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September, 2001, Volume 9 Nr. 1, Issue 97

COMMODIFICATION OF FRIENDSHIP
THE DISCOMFORT OF INDIVIDUALISM

by Jozef Hand-Boniakowski, Ph.D.

Youthful tales of bygone times.  Nostalgia for the days when interpersonal relationships seemed so vitally important and without risk of ever ending.  The satisfaction and comfort of being part and parcel of a group.   "The" group, who by its very nature, defines itself and the members therein.  An eagerness to be together often, to collectively party, or, at least associate,  in a world as yet unrecognized as hiding beyond the protection of simple and unexamined similarity.  Such is the nature of group identity politics, that which for many and most of us in the United States, passes for friendship.  That is, for as long as the basis for the identity is not challenged nor threatened, or more precisely, for as long as the identity is not uncomfortable.

During July, 2001, after 30 years, I had a reunion at our home with a former undergraduate college mate.  We picked up the friendship from where we left off three decades ago.  Two such friendships out of a dozen and a-half, or more, persist even after both parties' lives have taken twists and turns in marriage, remarriage, raising children, climaxing decades-long careers, health and psychological issues, multiple residence changes, and, perhaps most significantly, establishing personal identity politics transcending the group-think of former times. 

What is it that allows so few to pick up the pieces, putting them together in a mosaic of continuity, whilst others dare not or cannot tread beyond the jigsaw puzzle of much modified memories?  We humans have a tendency to create pseudo-substance imagery and project it onto the "reality" screen of life.  Put another way, we see that which we want to see.  There is a sense of comfort in, as Plato so aptly described in The Republic, the cave: "...they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?"

A. Clutton-Brock (1868-1924) in his essay, "On Friendship", writes:

We have our judgments and our penalties as part of the political mechanism that is forced upon us so that we may continue to live; but friendship is not friendship at all unless it teaches us that these are not part of our real life.

One may take issue with Clutton-Brock's use of the term, "a real life", yet, there is merit in examining the self-imposed disenfranchisement from those whom we once upon-a-time considered to be friends.  

Modern America, as Kenneth L. Woodward of Newsweek writes in describing the book,  Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Bellah, Sullivan, Tipton, Madsen), is more apt to be "lifestyle enclave" than "a community of memory and hope" - the "misleading rhetoric of individualism" more a slogan in protecting neo-group-think than celebrating the freedom and dare-to-be-expressed personal identity politics of the individual and their personal and often foreign philosophoideotheology.  We herald individualism while ostracizing and mentally crucifying those who dare practice it.

Personal realities create ever-present states of mind we may experience or perceive as being serious.   They are, however, just that, i.e., states of mind, and the mind, being a good servant, is a bad master (Meher Baba).  In Hegelian terms, the phenomena that is us, both obscures and reveals Geist, noumena, that which is.  In Ken Keyes' classic The Handbook to Higher Consciousness: The Science of Happiness, human beings operate at various levels of consciousness - most at the lower three levels, barely beyond the necessities of existence and the rudimentary pleasures of  self-gratification.  Erickson's primate hierarchy of needs being realized, we tend to terminate the evolution of consciousness at this level, what Keyes calls Human Higher Consciousness

Perhaps, those friendships that pick up where they left off after decades of separation, are comprised of individuals who one way or another move beyond the Western sinkhole of being stuck at this level.  In general, Keyes groups consciousness levels accordingly,

Organism - Relatively fixed life style based on instinct or unlearned preprogrammed behavior.

Animal Lower Consciousness - Fright-or-flight directed, subject-object, emotion- backed security, sensation, and power consciousness.

Human Higher Consciousness - (increasingly involving the rational mind) that makes us inflexibly guard and protect habitual folkways and personal patterns.

Human Method of Protecting and Enhancing the   Organism - The ego-driven negative emotions have been replaced by wide-ranging insight and deep intuitive understanding giving full flexibility to flow in mutually supportive and loving ways with no inflexible folkways and personal patterns.

Like a commodity, friendship often becomes defined in capitalist terms.  Not as monetary interest, rather as a personal investment of the self as opposed to the intrinsic value of the other as the other and nothing else.  The other is rejected or accepted based upon their value as a credit or debit in the psychosocial ledger of self-interest.  In the spillover - no, in the world as overrun by greed capitalism - we make an investment and we expect a return.  Such investment relies upon calculation, the red and black ink of a personal balance sheet or accounting ledger.  We calculate expenditure.  We avoid the debit of discomfort. 

In The Man in the Mirror, Pat Morely observes,

Most men have a friendship deficit. Their balance sheets are empty when it comes to true friends.  Most men...don't know how to go about developing a true friend or how to be one.

David Smith Men Without Friends : A Guide to Developing Lasting Relationships, talks about "The American male" who "is lonely and friendless."  I have had conversations of this nature with numerous male colleagues over my 30 year teaching career.  Most of my male teacher colleagues have fewer friends than they can count on one hand; and they feel lucky to be blessed with so many friends.

In those three decades of teaching, I witnessed dozens of long-time colleagues retire from the profession, including me.  With the passage of a few weeks they are barely thought of at the school, in a few months forgotten, their memories obscured by the disposable nature of things in a materialistic, throw-away society.  What can we then expect 30 years later if  we are not aware of how the consumerist system understands and markets everything toward the ego, playing self-servingly,  pushing the buttons that perpetuate separation as self-defense.   Ah!  To have and own something new!  Perhaps a better term for the aversion of discomfort, as it pertains to friendships, is avoidance of acceptance, that is,  shying away from accepting people as they are. 

