Judaism: Day 30 – Love and friendship

“Any love which is dependent on something, when the ‘something’ ceases, the love ceases. Any love which is not dependent on anything will never cease. What is a love which is dependent? The love of Amnon for Tamar. And which is not dependent? The love of David and Yehonasan.” – Pirkei Avos

This is an amazingly insightful Mishnah. It makes the point that if your love or bond with someone is based in something specific and identifiable, it will not endure. It is fragile.

If you love a woman only for her beauty, you will not love her when she is no longer beautiful. If you love a friend for his wealth and generosity, and that ends, the relationship will end when his generosity ends.

Nassim Taleb offers a similar idea about friendship in his book of aphorisms:

If you find any reason why you and someone are friends, you are not friends.

The Pirkei Avos cites the story of Anmon and Tamar, who were half brother and sister and were children of King David. Anmon lusted after Tamar and eventually raped her. His love for her was only replaced by more intense hate. His “love” was not love at all, merely lust, which is intrinsically a selfish desire.

The Mishnah also cites the love of David and Yehonasan, who were brothers in line for the throne. This should have spurred natural competition and jealousy, however, Yehonasan at one point saved David’s life at the risk of embarrassing himself and losing the right to the throne. This was unconditional love.

The Mishnah also describes a proper love of God.

When a man loves God as a result of everything good that He has done for him, the bond is tenuous and may even, God forbid, collapse. However, if one’s love of God is for its own sake, even if he undergoes the travails of Job, he will emerge with pristine faith an enduring love of his Maker.

This suggests you don’t really love God if you ultimately view him as a Santa Claus like figure, as if he exists only to give you things you want. If you truly love him, you will love him even when you suffer.

It’s a difficult exercise to consider your relationships this way. You may find that many of your relationships are more shallow than you thought.

For example, if you were to think about the number of people you consider your friends you’d be willing to suffer for, you’re probably left with only a fraction of your friends. Perhaps you are left with none.

If this is the case maybe it’s time to invest in meaningful relationships.

I read an interesting article titled, Do Men Suck at Friendship? The (male) author implies that men are particularly bad at developing and maintaining deep friendships. They form relatively superficial friendships when it is convenient, such as when the friend lives near you or you are both in the same intramural basketball league, but when that convenience ends, the friendship dies with it.

Not only is this lonely, it’s actually bad for your health.

Loneliness accelerates age-related declines in cognition and motor function, while a single good friend has been shown to make as much as a 10-year difference in overall life expectancy. A huge meta-study performed in part at Brigham Young University, which reviewed 148 studies with a combined 308,849 subject participants, found that loneliness is just as harmful to health as not exercising, smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and alcoholism, and fully twice as bad as being obese. Still more startling is a 2010 study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology that looked at 2,230 cancer patients in China. Social well-being, including friendship, turned out to be the number one predictor of survival.

So maybe the Rabbis of old were on to something. True love and friendship is not attributable to something specific, something superficial. They are based in something deeper and unselfish.

To attain those deeper relationships, you must put in the work. You must be willing to suffer for the other person and not flee as soon as it becomes inconvenient.

It’s strange to think of our relationships this way, but I imagine it is ultimately worthwhile.