only because they have their friend’s best interests at heart.

Being a good friend entails using words in a very particular way. Our words are most powerful not when they fool someone into feeling good for the moment, but when they can show someone important truths they might not realise themselves. This turns on the most important feature of our language: words can clarify or obscure the truth.

If being a friend involves compassion, honesty, trust, and respect, than there is no higher form of friendship than telling your friend what they need to hear, even if it isn’t what they want to hear. When done with appropriate skill and finesse, there is no greater compliment to someone than telling them what they need to hear, even it doesn’t sound so nice. One could only hope that in doing this, in the future, your friends will have the necessary confidence to do the same for you.

Cultivate Your Own Garden

You might not be able to be great, but you can be good; you may not be able to save everyone, but you can save yourself. This is the central message found at the end of Voltaire’s inspired 1759 text Candide.

It is not for nothing that the subtitle of this work was Or, Optimism, because Voltaire was seeking to undermine the conviction – prevalent at his time, but no less so today – that things can ever be perfect. The world, like the humans who inhabit it, will always be absurd, contradictory, flawed and messy; the best we can hope for is to try to live well and be good, however insignificant our acts may be.

While in Constantinople, the three protagonists of the book (Pangloss, Candide, and Martin) hear that two Viziers and the Mufti had been strangled and several of their friends had been impaled. As they leave the court, they come across an old farmer sitting under an Orange tree near his farm.

Pangloss, who was as inquisitive as he was argumentative, asked the old man what was the name of the strangled Mufti.

“I do not know,” answered the worthy man, “and I have not known the name of any Mufti, nor of any Vizier. I am entirely ignorant of the event you mention; I presume in general that they who meddle with the administration of public affairs die sometimes miserably, and that they deserve it; but I never trouble my head about what is transacting at Constantinople; I content myself with sending there for sale the fruits of the garden which I cultivate.”

The old farmer understood a noble truth: his life was not grand, but its simplicity taught him to be humble; he was not in a position of power, but this protected him from vice and wickedness; he was not wealthy, but his twenty acres which he worked protected him from want. The farmer did not try to change the world around him, he merely tried to find a place for himself in the world as it was; and for that he achieved peace and protection ‘from three great evils – weariness, vice, and want’.

Unlike the garden I cultivate with care and affection, Voltaire was being more metaphorical when he said ‘we must cultivate our own garden’. In one sense, he was saying that we must keep ourselves busy. ‘Idle hands do the devil’s work’. But, he was also sharing with us his belief that we need to keep a separation between ourselves and the world. We must be careful not to get too caught up in the trials and tribulations of what is going on around us because, most likely, there is nothing we will be able to do to change it. If we pin our thoughts according to public opinion and feelings upon what is going on in the world, we will be liable to develop a schizophrenic mind and to cry constantly.

Voltaire was not telling us to be pessimistic or to give up, but instead, to looks at the world clearly and with good judgement, and be optimistic about the things you can change, and to not be caught up in the things you can’t.

On Being Heard

We lash out because we haven’t been listened to, not because we’ve been listened to too much.

At the end of the day, sometimes what we really need is not for someone to agree with us, or to give us advice, but simply to hear us; to validate our feelings, to recognise our inner turmoil, and to say in the glimmer in their eye or the slight curl of their lips, that they hear us; we want to be told what we feel, is real.

Often (and unfortunately, too often), when we pour our hearts out to someone, they miss the point. We may be complaining about how hard we are finding life, and they respond by telling us just how good we have it. Or, we may be relaying an inner turmoil we are experiencing, and they try to give us advice on how to deal with it. That is all well and good; it often comes from a place of love. But, sometimes what we really need, the only thing we need, is for our feelings to be recognised, and through this, for someone to agree that what we feel is real.

This is part of the power of a good psychologist or friend. They won’t tell us what we should do, but rather, will listen and affirm what we are feeling. They will tell us, without passing judgement or providing advice, that how we feel is indeed valid. Sometimes, that’s all we need: someone outside of ourselves to say that it really is understandable why we feel the way we do.

The hidden danger in feelings that go unrecognised is they do not go away. They may fade from conscious perception, but do not disappear. They leave traces, scars on the psyche that must be attended to if they are to properly heal. Sometimes people cannot do this for themselves, and having someone else validate and accept certain feelings and thoughts is a safe and reassuring way to let them come to the surface, be dealt with, and ultimately, allow the process of healing to begin.