In the year 2000, I attended the Veterans for Peace (VfP) National Convention in Washington D.C.  Four Green Mountain Chapter members attended the convention as a small Vermont contingent.  One of the members was an elderly advocate and activist for the homeless, choosing to live as a homeless person in solidarity and affinity.  He believes that he cannot truly advocate for the homeless unless he is one of them.  The VfP folk accept everyone for who they are.   Many of my former friends and associates would have difficulty accepting a homeless person, as does the wider society, pretending they do not exist nor have merit.   They would also have difficulty accepting atheists, socialists, pacifists,  anarchists, muckrakers, non-tie-wearers, lesbian, gay, transgendered, fat, long-haired, skinhead, body-pierced, purple-haired, HIV-infected, poor, disabled, etc., people.  Many would simultaneously claim to be practicing members in good standing of organized religion - following a higher path. 

Many Nuagers believe that tolerance is a sign of conviction, a inherent internal security system that sees no external threat.  I submit, that, too often tolerance is a protective mechanism that perpetuates discrimination and oppression.  Imagine if society merely tolerated religion.  Tolerance is a far cry from acceptance.   It took struggle in the form of the abolition, suffrage and civil rights movements to accomplish that which was promised and supposedly guaranteed in our most cherished founding documents.  There is a long way still left to go.

Perhaps there is faux comfort in distancing oneself from those different from us.  Perhaps it is a desire for maintaining some sense of security, an attempt in achieving at least minimal  control over our lives.  

Allen Callahan, a faculty member at Harvard Divinity School, in his article entitled, "If Jesus Were Invited to a Lunch with Bush" published on Wednesday, August 15, 2001 in the Boston Globe, speaks of the "radically inclusive" Jesus "who goes from the uttermost to the guttermost, wants to expand the franchise to everyone, even those unlikely to buy in."  Callahan tells the story in Luke 11, where Jesus, forgetting to wash his hands as was the custom of the time, at a "power lunch" as an invited guest of the Pharisees,

...berates his host for being obsessed with clean exteriors while being filthy inside with greed. He goes on to say that clean hands come by the purifying act of feeding the poor, that the Pharisees leave the hard work of justice undone.

I'll be the first to admit not being enamored by most of what the Bible has to say.  I find it odd, however, that those that are can be so callous toward those that at one time they called friends.  'Tis better to preach than to practice, I suppose.  It is much easier to shut out than to take in.  It is much easier to talk about taking action than taking action.

In the book, A Course in Miracles, an important tenet is that projection makes perception.  Mea culpa.  I'm as human as the next fellow.   What I have learned over the course of my lifetime, however, is the personal price one pays for "gunny-sacking".  In Nathaniel Brandon's book, The Psychology of Romantic love, he describes the weight of perceived harms of omission and commission on our shoulders.  One can only speculate.  Do people who pick up   friendships thirty years later have an innate capability of  emptying the gunny sack?  Are they predisposed to not needing to stockpile psychological ammunition, chucking it in favor of more peaceful options?  I believe some are.   More likely, however, our personal evolution of consciousness leads to a decision.   We choose to discard the gunny sack.  Why carry that which no longer serves any useful purpose?  As a consequence, there remains little drag on the shoulders nor the psychic house.  As the Course suggests, if the real goal is inner peace, then there is only one choice.

Over the past year, I have participated in numerous anti-globalization, pro-fair trade demonstrations in Washington, D.C., the US/VT/Canadian border and the January selection certification ceremonies of George W. Bush.  What impresses me most about these demonstrations is the acceptance of a wide cornucopia of differences.  These differences are, however, part of venture capitalism's stuff that is traded, packaged or sold.  Capitalism markets differences  with the sweeping negative brush of being "out-of-step" with the popular culture.  It sells.   Differences exploited to further commodify "individualism" as created, propagated and dictated by Madison Avenue.  I've had conversations with trench coat-and-tie-clad, wired-for-sound-and-video "protectors of freedom" G-men as well as with Black Bloc Folk.  Each is a quantum packet in the cornucopia of humanity, an enviro, time dependent association of thought and people-to-people interplay in the spectrum of humanity.  

Classical dominance relationships, like classical physics, having a limited useful purpose, are nonetheless flawed.  While perhaps sufficient in dealing with the large scale of people on the planet, the classical fails when dealing with the fleeting individual, who is here today, gone tomorrow.  Continuing the metaphor taken from physics, we can learn much from Werner Heisenberg and his realization of the intrinsic uncertainty associated with the observable.  We may become more conscious of assumed "acceptable accuracies" in our perceptions and measurement of others, adjusting our tolerances, if you will.  In the end, we may accept the "free particle" attaining a solution for, and an adjustment to, our fruitless expenditure of energy in distancing ourselves from it.  We may accept the free thinker.

My visiting friend of 30 years inspired a recollection.  Hidden within a childhood stamp collection album, tucked away on an overhead shelf, slumbered a large photograph of our mutual college era friends.   I pulled the photograph out and shared it with him.  His visitation inspired this issue of Metaphoria.  It might be worthwhile to reread this issue, and once again, Ken Keyes, Jr's, Handbook to Higher Consciousness, for yet another time.  I just may learn  something from it.

2001 Jozef Hand-Boniakowski, Ph.D.

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