Imagine a family of porcupines on a cold winter evening. They would like to huddle together to keep warm, but their spines keep pricking one another.
The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer used this image to describe friendship. Loneliness can be cold and unbearable, but the alternative is being pricked and jabbed by others’ flaws and idiosyncrasies.
People dance between painful friendships and bitter loneliness, often feeling as if something is fundamentally broken.
Nothing is broken. Making friendship work requires a series of uncomfortable compromises.
During his career, five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant was notoriously bad at friendship. ESPN reports Bryant making teammates cry and saying, “friends can come and go, but banners hang forever.”
Bryant understood meaningful friendships require time, and preferred to dedicate that time to basketball. Few people can (or should) mirror Bryant’s freakish commitment to his work, but we should share with him the recognition that friendship involves tradeoffs.
Along with the chance to become an NBA superstar, one loses a certain lightness of being when engaged in a meaningful friendship. Handling someone else’s emotional baggage is often draining and burdensome.
Though comforting a friend can be rewarding, constantly hearing about an argument with a significant other, a struggle with math homework or a dramatic weight loss journey can be stressful.
Friends compromise. They trade a significant amount of time, attention — and often mental health — for companionship.
One could object to such a transactional framing of friendship. She might argue she enjoys helping her friend with math homework, is uplifted by a friend’s dramatic weight loss journey and in fact finds her stress is relieved after spending time with a friend.
But friends always cost time and usually require a larger set of compromises. These compromises can be as small as a friend not being in the mood for Indian food on a night when one desperately craves chicken tikka masala or as large as religious disagreements.
Bad friends continue to ask for more — more time, more attention, more care — without offering much in return.
Good friends are so generous, supportive and warm that those compromises become irrelevant.
Teasing out the difference between a bad friend and a good friend demands a sober appraisal of the amount and type of compromises one makes on a regular basis.
Everyone is unpleasant in infinite little ways. Most excel at hiding their unpleasantness when in public and when first interacting with others — it can take weeks or months before their least charming, most disagreeable, pettiest selves leak out. Their prickly spines become more apparent, and the warmth they provide seems less remarkable.
At this point, the real ones make themselves known. Friendship is not far removed from loyalty, and those willing to compromise in trivial, unsexy ways time after time are worth keeping.
In the 1994 film “Clerks,” a character named Silent Bob has only one line in the entire movie, advising one of the titular store clerks to remain with his longtime girlfriend: “There’s a million fine looking women in the world, dude. But they don’t all bring you lasagna at work. Most of them cheat on you.”
Those lucky enough to have found a good friend must recognize the rareness and fragility of their situation, and grasp onto the friendship whole-heartedly.
But it’s always worth reconsidering the sort of compromises one makes to avoid loneliness.
Danny Bugingo can be reached at email@example.com