Friends and Friendship

I have been travelling again these days. By the end of the week, I would have been away for ten days, in Kobe for three and Geneva the rest, or most of the rest. I have been to most of these places before and inevitably these re-visits brought back old memories, including some rather old ones.

In Geneva, for example, I have been attending meetings at Palais Des Nations. This is where many United Nations organizations have their offices and hold meetings. I first came here in the Eighties with a group of colleagues led by an Oxford don. It was a whirlwind visit called the European Tour. It began from UK and we were to cover the major European cities in about ten days. We made our way here from Oxford through various routes and modes of transport. I recall I came through Paris, took the high speed TGV to the border of France before changing to an ordinary-speed train to Geneva. The French are very proud of their TGV and quite rightly so. It is always on time and accurate to the second, so that one can set the watch based on the train schedule; it is quiet, comfortable and reliable so that a cigarette placed vertically on the table of a moving train will not fall; it is clean and of course it is fast, going up to 300 km an hour. I thought I would take the TGV again this time in a side visit, and was slightly disappointed when I found that I would have to do so some other time.

The Oxford don has since died, of cancer, leaving a young family at the time. We had a number of professors and tutors those days, of various nationalities and ages and in varying state of health, but all rather erudite. He would be in the young and strong category, but very unpredictably, he was the first to go. He had some strong views on me initially, mostly uncomplimentary, but later and before the second term ended, he changed his views entirely when he found out more about me as a person, or specifically how I dealt with a friend and colleague. He then went out of his way to tell others, and me, to my embarrassment. He even played bridge with me during the European Tour. I suppose back then he was my friend. He would be, for he actually wrote me a letter in his own handwriting on his College notepaper telling me so. For a host of reasons, including the pressures of life, distance and the lack of social skills, I did not further advance the relationship before he died. The relationship from my end therefore could at best be described as lost then found, or perhaps in reality, functional.

Still on the Tour, the colleagues on the trip became rather close and good friends, certainly in the first years we were back. They have since gone different ways. Some have left the civil service, some have retired, and a few have gone ahead to become senior and famous, including one whom the Oxford don ridiculed for making some odd but perhaps slightly out of place remarks during the visit. It reflects those oft-repeated remarks that nobody is perfect and that nobody can be right all the time.

Looking into the past and at the present, I cannot tell how many from the original European Tour are still friends between them and one another, or for that matter, with me.

We all make friends through life, some proactively, others by chance, and many through other friends. The sixty-four thousand dollar question is who are one’s friends, and let me add others for good measures, including how many friends does one need in life, or how many friends can one handle at any one time.

I have had some rather lengthy exchanges with my young friend Harry on friends and friendship. I had thought of quoting chapters and verses from some of what he said, but since I am miles away from my home terminal, I can only share with you what I think would epitomize the principal theme. He had picked this up from a former teacher, and here it goes. A friend is somebody who would let you in his house without asking even one question when you knock at his door in the middle of the night carrying a bleeding corpse. I think that is a great definition. It prescribes the necessary and sufficient conditions for a relationship on earth between two persons, a relationship that is not based on tangible earthy causes, not motivated by material gains or rewards, and most important of all, not necessarily rational.

Close your eyes and think of someone you know who would fit the bill. I congratulate you if you can think of one person. On the other hand, do not feel despaired if you draw a blank. The test is probably too stringent and perhaps unrealistic. There are other easier tests, such as whether he has invited you to dine in his house, whether you would accept the invite, whether you would or have reciprocated the invite, how often, the nature and circumstances when they happened and so on.

Frankly, I like the bleeding corpse definition very much. The more I think of it, the more I like it. It fits well with the conditions I set for friendship, and let me elaborate.

Friends are ascribed as opposed to being prescribed, somewhat like husband and wife, except they are not the same and except that the test could be even more rigorous. Thus, most of us have no choice on whom to be our parents, siblings, children, and to some extent our colleagues. They are all prescribed to us at different stages of our lives. We would all like to believe that we have or had a choice on whom to be our spouse in a husband and wife relationship, but this one could be so much laden with social, economic, emotional, sexual and other implications which can and very often mask the very reason for having the relationship in the first place, which would therefore make it distinctly different from a relationship between two persons, entered into freely, voluntarily and of one’s own accord, that we call friendship.

A relationship between two persons based on worldly functions is by definition not permanent and therefore unsafe. The ultimate test for friendship is that while the relationship is entirely voluntary and non-contractual, it is meant to be permanent. A breakdown in the relationship, or for that matter, a breakdown in any relationship, will therefore be very painful. Not only that, it is normally irreparable.

Any relationship comes with risks, some higher or greater than others. With friends, I suppose the risks are directly proportional to the expectations from the relationship, which means that the higher the expectation, the greater the risks. Herein lies the paradox. If one is afraid of risks and would not take risks in life, one can hardly be regarded as living or having lived. No pain, no gain. The beauty of friendship is that the relationship can change lives, such that one gets much more, probably more than one deserves, out of life through friends, simply through the willingness and readiness in accepting each other for what they are, or through the faith in the relationship. Friendship sounds like godliness and I say it is. God created man out of love and gave us among other things the faculty to make friends. God also tries hard to be our friend. This can be the single most important gift for man, along with fresh air and clean water.

We have often heard and indeed society now readily accepts and believes that separated husband and wife can become friends, and good friends too. I look at the equation from a slightly different angle. I say that the husband and wife in a couple that have learnt to become friends will stay together for a very long time, which means forever.

Talk to you later from Hong Kong.

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