One of the Four Loves

The Greeks have four words for love. There is agape, or spiritual love; storge, which is familial love; philia, which is the love between friends; and of course eros, sexual love.

I have problems with all four. Eros is a wasteland for me and always has been. My family is a source of constant trouble, much of which I cause myself. And I’ve been spiritually dead for quite a while; agape was a comfort for years but has been the worst of all in the last year.

My current problems are with philia. I value friendship highly — perhaps too highly — but I don’t think enough about its meaning. Assumptions are dangerous; the expectations for spiritual, familial, and sexual attachments are defined much better.

Friendship, though? People use the word “friend” to describe every level of intimacy from acquaintance to sexual partner. The rights and responsibilities of friends are defined by each person individually. One person may believe that “friend” means someone who would die for you, and another thinks it’s just someone with whom he’s friendly. To complicate matters, many people distinguish among their close friends, a circle of friends, and acquaintances but don’t make that explicit, and use the word “friend” to describe all of these. I’ve seen complete splits between friends over the definition of the friendship, where one believes that a friend is someone who lends money, or shows up at the wedding, or stands up for you no matter what, and the other has a more casual view of the arrangement.

All of this confusion can occur without anyone being malicious or even neurotic. The meaning of friendship is fluid, and assumptions go unchallenged for years. What’s worse, people change their idea of friendship sometimes without realizing it. Think of children and their lists of friends and enemies written down in deadly seriousness. You’re my best friend; she’s my second best friend; he’s my enemy. Thirty years later they may have only casual friends and be deep in family life.

I’m in a strange position. I’m forty and single, without much family. I have friends from college who live mostly in Los Angeles; I rarely hear from them, and I find it hard to connect with them now. Years ago they moved on to other stages of life and left me behind. Part of the bond of friendship is shared experience. When I left the entertainment industry, when they all got married and bought nice houses, when they found their own new social circle, I didn’t belong so much. On some nonverbal level the friendships got awkward and were discontinued except for a few letters a year. I learned a lesson, but not well enough.

I have some friends from jobs, too. Once again, these mostly fade after the environment is gone, in just the same way as the college friends. Once again, the people I knew there changed their lives (as I did too, probably), and the bond got weaker as we had less in common.

My current circle of friends are mostly regulars at a coffeehouse near me. They’re a lot like me in some ways: intelligent, verbal, interested in ideas and arts and entertainment, funny. Most of them are at least ten years younger than me. It’s a loose group with subgroups, and not everyone likes everyone else, but it functions as a circle of friends pretty well.

Over the years this group has changed a lot. Most of them were very young then, and are near 30 now. The ones who went to graduate school or to drink themselves to death or some other final destination have departed. Others are maturing and moving on to other lives. Quite a few have moved out of state or are planning it; several are married or engaged. I remain at the table: the aging bachelor dilettante who hangs out. Not only are my friends people I can’t experience eros with, but the philia is starting to look bad.

Apart from the personal anguish this causes me (it’s not a role I enjoy), I can see the bonds of friendship stretching in a familiar way. I have much less in common with a thirty-year-old married couple with a child and a condo than I do with a twenty-year-old sophomore with a rock band and a Marlboro habit. Whatever these people actually think of me as a person (which is another problem entirely), the common ground of friendship is shrinking. This is intensely painful for me, even though it’s at least the third time it’s happened.

So what does this mean for philia, and me? It means that friendship is far less than I want it to be, and that my own unspoken definition of the word is too strong. It’s not that anyone I know is a “bad friend”, or that I have a “bad” circle of friends. Because of my own flaws, I remain the same while they move on. Because of their own life patterns, they adapt, grow, and find new ways to relate to others that aren’t compatible with the world of the coffeehouse slacker.

In my own way I’m still on the playground in grammar school, where friendship is all you’ve got. Without agape or eros and with troublesome and painful storge , I’ve hung on to an outdated philia that doesn’t make sense to people with grown-up lives.

Not for the first time, I find myself a child in an aging man’s body, looking in wonder as the adults go about their business. How do they do it? Why can’t I? Who will be my new friends?

15 thoughts on “One of the Four Loves

  1. Like I said yesterday, it has always baffled me how the definition of friendship varies so drastically from person to person.
    To me, If I consider someone my “friend” it means that I enjoy them,would help them out within my means, and feel that they would defend my honor if I wasn’t around to do so.
    I know that sounds like a loose guideline, but it is what it is.
    I have had so many different sets of “friends” in my little life, and the word seems to redefine itself every 5 years or so. I kind of like that I have learned to just accept everyone for who they are and have completely lowered any expectations from them. I’m more interested in liking people than being liked mostly. To hell with em.
    Now tell me who doesn’t like me so I can KEEEEEEEEEL them.

  2. what do you say?
    Forget about all the bullshit for a day. dont think about who is who and what means what and come to the Warped Tour with me. its this friday. i dont know who is playing, i dont care. i just want to see a good show with people whose company i would enjoy were there not live music around. we arent “close” friends but i do consider you a friend and would love to see ya outside of Ds!
    i will set one ticket aside until you let me know one way or another, if you know anyone else and get back to me in time, then i will have 1 other…maybe 2 extra tickets, should you know someone else.

    1. Re: what do you say?
      You’re a great guy, Adam, and I appreciate the friendly note. I can’t go, so someone else should get the ticket, but the offer is appreciated.

      1. Re: what do you say?
        not a problem! all of my “friends” (lol) are flakes, so if you change your mind let me know, otherwise i will hopefully be able to get down to Ds and see you and everyone else soon. take care man!!
        ps. i know lots-a-peeps, who know lots-a-peeps in the low type places, just give me the word and mall goths will find 5 big ass ex-cons just siting on their hearse waiting for them after their lil DnD session!