At the heart of really hearing someone is: validation, compassion and acceptance; sometimes, the very things the speaker cannot grant themselves. This ‘emotional nectar’, as Allain De Botton calls it, is crucial in affirming thoughts and feelings that someone may be too meek or unwilling to accept themselves. When we are falling apart and life becomes too much, sometimes the most powerful remedy is simply another person who can look you in the eyes and say (with words or without them) ‘I hear you’ and give you a big hug.

Some winning phrases might include:

  • Wow, the way [x] made you felt must have been really…
  • It must feel terrible the way that…
  • That sounds really rough. What do you think you should do?
  • I can hear how you’re feeling, you must want to…
  • Are you feeling really…
  • I understand how you feel, if [x] happened to me I would…

These simple reflective sentences don’t diminish or ignore what is said. They are not empty verbal cues. They are, rather, prompts to help recognise and validate feelings and encourage their elaboration; that is, to create a space where the person speaking, feels like they can keep talking because they are finally being heard. And at the end of the day, maybe that is all we really need.

What We Really Want

To a significant extent, many of us do not know what we really want. Sometimes we think we know – maybe a girlfriend, lots of money, or something as simple as some new shoes – but upon attainment, the pleasures are momentary, and when they fade we are even more disillusioned than before. We then proceed to tell ourselves that it was merely the wrong girl, or insufficient money, in what Carl Jung would call lying to the heart with the head. There is, quite often and at the very least, a gulf between what we think we want and what we actually want.

You might say you want a partner. You find one and in the beginning, things are great. Your want has been fulfilled. But then, certain feelings begin creeping up on you. The initial feelings of lust and wonder begin to fade, and you start thinking to yourself that this person isn’t right for you. But perhaps what is really going on is that what you really wanted (even if you cannot realise this yourself) was to love yourself, and you simply used another person as a substitute. Of course your feelings would fade and an inner suspicion of unfulfillment would arise because, you thought you wanted one thing, but you really wanted another.

Maybe you tell yourself you want a nice car. You’ve been looking at a few for a long time. $20,000. It is a steep price to pay, but you tell yourself it is worth it. After buying it, you drive it everywhere, keen to show it off to those you know. But after a while, the joy begins to fade. Why is this? Perhaps because it was never about the car in the first place. Perhaps you grew up feeling poor, never lived in a luxurious home, and your parents sometimes struggled making ends meet. What you wanted wasn’t a car, but to escape the feeling of inner poverty that besieges you every time you seen a Mercedes drive past or a commercial for the new BMW; which is to say, often.

The proliferation of all types of goods and services that consumer capitalism affords us might be worse at satisfying our wants than confusing them. With the clever use of advertising, we associate being trendy with buying the latest clothes, or being refined by purchasing nice watches, or transcending our feeling of poverty by taking out a loan for a fancy car. We trick ourselves into believing these commodities will grant a magical power to remedy us of our deep-seated feelings of angst, inferiority, or disappointment, only to soon find that they don’t…and never can. They are, as Zygmunt Bauman points out in Consuming Life ‘incommensurate’, your feelings of inferiority or angst, while momentarily mitigated by a new purchase, will never be fully satisfied because what you really want will never be found in a new watch or a fancy car.

This is precisely the problem that befalls celebrities, especially music artists who will sing about how they now have money and fame but still feel empty inside. They, like us, mistook one thing for another. They thought that the money and fame would bring them the security, love, and warmth that they needed, but really all it ended up giving them was fake-friends, empty houses, and the incessant demand to be someone they’re not.

Itzhak Richter, Simplicity, 2011

Of course, perhaps like the man in the painting by Itzhak Richter, you do just want a glass of wine (or a car or a watch). But the real issue is mistaking psychological wants for material ones. Only by listening to ourselves and paying attention to the deeper parts of our psyche will we come across the fundamental realisation that there are very few things we actually want: we want love, compassion, reassurance; to feel secure, to feel wanted, and to feel that we are worthy. Seeking these qualities in objects will only disillusion us further.

To come into contact with what is most important, we need to be able, perhaps for the first time, to listen to ourselves. Only then will we be able to journey into new lands and discover ways to give ourselves what we really want.

Good Enough

We all tend to harbour outlandish and unreasonable expectations for just how good our life should be. In a phenomenon not resulting from but by no means helped by social media, our expectations for how life should be (and our misery at how it has so far turned out) turns on disregarding so much we already have that makes life worth living.

Your partner may not be quite the bold, beautiful, sexy and ambitious person you imagined you would be with. They may be beautiful but their skin is starting to wrinkle; they may still be sexy, but their skin is starting to fold; they may still hold ambitions, but they have tempered them with the experience of living. They might not fit the idealised version of a partner you had in your head but they are interested in understanding you, are always compassionate and empathetic, and care for you more than anything in the world. They love you, and you love them. They might not fit a romanticised ideal or be perfect in every way, but they are certainly…good enough.

