How to Choose Your Friends Wisely | Self-Help Podcasts

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Today’s podcast has been edited and adapted from the book Friendship by Hugh Black, published 1898.

Responsibility for our friendships is not confined to making sure that our influence over others is for good. We have also a duty to ourselves. As we possess the gift of influence over others, so we in turn are affected by every life which touches ours. Influence is like an atmosphere exhaled by each separate personality.

Some people seem neutral and colorless, with no atmosphere to speak of. Some have a bad atmosphere, like the poisonous odor of noxious weeds, breeding malaria. If our moral sense were only keen and true, we would instinctively know them, as some children do, and dread their company.

Others have a good atmosphere; we can breathe there in safety, and have a joyful sense of security. With some of these, it is a delicate environment, sweet, suggestive, like the aroma of wild violets: we have to look, and sometimes to stoop, to get into its range. With some it is like a pine forest, or a eucalyptus grove of warmer climes, which perfumes a whole countryside.

It is well to know such people. They put oxygen into the moral atmosphere, and we breathe more freely for it. They give us new insight, and fresh courage, and purer faith, and by the impulse of their example, they inspire us to a nobler life.

There is nothing so important as the choice of friendship; for it both reflects character and affects it. We are known by the company we keep. It is an in- fallible test; for our thoughts, and desires, and ambitions, and loves are revealed there. It also affects our character; for it is the atmosphere we breathe. It enters our blood and makes the circuit of our veins. Or as the old saying goes, “All love assimilates to what it loves.”

We are molded into the likeness of the lives that come nearest to us. It is at the point of the emotions that we are most impressionable. Our material surroundings affect us, but the environment of other lives, the communion of other souls, affect us far more potently. The nearer people are to each other, and the less disguise there is in their relationship, the more invariably will the law of spiritual environment act.

It seems a tragedy that people, who see each other as they are, become like each other; and often it IS a tragedy. But the law carries as much hope in it as despair. If through it evil works havoc, through it also good persists. If we are hindered by the weakness of our associates, we are often helped by their goodness and sweetness. Contact with a strong nature inspires us with strength.

Someone once asked the great clergyman Charles Kingsley what was the secret of his strong joyous life, and he answered, “I had a friend.” If every destructive person is a center of contagion, every good person is a center of healing. Goodness creates an atmosphere for other souls to be good. It is a noble garment that has virtue even for the finger that touches it. The earth has its salt, and the world has its light, in the sweet souls, and winsome lives, and kind characters to be found in it.

Our choice of friends is therefore one of the most serious affairs in life, just because we become molded into the likeness of what we love in our friends. From a purely selfish standard, every fresh bond we form means giving a new hostage to fortune, and adding a new risk to our happiness. Apart from any moral hazard, every intimacy is a danger of another blow to the heart. But if we desire fullness of life, we cannot help ourselves.

We may make many a friendship that ends in hurt, but the isolated life is a greater danger still. Every relationship means risk, but we must take the risk; for while nearly all our sorrows come from our connection with others, nearly all our joys have the same source. We cannot help ourselves; for it is part of the great curriculum of life.

We need knowledge, and care, and forethought to enable us to make the best use of the necessities of our nature. And foremost of these in importance is our choice of friends. We may err on the one side by being too cautious, and too exclusive in our attachments. We may be supercilious, and disdainful in our estimate of others. Contempt always blinds the eyes. Every person is vulnerable somewhere, if only like Achilles in the heel. The true secret of insight is not contempt, but sympathy.

The other extreme is the attitude which easily makes many friends, without much consideration of quality. We all know the type of person, who is friendly with everybody, and a friend of none. They heartily chat up every passing stranger, take up with every sort of casual comrade, and seeks to be on good terms with everybody. They make what is called “good company,” and are a favorite on all light occasions. Many like the person; but few can rely on them as a trusted friend in times of trouble. They are, instead, the fair weather friend.

Though it may seem difficult to avoid either of these two extremes, it will not do to refuse to choose at all, and leave things to chance. We drift into many of our connections with others, but the art of seamanship is tested by sailing not by drifting.

