Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Friendship IV: Stimulating Personal Transformation

Scott Bradley


I began this series with a view to exploring my own reflections on friendship before reading Brian Lundberg's "A Meditation on Friendship" in Wandering at Ease in the Zhuangzi; I have now read that essay. One aspect of friendship that he touches upon that I perhaps did not is how that it helps in the cultivation of one's own self. "Developing a friendship," he writes, "is, in essence, a training in looking outward beyond and away from self-interest — only one step away from letting go of personal pre-conceptions, a prerequisite for the expansion of insight. Genuine friendship is therefore a highly effective source of spiritual transformation."

In support of this point he also refers to the story of the carpenter who, when his friend had a bit of plaster on his nose, was called upon to cut it away with his axe. When a duke heard of this, he asked that the same 'trick' be performed on him, but the carpenter deferred, implying that the feat, though certainly requiring his own skills, was equally dependent on the skill (fearlessness and confidence) of his deceased friend. His own attainment was in part conditional upon that of his friend. His friend brought out the best in him.

It is self-evident that our personal growth is furthered by interaction with others, whether that interaction be largely positive or negative. Though one has more than enough raw material upon which to learn affirming transcendence while alone in the wilderness, there is nothing quite as effective as others. I have recently come to realize that a good many of my own attitudinal failings are in part due to my having spent most of my life alone. When alone, one need not 'perform' and thus one acquires habits he would not otherwise acquire. Since the vast majority of human beings live lives in close proximity to others and usually cheek-to-jowl with others, and still do not display a significant degree of spiritual maturity, it is also clear that learning how to "perform" is not in itself sufficient to stimulate personal transformation.

I admit that I can only speak of true friendship in the abstract; in truth, I don't think I have ever experienced it. (As Zhuangzi would say, “How sad.”) This is as much my fault as it is of others, needless to say. When I look at community, personal or romantic situations in which I have been a participant, I see my own dysfunction, but also the incredible dysfunction of the others. It is laughable. Let us therefore laugh. Let us learn to laugh together.

I must say that I have learned a great deal more from failed friendships than I have from apparently more successful ones. Lundberg explains how genuine friendship enables us to go beyond ourselves in identifying with the other. Ames has described this as "extending one's de"; we become more inclusive, less self-involved, and learn to incorporate other perspectives. Consider, therefore, how a failed friendship might all the more enable us to do so. Learning to extend one's de to include those who exclude us is a powerful impetus to personal transformation. “There is no success like failure”; though “failure is no success at all”.

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

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