You had fantasies of what you would be doping by the time you were 20, 30, or 40. You would own a house, have kids, have written a book (or two), maybe even have managed to live off the grid in a commune or be working the job of your dreams, perhaps being a politician or CEO. Instead, you find yourself renting still. You don’t have a magnanimously landscaped backyard, but you do have a modest veggie patch that provides a humble yield of nutritious food. You aren’t earning a hundred thousand dollars a year, but your job is satisfying, the people are nice, and it does pay the bills. You have not found the romantic love of your life, but you have found love in a group of friends who you know you can always rely on. Your life may not be what you had fantasised it to be when you were younger but in many important respects it is…good enough.

You thought you would be an exceptionally healthy human. But, you suffered a debilitating injury that is still with you. It has been for a while and you might not like to admit it, but it might always be. You could look at all the things you can no longer do: go for runs, climb trees, play soccer; but today the pain in your hip wasn’t too bad, you went most of the day without a sharp pain causing you to lie down, and you did some yoga which definitely helped. The pain was there, but it was tolerable. Today was…good enough.

The philosophy of Kintsugi mirrors the philosophy of ‘good enough’.Rather than shying away from it, Kintsugi is a celebration of what is broken, flawed and damaged in all of us. We can never be perfect. But rather than a cause for alarm, deformities can exhibit their own particular kind of beauty. What Kintsugi has to impart to the philosophy of ‘good enough’ is that nothing is perfect, but beauty can be found in repairing what was broken, overcoming what seemed insurmountable, and appreciating things for what they are.

It isn’t about adopting a strictly pessimistic philosophy or saying ‘you can never do better so just settle for what you have’. Rather, it is about stopping comparing your life with your fantasies. It is about seeing your life for what it is, and not in comparison to the lofty expectations you had decades earlier (and still do).

The philosophy of ‘good enough’ is about recalibrating our expectations about what life should be like towards what it is. This shouldn’t stop us from wanting more or trying to do better. But, it puts us on a solid foundation on which to tackle the future (and the day). At its heart, the philosophy of ‘good enough’ is an implicit reminder the life is not perfect and never will be (no matter how much we fantasise otherwise), but in accepting this, we can appreciate the small victories that life offers us.

Our life will never be perfect and any attempt to make it so is doomed from the start. But life can be good, and a sure way to guarantee it is, is by looking at your life as it really is and trying to improve it from there. See things as they are, not as you would like them to be.

The Hardest Person to Break Up With

The hardest person to break up with is…ourselves. Each of us, in our own ways, becomes practices behaviours and espouses beliefs that while once upon a time served us, no longer do.

Perhaps we had a difficult childhood and the only way we could have survived was to bottle up our emotions, put on a brave face, and pretend everything was going to be okay. Or, perhaps we grew up never feeling quite as safe as we should have, so we learned not to be too outspoken or to even voice our concerns.

However, life is not like that anymore. Whereas once upon a time it would have been unwise if not downright dangerous to speak out about how you were feeling, today you are surrounded people who understand and care for you. The scary childhood is no longer around, but the scared child is. The self that you once were is no longer the self you need to be. In a way, you need a divorce: a divorce from the old you.

This painting bears a powerful message. The wilting leaves and rose were once crucial parts of the plant, fine examples of the plant being in good health and proper shape. But now the plant has matured. It has stronger roots, healthier and more numerous leaves, and is flowering majestically. For this to happen, the older leaves and flowers have to die off, to provide the space for new growth to occur. What was once crucial to the plant has now become unnecessary, dying off to create space for the plant to flourish.

The beliefs and behaviours we adopted at earlier stages in our lives were there in order to help us live. Once upon a time, we needed to be closed off or avoidant or even a bully in order to survive. However, things have changed and so must we.

It is hard to break up with ourselves, to let go of the aspects of our personality that once served us but now no longer do. We must accept that we do not need to be the person we once were and in letting go of those parts of ourselves, give ourselves room to grow.

What Do You Look For In A Partner?

The question – so often asked by friends, parents and prospective partners – is not a bad one. It is, however, often asked and understood far too narrowly. Do you want someone who likes to read, who watches the same television shows? Do you want someone who is intelligent, or funny, or poetic? When posed like this, the question is trivial, almost meaningless. People are not racks of meat in a butcher’s shop window, reduced to one trait or another. A person is a whole who is more than the sum of their parts.

