What Friends Are For.

Posted: January 14, 2013 in life
Tags: , , , , , , ,

You know the phrase: “That’s what friends are for”? It’s been rolling around in my mind for a while. And in the same way that a word loses its meaning when you repeat it again and again, this phrase has been thawing and reshaping the more I think about it. Sometimes it sounds definitive – a revelation, sweet. Sometimes passive aggressive. Sometimes just an oral plug used to fill awkward gaps in conversation. After a critical comment about leggings. “That’s what friends are for!” Tight-lipped over a godson’s nappy. Other times.

It also resonated when I finished a new book called How Should a Person Be? by Canadian writer Sheila Heti. She calls it a “novel from life”, which means, mainly, that all the people in it are her friends and most of the things that happen are things that happened to her – the main character is called Sheila, and she is a Canadian writer. But the most interesting thing about the book,  for me, was her method of writing – she recorded years of conversations with her best friend and then wrote them up, folding the transcriptions into the novel.

Aside from the art, I can see the appeal. The attempt to stand outside a conversation and then a friendship. And, in doing so, anchoring the moment on paper and wringing all extra emotion from it – all the hunger for lunch that may have been gnawing at you while she talked, or silent memories you were having about her hypocrisy, drunkenness, family – so you can read it rather than live it.

But the effect of reading the sometimes mundane thoughts of someone else’s best friend, printed as if psalms, is that we realise their wonderfulness is subjective. Maybe only we believe our friends are worth listening to. Maybe our friends are talking only to us. Sheila slides through the book trying to learn how to live, but rather than the books she reads or places she goes, seems to find the most answers from listening to her best friend.

It’s something I hadn’t thought about before – that, instead of being a mirror of you, or simply someone you tell stuff to, your friend is really your hero. We name Olympians and educated actors as our role models, past politicians, dead authors, but in fact, as Heti illustrates, it’s our friends who guide us, and this is a facet of friendship rarely acknowledged.

It’s our friends who teach us how a person should be. Rather than in rooms, we learn in corridors. Rather than in the lessons themselves, it’s in the walks from class to class that we do our learning. Hearing what our friend thinks is funny, or seeing how she reacts to irritation, to pain, shapes who we become far more than the facts we weld together.

My friend Alice, for example, keeps accidentally showing me how to be a grown-up. Last week she went early to the doctors and didn’t leave until they agreed that her mum, weeks into a crippling headache, needed to be admitted to hospital. And then she sat with her and made something happen, and is, as I write, working with a neurologist to reassess the medication she believes is hurting her.

When I was in a similar position in the past, a parent ill, I just waited for them to soothe me. Now I know this is what you’re meant to do. Calmly, boredly, sort stuff out, skipping lunch and trolleying tea through slippery halls.

Or friends who have left failing relationships, leaping bravely out into their 30s from a flat where love is dwindling, and redesigning their lives in the process. Friends who have taken themselves to therapy, or started little businesses, or moved abroad – these decisions that move their lives forward, and quietly inspire the rest of us.

This, really, is what friends are for, isn’t it? Not just for sitting with us in pubs on wet afternoons or emailing us funny Tyra gifs, but for teaching us how a person should be.


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