The subject of the choice of friendship is not advanced much by just letting them choose us. That is to become the victim, not the master of our circumstances. And while it is true that we are acted on as much as we act, and are chosen as much as we choose, it is not permitted to any one merely to be passive, except at great cost.

At the same time, we cannot say that we went about with a touchstone testing all potential friends, till we found the ore that would respond to our particular magnet. As Emerson has said, our friends always come to us unsought; the great universe brings them to us. Is it therefore absurd and useless to speak about the choice of friend-ship at all? No, by no means, because the principles we set before ourselves will determine the kind of friends we have, as truly as if the whole initiative lay with us.

We are chosen as friends for the same reason for which we choose friends. To try to separate the two processes is futile, because the distinction cannot be maintained. Besides, the value of having some definite principle by which to test friendship is not confined to the positive attachments made. The necessity for a system of selection is largely due to the necessity for rejection.

The good and great intimacies of our life will perhaps come to us, as the wind bloweth, we cannot tell how. But by regulating our course wisely, we will escape from hampering our life by mistakes, and weakening it with false connections. We ought to be courteous, and kind, and gentle with all, but not to all can we open the sanctuary of our heart.

We have a graduated scale of intimacy, from introduction, and nodding acquaintance, and speaking acquaintance, through an endless series of kinds of intercourse to the perfect friendship. In counting up our gains and our resources, we cannot give them all the same value, without deceiving ourselves. To expect loyalty and devotion from all alike is to court disappointment. Most misanthropical and cynical estimates of others are due to this mingled ignorance and conceit.

We cannot look for undying affection from the crowd that we may happen to have entertained to dinner, or have rubbed shoulders with at business conferences or at social gatherings. Many people in life, as many depicted in literature, have played the misanthrope because they have discovered through adversity how many of their associates were fair-weather friends. In their prosperity they encouraged toadying and sycophancy. They liked to have hangers-on, who would flatter, but when the north wind blows they are indignant that their circle should prefer to avoid it.

Our choice of friendship does not mean the indiscriminate acceptance of all who are willing to assume the name of friend. A touch of north wind is good, not only to weed out the false and test the true, but also to brace us to the stern realities of life. When we find that some of our intimates are dispersed by adversity, instead of raving against the world’s ingratitude, we should be glad that now we know whom exactly we can trust.

Another common way of choosing friends, and one which also meets with its own fitting reward, is the selfish method of valuing others according to their usefulness to us. To add to their credit, or reputation, some are willing to include anybody in their list of intimates. For business purposes, people will sometimes run risks, by endangering the peace of their home and the highest interests of those they love; they are ready to introduce into their family circle people whom they distrust morally, because they think they can make some gain out of the connection.

All the stupid snobbishness we see is due to the same desire to make use of people in some way or other. It is an abuse of the word friendship to apply it to such social scrambling. There can never be true friendship without self-respect, and unless soul meets soul free from self-seeking. We need not go out of our way to ingratiate ourselves with anybody. Nothing can make up for a loss of independence and the native dignity of the soul.

There can only be friendship between equals. But this does not mean equals in what is called social position, nor even in intellectual attainments, though these naturally have weight, but it means equality which has a spiritual source. And yet for the highest unity there must also be difference, the difference of free beings, with will, and conscience, and mind unhampered.

We often make much of our differences, forgetting that really we differ, and can differ, only because we agree. Without many points of contact, there could be no divergence from these. Argument and contradiction of opinion are the outcome of difference, and yet for argument there is needed a common basis. We cannot even discuss, unless we meet on some mental ground common to both disputants.

So there may be, nay, for the highest union there must be, a great general conformity behind the distinctions, a deep underlying common basis beneath the unlikeness. And for a true union of hearts, this equality must have a spiritual source.

In other words, the perfect friendship is grounded on what is permanent. Our close friends should thus be chosen for character, for goodness, for truth and trustworthiness, because they have sympathy with us in our best thoughts and the highest aspirations of the soul.

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