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There can be few sensitivities as acutely felt by the young as concerns around friendships. The slightest questioning of who is construed as friend, or in a worse case the suggestion that there may be some critique to be offered against a perceived friend, will result in the sort of stormy silence that follows the worst of storms. But in this case, rather than the antecedent to the storm, the silence is in fact the precursor to the first rumblings of thunder. Why are those in our care so sensitive to the friendships they hold and why are so many causes for concern around the same relationships?

It is a braver soul than this one that would march into an extemporisation on the notion of friendship and the issues surrounding it, but perhaps a few thoughts from the side-lined might add something to the activities? At its heart, friendship is a mode of human relationship where parties wish the other well, in the case of two friends they are only friends if both parties wish and seek the good of the other.

This, to my mind, is why you cannot be ‘friends’ on social media. What reciprocal relationship has been established? Understanding may build through correspondence and that shared understanding may build to the affection which typifies itself as friendship, but the key is that it is reciprocal. You cannot be friends with those who don’t want to be yours. Therein lies the rub for many adolescents who desire so badly to belong, to find friendship that they fasten their hopes on a star that is not for them. Remember friendship is reciprocal. It has to be a shared enterprise. It cannot be forced or cajoled. The short answer to the question, ‘What do I do to find a friend?’ is to stop looking. Friendship will find you when you are engaged in a project or activity that allows you to be yourself.

Aristotle writing in his Nicomachean Ethics set out some categories into which he understood friendship could be divided. There are, as he saw it, three kinds: pleasure, utility and virtue. The distinctions may be thin but essentially, I enjoy my friendship because it makes me feel good, because I get something from it or because my friend is of good character.

Now there are some problems here don’t you think? If the basis of friendship is that two parties wish the good of the other, it is difficult to reconcile this with a friendship where there is a degree of self-interested pleasure or usefulness. To be fair, having a friendly plumber or gas fitter is pretty handy, we may not be sitting down to dinner together but the relationship is useful to both parties and the affection, so to speak, is reciprocated to some degree. The last category is the one most worth dwelling on, friendship based on virtue or character. To my mind it is the purest and most lasting largely because it is the most selfless. It regards qualities that are intrinsically valuable and worthy for themselves, they inspire a respect or regard. This is the reason that opposites might be friends, people we think who have nothing in common but remain the best of friends, why is this? It is not the outward quality or interests that inspire this friendship but an inner virtue. More of this below.

So why so many troubled waters in the ocean of adolescent friendships? I put much of it down to the shifting sands of development. As children grow into adulthood, the changes they go through and the influences they are under affect where their allegiances lie and what they are attracted to. Their characters are emerging and developing and as such the attraction of others is also a thing of change. Some children will form lasting bonds that endure through the ages, most have a variety of friends who come and go, but this is all perfectly natural. Some of that teenage angst is felt because, as children develop personally, they experience change and the morphing of connection with family from the child to the young adult. There is an increasing desire to belong, to find their ‘tribe’, some feel this acutely others are blissfully unconcerned. The choppy seas of this period is a natural consequence of inner changes and personality development. This is, however, the time for wider family structures to be firm and consistent. They are the buffers that keep the wayward on track, far from being inhibitors of freedom they preserve against freefall.

So what of the qualities of virtue that make up the highest of Aristotle’s list? Pretty easy to figure out if we are agreed on the basic premise of wishing the good for the other. The qualities of this friendship are a selfless regard for the other which itself implies an honesty based on that affection and a desire to actively seek their good. The latter issues forth in truth telling and understanding; some degree of vicarious suffering and elation at failures and successes, respectively. I wonder if when we think of what an Embley student is that we could do worse than see them as this: virtuous people who act from a selfless loving kindness for others wishing their good and who are by definition therefore ‘good friends’.

Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley (@EmbleyHead)

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