When less is not more: love and generosity in times of austerity
My best friend Jessica suggests this litmus test for friendship: Imagine that, following a tireless fight with cancer, your body fails you, and you have to leave three children to grow up without you, their sole parent. In your last moment of life, you can will them into the care of someone else. In this thought experiment, they are to take with them a sizeable inheritance, so you can’t make material considerations for their future guardian. Who would you choose?
I was able to put ten names down, none of them family, and all of them, people unknown to me an odd five years ago. These are names of people who have, in my twenty-something years of life, given me a nonpareil instruction in how to love. They have shown me what it means to take on the life of another — to inherit their worries, their shortcomings, their inconsistencies, but also their capacity to incite joy and gratitude. These people are the search party that peered into my soul with a flashlight, illuminating things buried under the rubble. When they noticed that I was missing a few things in my pantry, they rearranged and restocked. Less self loathing on the top shelf, three orders of thoughtfulness in its place. Above all, they have modelled that when one takes on another life, they are meant to think of it not as a burden, but always a joy.
I wish I had more than ten names. Not a lot more, maybe fifteen or twenty, but more love of this kind is better than less.
I am finding this sort of love hard to come by. In 2018, everywhere one goes it seems there is no paucity of prompts to cut people out indiscriminately. To protect ourselves from negative energy. To learn the subtle art of not giving a f**k. These messages are not without cause. They are a response to the sense that if we are not where we ought to be, it must be that we are opening ourselves to the influence of people who have an interest in seeing us fail. While I am open to the suggestion that we could be more exacting in the company we keep, I find this unbridled severance lacking in thoughtfulness. It insists on separating the world into two immutable camps. The camp of the generous victims of toxic friendships, and another of baleful leeches who prey on the good graces of the generous. This oversimplification, as with many oversimplifications, limits our capacity to live loving lives. Instead, it encourages people to erect walls around themselves, whispering about the monster beyond it, never thinking that beyond the wall, another wall is going up, and they are the monster being whispered about. If we instead saw the world as it was; a world where we all dip and waver between these two camps — where we are as capable of hurting people as we are of being hurt by others — then maybe we would build bridges between ourselves and other humans.
Last year I hurt a friend I have loved with as much certainty as I have of the earth’s roundness. This friend, Alexis, doesn’t take half measures and she is the same way in her relationships. We share a love for writing and reading, and have a mutual philosophy that love ought to be one of life’s serious preoccupations — not the love for money or crude ambitions (her words), but the love of other people’s faces, their bodies, their interiors. The love for other people is the salve of all wounds, even J.K. Rowling knows that. In December of 2013 Alexis and I spent a whole day without housing in New York, lugging our bags around the city, getting our fortunes told (hers, not mine). It was only when I was in the basement of the subway station, standing next to her as she spoke to someone playing the guitar (and yes these are things that seem to only happen in New York), that I realised that Alexis was the only person with whom I could spend such a day, worrying very little about plans, wholly present. We didn’t even take pictures. Only she could convince a terminal chronicler like myself to forget to step out of an experience so as to record it. I haven’t seen her in person since that December, but we kept in touch, emailing and sending each other instant messages on a plethora of platforms. I always bubbled with information about my troubles, overflowing, and she listened patiently, collecting all that spilled and placing it carefully back in its place. Over the four years apart, I stopped paying attention to the silences in between the me-isms. I stopped asking about her life because mine seemed more real, more immediate. When her life caught fire, I didn’t try to hold the flames at bay, or help her rebuild whatever had been lost in the inferno. No. I asked for poems, and words to coddle me. I said how-are-you of course, but always in that perfunctory tone that implies that the only correct answer is I am fine, and how-are-you, which would get me going . If she had been a 2018 2.0 person she ought to have amputated me from her life. That’s what the headlines and memes tell you these days. If a person fails you, let them go. Be relentless and vicious.
Instead, Alexis chose to love me. That love compelled her to tell me of the injury I’d inflicted, and to rightfully request leave from my company so the wounds could scab. But even her request for distance was made with more care and benignity than I deserved at the time. Alexis knew that I was in the camp of leeches not because I was constitutionally self-absorbed, but because I am a human being, and a dalliance with self-centredness comes part and parcel with being human. She saw our friendship as a splintered thing that could be salvaged. That is where love and vanity diverge. When we attempt to be loving, we don’t write people off like bad debts. We confront them, and call on them to do better by us, and even if they don’t, we treat them with decency and live with the hope that at some point in the indeterminate future, something will change in them. This is what each of the ten people I’d ask to care for my hypothetical children have done for me — they have left the door open each time I have failed them.
I have another friend, a Bain consultant, who finds my sentimentality about friendships as endearing as it is foolish. He presents me with the parrot-cry that we’re born alone, and we’ll leave the world that way — an aphorism that remains the strongest argument for solipsism. But I have lived life alone, and with other people, and I will always choose to rely on others, for support and for reassurance, than to go through life completely on my own steam. Interdependence is seen as threatening because it suggests that we are not strong enough. It opens us up to vulnerability. But when my best friend Renjie cycled to meet me after I bombed a maths test and cooked me laksa as I sat on our couch and felt sorry for myself, I couldn’t have been happier to melt into a frail mess. I knew he would always carry me. Each time my friend Eddie sends me money because I have stupidly spent my allowance from home, I am glad that he gives so generously and that my stupidity has not cost me my next month’s rent. These people know that I will do, and have done, the same for them in many ways, but we don’t keep score. That is the joy of it — that loving another is not a burden.
So to my Bain buddy’s defence for individuation, the parrot-cry of our generation, I wish to make an addition. We are born alone (most of us anyway), we die alone (sometimes), but we live with other people.