The question needs to be given a broader scope. When we move from the banal and everyday likes and dislikes into the more expansive and rocky terrain of values, beliefs, and wishes, we move below the surface of the everyday to core realities that make someone who they are.

What someone likes to read, or even if they like to read at all is really quite irrelevant to questions of their suitability as a future partner. These are quite incidental, likely to change, and are insignificant compared to the conflicts, struggles, internal contradictions; and aspirations, desires and ambitions which make up one’s personality. While what someone likes to watch or what they do for a living are testaments to whom someone is, they should always be taken with a hefty grain of salt. It is no good if you agree on everything to do with interior design, believe Dostoyevsky is the superior novelist of the Russian cannon (he is), and both like the same foods, but don’t share similar values, beliefs, and desires.

All of us would love to have a drop-dead gorgeous partner who likes what we like, reads what we read and enjoys the same music and television shows as us. But, if we were to be honest with ourselves, we know that what we are really looking for in a partner is someone we can trust, who will make us feel valued, and will give us the love and respect we deserve; while also sharing similar values to us, aspirations with us, and beliefs as us. Compared to watching the same television show or voting for the same political party, these things matter far more.

Nostalgia in Relationship

Memory deceives with how it flattens experience. Nowhere is this more painfully clear than when we reminisce on a past relationship. When you were with your partner you were sometimes angry, often irritated, and while there were surely moments of ecstasy and fulfilment, there was, of course, a reason (or many) why you left them (or they left you). But, looking back, you can only remember the good times; the way she used to smile at you when you made an awful dad-joke, or how she would occasionally run up from behind and hug you, or how, when you were feeling really down, she would gently place her hand on your arm and tell you that it would all be okay. What was once ordinary becomes charming.

Nostalgia is just as much an expression of past truths as a result of present disillusionment. After all, it is not for nothing that we grab onto these moments, not when we are elated but when we are despondent, desperately trying to return to a point in our lives where we felt (or like to think we felt) truly happy.

Consider, for a moment, a parody of nostalgia for our exes. During industrial revolution Britain, when railway tracks and telegraph lines were being laid across the land, and people were thrust into enormous and anonymous cities, the artistic community was set on capturing a period in time where they felt things were better: the Middle Ages. They produced paintings capturing idyllic, frictionless communities and meaningful relationships in a time before industrialisation ruptured social bonds and despoiled landscapes.

But, of course, it was a ruse. The Middle Ages was a time of misery and cruelty, of famines and plagues. The artists were exhibiting what the psychologist Carl Jung termed ‘compensation’. The Romantics found the present so wretched that they invented a counter-balance in the form of an idyllic and blissful past.

The Dancing Couple, Jan Steen, 1663.

But this type of imagination about the Middle Ages was not about knowledge (that is, how things actually were) but rather, a form of insight (how the artists saw the past). The nostalgic attitude to the past disregarded why things ever changed, just as we – when we look back on a recently ended relationship  – overlook why we are no longer with that person. We become caught up in the emotional turbulence of the heart and lose our intellectual footing.

Industrialisation was a movement away from the many intolerable aspects of peasant existence. There was certainly reasons why it happened. Likewise, a breakup is a movement away from many other intolerable experiences of cancelled dates, misunderstood thoughts, and unreciprocated feelings.

Memory is an unreliable friend. We edit out and simplify memories, or completely forget others in unconscious attempts to create a ‘happy place’ in our mind that we can retreat to and escape our current misery. What we require is a type of brutal honesty that we might now be able to give ourselves. We may need someone else to remind us that there were reasons, good ones at that, for why things ended.

But, intellectualising the problem in this way will only get us so far. Healing does not come from realising how bad things might have been, and collating the reasons why you should have broken up. Rather, healing, or at least, the remedy for the current pain, comes from understanding that the feeling of nostalgia is not about the past but rather, about the present. It is about you, here, now, and that while you left something behind that has left a hole in your heart, the cure lies in finding something new to provide fulfilment, rather than seeking an idealised past that never existed.

The Struggle

‘To those human beings who are of any concern to me’ wrote Nietzsche in The Will to Power, ‘I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities—I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished’.

Speaking not out of hate but of love, he continued,

I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not—that one endures.

Nietzsche located the worth of human life in how one deals with and transcends the problems they face. Implied in his wish for suffering upon his friends is an understanding that we do not grow and better ourselves in a comfortable life. It is only through the struggle (with ourselves, with our demons, with the demands of the world) that we develop and mature.

