The end to friendships

May 08, 2023 12:28
Photo: Reuters

Much has been written on how friendships begin…

A chance encounter on the streets.

A shared workplace.

A neighbourhood in which one is brought up with another.

Acquaintances, friends, good friends. So on and so forth.

Yet what is oft neglected, is the other side to the equation. How friendships end.

Some friendships end as a result of embittered disputes over politics, disagreements over values and ideologies, or indeed, squabbles over which candidate one supports - in countries with regular and openly contested elections, that is.

Some friendships end due to the most innocuous and mundane of disagreements… petty fights over missed appointments, misarranged schedules, or quibbles over how to word an invitation to a wedding. The fragility and capriciousness of human relations are laid fully bare upon the eruption - then unbridled escalation - of tensions between those who had once been close.

In many more instances, however, friendships just… end. They could end gradually, due to a natural decline in interactions and activity. Someone moving away to start work elsewhere. Another retiring from work in order to find meaning in their remaining days. Or, indeed, the odd fella who finds his friends too stifling… too inhibiting… too didactic.

I watched ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ thrice - once on my way to the UK, once on my flight back from the UK, and finally the third on my way to Singapore for a short trip. What a terrific watch - gripping and gruelling, yet also so deeply frustrating and relatable. Frustrating in the mind-numbingly inexplicable reasons for the deterioration in relations, e.g. “I just don’t find you interesting to talk to, anymore”, and “You’re boring. You’re just boring” come to mind.

Relatable, on the other hand, in that unlike most stories told in most movies, the film did not seek to assign a deeper level of ‘meaning’ or purported rationale to the disintegration of interest. It just happened to be the case that two once-buddies became progressively distant, and ‘tis no one’s fault. Sure, the audience might have been convinced - by the time the end credits rolled around, that the inimitable Brendan Gleeson’s character was perhaps an undue cynic.

Yet his cynicism was also only understandable - indeed, far more understandable as compared with the irrational zeal and sectarianism undergirding decades of civil and religious strife in countries across the world; as the tyranically exclusionary nature of those who dabbled in racist friendships and sexist profiling in their approaches to relationships. Understandability here does not connote justification - there certainly is no ethical basis for individuals to be racist, sexist, and discriminate along religious lines when it comes to treatment of others. And, I’d wager, the same could be said of ethics in friendships.

What of turning down someone’s friendship because they’re too boring, however? Or rejecting someone’s companionship on grounds that they are insufficiently intellectual? Or opting to associate purely with alumni from particular universities? At what point do questions as seemingly harmless and subjective as, ‘What friends should I possess’, morph into questions that can reflect sharply on the ethical characters of the individuals engaged in these relationships? There are no clear lines and no singular answers to this question.

Now let us perhaps draw together the 1 and 1, and make a 2 out of them. As friendships begin to crumble, with whom does the responsibility to repair said friendships lie? Should the parties involved seek to prevent the relations from deteriorating further -- even if it’s merely kicking the can down the road and stalling the inevitable?

‘Renfield’ put Nicholas Hoult and Nicholas Cage in the one and the same movie, and depicts, in an expressly gory and macabre manner, an unhealthy relationship of dependence by Renfield on his Master, Dracula. The Master-Slave dialectic there is extreme, visceral, and probably unhealthy for both parties. Yet what of friendships governed by power asymmetries that are less clear-cut? Does merely the fact that one party craves to hold onto it, for self-serving ends and gains, thereby impose obligations upon the other to comply?

These are fascinating questions concerning relationships. Indeed, the case for expanding the range of our ethical discourse to friendships has never been stronger. Yet doing so also comes with a distinctive set of costs. It blurs the lines between the public and the private. It also transforms something as intimate as friendship, into a topic of debate, adjudication, and critique. The mode of discourse thus becomes colder, more distant, more dispassionate, and more… alien. Perhaps that is indeed the intention.

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Assistant Professor, HKU