Should you help your friend bury a body?

Why friendship should be about more than just fierce loyalty

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Photo by Kevin Gent on Unsplash

The concept of loyalty is inseparable with close relationships of any kind, especially friendship. Consider the tongue-in-cheek question we ask ourselves when determining who our closest friends are: ‘can I call this person at 2 am to help me bury a body?’ Loyalty of this kind goes beyond trust and almost takes the form of a religious faith. But when friends decide to be loyal to each other, who exactly is the object of this faith? Is it just the present versions of those people?

On a recent podcast, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman was asked about what most people misunderstand about friendship. He answered that loyalty, as commonly understood, is a flawed value because it focuses on the other person only as they are in the present. What you should be loyal to instead, he said, is their aspirational better self, or the person they have the potential to become. Seen through this lens, it is the implicit commitment towards one another’s personal growth that separates friendship from casual acquaintance.

In the real world we make friends on the basis of who people are at the moment, which in turn is dependent on the context which brings us together. Further, we choose our friends because they help us fulfill some specific need at a specific moment in time. This could just be the pleasure of each other’s company, sharing common interests, or giving and taking of favors. That’s why most friendships fizzle away as people and their circumstances change — we might find others who can better provide us what we need, or the need itself might disappear.

But a truer, deeper friendship goes beyond the present. It is, as Hoffman says, more a commitment to who the other person could be in the future. Seen this way, the bedrock of a relationship is not unstinting loyalty, but a faith in each other’s ability to realize the best in themselves. Simply put, friends are not supposed to help us hide a body. Rather, they have to prevent us from becoming the kind of person who needs help to hide one.

Less morbidly, a true measure of friendship is our ability to honestly confront each other’s shortcomings. Thanks to their proximity to us, friends can spot our blind spots much better than we ourselves can. Moreover, we can be fairly confident that even critical feedback from a good friend is rooted in genuine concern rather than malice (or worse, indifference). This is why expecting unwavering loyalty can be so counter productive: it blocks our path to self-improvement. Yes, friends should support us, but asking them to reinforce false beliefs is completely missing the point of friendship.

The other side of this equation is white lies, or lies that we tell to avoid hurting others. A common example is when we turn down a friend’s request to meet using a spurious reason rather than saying we don’t feel like it. Even though the tendency to tell white lies begins in such trivial a manner, it can soon morph into something far more harmful.

As neuroscientist and author Sam Harris says in his book, Lying, telling a white lie trades present discomfort or awkwardness for longer term harm. By denying our friends access to the truth, we set them up for future failure as they come across people who are not as kind to them as we are. Moreover, as Harris writes, in shielding our friends from the truth we seem to have decided that we are the best judges of what they should or should not know about their lives. This is quite an arrogant position to take and robs the other person of the freedom to take the best possible decision for themselves.

When we become friends with someone we essentially enter into a contract to be our natural selves with each other. By being less than completely honest, we violate this basic tenet of friendship. It is, therefore, important to balance encouragement and loyalty on one hand, with uncomfortable feedback and utmost honesty on the other. When we insist only on the former or hold back on the latter, we create an invisible barrier between ourselves and undermine the trust that underpins genuine friendship. And that is just a terrible waste of a good friendship, isn’t it?

I read like a man possessed | I write to understand the world | Twitter: @DhawalHelix

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