It is precisely this ‘struggle’ that Jung captures in his discussion of the biblical story of Jacob in Genesis 32:22–32. Jacob, who pretends to be his brother to steal his father’s blessing, is walking along a riverside at night when he encounters a man. They ‘wrestle’ until day break whereupon Jacob is injured at the hip. As the sun rises, Jacob finds he wrestled not with a man but an angel. Jacob is allowed to leave, but is given a new name, and walks away with a limp.

Jung saw in the allegory of Jacob a tale of the human psyche. It is said they ‘wrestle’, but the passage is also translated as ‘struggle’ in other Bibles. Jung believed that as humans, we are constantly wrestling or ‘struggling’ with powerful forces within ourselves. We struggle with our fears, desires, repressed memories and all the rest that we have designated to ‘the shadow’. But, if we endure this struggle and refuse to run away from it, eventually the shadow will be illuminated and the struggle will be over. It is not for nothing that Jacob receives a new name. Because after the struggle, we become a new person.

Jung sees the limp, not as a sign of weakness but as a sign of strength. The limp testifies that Jacob has struggled, survived and has been humbled (later bowing 7 times to his brother) in his struggle with the angel. We carry the scars of past battles (mental and physical, as those who have self-harmed surely know). The scars are not defections but symbols testifying to our capacity to endure and keep growing.

As with Nietzsche, Jung saw in the struggle precisely the material that will furnish better people of us. Like Nietzsche’s hero, Jacob is victorious for one reason and one reason alone: he endures.

While we may want a comfortable and cosy life, it is precisely a life of ease and gratification that leaves us ill-equipped to live, for it is a fact that existence is irrevocably bound up with incredible suffering; and instead of turning away from this fact, if we can face it, look it in the eyes, and wrestle with it, we will become humbled and strengthened by the experience.

Unlike Nietzche , I do not wish more suffering on those I love, for we all already suffer enough. All I wish is that they do not walk away from the struggle, because in the struggle we find ourselves, define ourselves, and transcend ourselves.

Getting Outside Ourselves

We think about life in terms of a subject who acts, and an object that is acted upon. So, if there is an artist in her studio, we think and speak with the artist as the active subject, and the paint, brushes and canvas as the still, inert objects being acted upon. We are inclined to say that the painter uses paint and canvas to express herself, but is that quite the case? It doesn’t seem like she actually expresses, meaning ‘push outwards’ onto a canvas something that was already fully formed inside of her mind. Rather, she would have started with an idea, and as she began painting, saw ways in which what was in front of her was similar to her idea and what was different and from this new point, rethinks what she wishes to paint and proceeds. Then, she yet again sees how what is in front of her is similar and different to what she has in her mind and paints proceeding from this point. There is a creative process of back and forth. There is not a subject acting upon an object but a creative process whereby she acts and reacts with the paint, brushes and canvas.

There is another point to be made that goes beyond similarities and differences. It is that as the painter creates her art, it must be in accordance with the materials. As she paints she has to work with the limits of her medium. She can only paint within a certain frame (the size of the canvas) and using certain colours (depending on what base she is using). She cannot paint whatever she wants, however she wants, but must paint within the limits of her tools and medium. The point is that she does not act upon the things around her, but with them.

A musician does not express themselves any more than the painter does. The instrument shapes the musician (who must learn to purse their lips in a particular way to hit the right note, or perform certain motions with their fingers to achieve the right combinations of sounds) as much as the musician shapes the sounds. There is a back and forth, a process, a reciprocation.

You cannot make a piano sound like a violin, or play piano simply by moving your fingers very fast. The musician must, to a certain extent, allow the instrument itself to determine how it should be played. A good musician does not play the instrument, but plays with it.

A gardener, if they wish to have any success, must work with their garden, rather than upon. For it is the case that one cannot yell at broccoli to grow, or beat lavender into submission and make it bloom. A good gardener understands they must work with the garden. You need to pay attention to what nutrients are needed, how much sun and water are required, and whether the time of year is right. The garden is a joint project between equals, the gardener who cultivates, and the garden which grows. A gardener who tries to force a plant to bloom is as ridiculous as a musician who thinks blowing harder into the trumpet will produce a melody.

The painter, musician and gardener (to which we may also add the parent, friend, doctor, scientist and chef) approach their craft masterfully when they understand the principle at the root of all relationship: it is not about you. It is about so much more than you. It is about the creative unfolding of life. When we step outside of ourselves, when we no longer reduce life to the matrix of the I and me, something magical happens; we create in concert with others and end up becoming a part of something bigger than ourselves. A parent is enlarged by their child, a painter by their painting, and a gardener by what they grow. The paradox is that by leaving ourselves behind, we end up becoming much more than we were.