The true nature of friendship

Source: The Sunday Times, 3 Jan 2010

Genuine relationships are built on more than mutual goodwill and exchanging of favours

By Lee Wei Ling

I had gone to bed at 7pm on Dec 30 from sheer exhaustion. I woke up at 2am and responded to e-mail on my Blackberry.

I noticed that I had missed two phone calls from two very close friends. It was obviously inappropriate to return the calls at 2am, so I e-mailed to say I’d return the calls during lunch time.

I then went back to sleep and have just woken up at 6am, trying to recall what day of the week it was because that would determine my schedule for the day.

For a moment, I thought it was Friday, New Year’s Day. It was only when I went outside to pick up the newspapers that I realised it was only New Year’s Eve.

I do not usually place any emphasis on ‘special days’ – whether it be Christmas, New Year’s Day, Chinese New Year or birthdays.

These days are determined by the calendar, but to me they are no different from regular days.

In fact, they often are less pleasant than regular days as I dislike the noise and crowds of special days. I solve that problem by simply staying in my room at home on such days, clearing e-mail and paperwork. This applies even to the reunion dinner on Chinese New Year’s Eve.

I am by nature not a sociable person. Indeed, I had become asocial by the time I reached pre-university in school. I do have friends and I have never neglected to help any of them when they needed help.

But for most of my adult life, I have not been willing to spend more time than necessary on conversations and social interactions with my friends. I felt that would be a waste of time – time that could have been better spent reading medical journals, analysing research data, exercising and other ‘more important activities’.

It was only since 2001, after repeated bouts of illness, that I learnt that friendship does not just mean mutual goodwill, but also spending time with friends talking about things other than medical research.

Staying for months in hospital makes any friend dropping in to see one a welcome relief, though I was not bored as such as I could work on my laptop. As prisoners know, solitary confinement (even in a hospital) can be terribly punishing on the spirit.

Human beings are social creatures. We are social not just in the trivial sense that we like company, and not just in the obvious sense that we depend on others. We are social in a more elemental way: Simply to exist as normal human beings requires us to interact with other people.

There is a Chinese saying, jun zi zhi jiao dan ru shui

xiao ren zhi jiao tian ru mi. The literal translation is: ‘The friendship between two honourable people is as understated as water.’

Many of my English-educated friends have difficulty grasping this concept. They would often exclaim in surprise: ‘Surely you have changed the saying. The relationship between two honourable people must surely be as sweet as honey.’

No, I have not reversed the idiom. The friendship between two good honourable people is understated. Each will help the other when help is needed even before a request for help is issued. And when one offers to help, the other would accept without feeling any obligation to return the favour.

The ‘friendship’ between two petty people, on the other hand, is as cloying as honey. When one offers to help, the other would feel that at some point the favour would have to be returned.

The simplest analogy for this saying is as follows: Between honourable friends, there is no account of how many favours I owe that friend and vice versa. The relationship between petty people, on the other hand, requires an accurate account, since for every favour accepted, a return favour would be expected. As far as I can help it, I avoid such friendships.

I am not in the habit of making New Year resolutions. We should change our undesirable behaviour and mend our ways as soon as we discover that our behaviour is less than honourable; there is no need to wait for the New Year to resolve to do so.

2009 has given me both suffering and happiness. I expect the same of 2010. But to all readers who feel a New Year represents a new chapter in life, I wish you a Happy New Year, filled with true friendship and good deeds. And may 2010 be a better year than 2009.