  3. I struggle with this too. I have recently found myself mostly alone in my life and endeavors. Part of this is because of distance, because the few friends I have live far away, and part of this is because I am finding that my definition of friend is not the same as others’. When my definition of friendship is not the same as someone else’s, I get hurt, always. So I am in a process now where I am trying to figure out what my boundaries are once again, because the old system was simply not working.
    Perhaps you have hit on something. Perhaps I just didn’t have a good enough definition of philia in the first place, so my lack of defined boundaries is what got me hurt. But I’m with you on the importance of friends because like you, storge has just been a mess.
    I’ve always been an unconditional philia lover, but I seldom see that returned, and it is at the point now where I must have conditions in order to have people in my life. It’s very painful. It’s up there with realizing that your parents sucked, because you realize you can’t love the way you want to because no one else sees it the same or returns it, or even values it the way you do.
    All this and I seem to have lost the ability to make new friends.
    Sorry to be the commiserater instead of the “smile, it’ll be okay” person. I got no answers, just a little understanding.
    On another note, this was very well written and thought provoking.

  4. yup
    and this is why after an disasterous, family-friend-career-life-destroying marriage, it’s subsequent Burgess-Meredith-librarian-last-man-on-earth divorce and a five-year absence, I started performing again just about this time last year.
    I’m definitely wearing sommeone else’s pants.
    Which is also why I’ve decided to be 30 again. I’ve called “do over!” and refuse to walk past any mirrors. I exercise, eat well and allow people of any age to be good buddies as long as they want to be and then let them go. Pure, blissful denial. I even had a band/improv theatrical show last year involving my “Church of Denial” – 11 person cast for a one-man show. Very cathartic.
    Will it catch up with me when I’m older? Nah – I plan to spontaneously combust at some point, so it’s a moot point.
    and to whoever finds my charred, green remains… sorry.

    1. Re: yup
      “Burgess-Meredith-librarian-last-man-on-earth divorce” sounds really, really bad. I’m sorry that happened to you.
      The phrase “…and then let them go” is important. I can’t do that easily; it’s like pulling bandages slowly off hairy skin. Which also happened to me this week. It’s a funny old world, ain’t it?
      I want a do-over but I’m too far out of sync with everyone. I just spent the last ten years discovering that.

      1. Re: yup
        I’m so far out of synch that I play hip hop tunes on a toy piano and monkey for white audiences! I’ve come to understand that celebrating my un-synch-ness loudly makes me happy to be me, even tho I’ve had big tragedies to deal with.
        I know it sounds melodramatic, however I’ve seen how dark my life can get before doing something final. That’s why I wake up every day and say “thank you” out loud to whoever or whatever it is that keeps my plates spinning. No lie – I really do that.
        I’m in the same weird time pocket you’re in – most of my active friends are ten years or more younger than me and longer friendships are with people who have “grown up”. Outside of other musicians, of course, who never really grow up. And even there, the ones who have settled down and given up their muse are bitter, cloudy and full of regret.
        I don’t think there’s a real answer to feeling like you belong. I’m just coming to the conclusion that I never will really “belong” anywhere, except in the cartoonish, silly life that I lead. And as long as I can make people laugh, sing, or feel better through doing my dopey shows, then I know that’s exactly where I belong. That is my purpose.
        You have many friends. You should take pride in that. You are the amalgamation of all the people who love you and you are their rallying point.

  5. i’ve lost my ability to form complete sentences that make sense lately, but i have to say that i do relate to this. more than you think being that i likely get lumped into the married or divorced or grown up with kid categories, though i feel that realistically i don’t fit into any of them.
    i will be your new friend, i know that we are already “friends” but i would enjoy developing our friendship as opposed to giving it up…
    and also, what said. like you, she’s good at saying stuff.

  6. I’m torn as to what to say here. I still consider you my friend; but I definitely feel like our friendship has changed. Because I’ve been away, when I come to the OC I have difficult time determining if the changes I feel and observe in others are a as result of me changing and experiencing the other person in a different way or whether the person has changed.
    I’m hesitant to say anything else because I don’t want you to think that I’m not your friend anymore. I respect you, I care about you and I want you to have joy, peace and happiness in your life. However, with great hesitation, I do feel like you have actively pushed me away from you every time I see you. This may be because I have become someone who you don’t want to be close to anymore. I don’t want to assume anything.
    I just wanted to offer my perspective. As always, your post was articulate and thought provoking.

    1. You’re wrong that I’m pushing you away. I’m sorry I gave that impression. Nonverbal communication is a fucking minefield.
      You haven’t become anything but an even better Kate. If someone has changed for the worse, it’s me.

      1. Thank you for saying that. You have been a good friend and a wonderful part of my life since I was a stupid teenager. I have always valued having you in my life. I hope that you know that. If it all it took was getting a little friend-upset on my to scare me away, I wouldn’t have any friends anymore because lord knows I’ve been quite the asshole to my friends. Hugs and biryani 🙂

  7. I can relate to much of this. I have incredibly high standards for friendship though, and I’m incredily independent, so I tell myself it doesn’t matter when people come and go, people do come and go, and as long as I’m comfortable with myself it will be okay.

  8. This is a great post. Thank you. I’d be interested in what you come up with further about this, since I see some of the same problems in my own life (even though I’m 12 years younger). I’m trying to figure out a longterm plan for handling the world in which my friends “settle down” and I find such an existence stifling and silly.

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