How to be a better friend

The very definition of friends, as drawn by E.H. Shephard. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
The very definition of friends, as drawn by E.H. Shephard. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
People have been writing about friends and friendship since people have been writing, says Liz Breslin.

Liz Breslin
Liz Breslin

Friends are fundamental, argues Marcus Tullius Cicero, at some wordy length, in his 44BCE treatise, Laelius de Amicitia: "... of friendship all think alike ... whether those who have devoted themselves to politics, or those who delight in science and philosophy, or those who follow a private way of life and care for nothing but their own business ... friendship, in one way or another, penetrates into the lives of us all, and suffers no career to be entirely free from its influence".

So this week I thought I'd have a whip around some other classics, and see what can be learned about how to be a better friend.

1. Use your power wisely, young Padawan. According to all the websites I've trawled, Yoda never actually said this; I have been misquoting it approximately my entire life. (I may have to watch every Star Wars movie again, just to check.) Anyway, to be a better friend, you have to acknowledge where the power balance lies in your relationship. If you are a faster runner, a bigger spender or erring on the side of privilege, then being a better friend sometimes means working out how to balance that out. You're not always going to get that right. Patience you must have, my young Padawan. Yoda actually said that.

2. The Bible talks about love, the Quran talks about love, Justin Bieber talks about love. If you want, you can pick out the hatey bits instead, or the bad lyrics, but a better friend's going to choose love and understanding every time. Hate just gets in the way. As the Bieber autocroons in One Love, "Oh-aye-oh-aye, oh-aye-oh-aye, oh-aye-oh-aye, Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, I won't let the night stand in my way." Love creates love creates love creates love creates love.

3. The actual King of Rock and Roll once crooned: "Before you accuse, criticize and abuse, walk a mile in my shoes". It's all very well to think you're helping a friend with handy improvement tips and criticisms. But there's a time for that. Once you've borrowed your friend's shoes, learned their different shapes and rhythms and have the blisters to prove it, then you can start in with that sort of carry on.

4. There is, of course, also a time for acting right now and completely ignoring Elvis - do not use his rationale if your friend is in immediate danger or being a complete idiot or in immediate danger of being a complete idiot. There aren't so many examples of this I can think of in classic stories - except maybe the bit where Wonder Woman goes into the trenches even though the Star Trek guy said she shouldn't. Our narratives are far more usually heroes confronting the baddies instead of calling out their own friends.

5. Na to rourou, na taku rourou ka ora ai te iwi: with your food basket and my food basket the people will thrive. We're all in this together. Sometimes being a better friend means having a collective focus. So share. Share nicely. Food, hugs, stories, visions, smiles.

6. There's some wisdom, I'm not sure how wise, that says if you have a handful of true friends then you're doing well. And I guess they're talking about longevity there. But the classics remind us that friendship comes in all shapes and lengths and sizes: epic, Eleanor Ferrante affairs, spanning novels and novels of in-depth analysis; intense, accidental one-night-only meetings before sunrise; the pig/spider heartstring-tugger that is Charlotte's Web. There is no usual. Friendship is storycraft, not maths - you can't measure it by specific length and width and depth, or better it by exact means, either.

7. Of all the classics about friendship, there's one that stands out. Translated into more than 50 languages, Winnie the Pooh may be a bear of very little brain, but his E.Q. is just about through the roof. Acceptance without judgement. Sacrifice without fear. Admiration without jealousy. Honey without limits. It's all there in the Hundred Acre Wood. We all have it in us to be better friends. As Christopher Robin said: "Promise me you'll always remember: You're braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think."

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