Of Friends

Matthew Perry’s portrayal of friendship in the sitcom will turn out to be, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote, “the sheltering tree” for others that he himself never found.

The death of Matthew Perry last week brought a tear or two to those who had come to feel affection for the character he acted. 

Wisecracker Chandler Bing brought ‘Friends to life with hiszingy one-liners and an uncanny ability to cut through any situation with sarcasm.  He was a friend indeed to the many millions who tuned in to the show.

Perry’s death was even harder to bear when one considers that, behind the stage character, was a man who had been fighting a battle with demons for many years.  The sitcom made him a millionaire and made millions laugh, but Perry had become the victim of a painful cycle of addiction to the painkiller Vicodin, which saw him in and out of rehab over many years.

According to his own autobiography, the seeds were sown in an unhappy childhood and deep-seated insecurities that not even fame could fix.  The abandonment he felt after his parents divorced made him feel like the “latchkey kid”, as he himself described himself in the biography.  Perry owns up to stealing money, smoking, letting his grades at school nosedive, and beating a schoolmate or two – including future Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.  As is typical in many such situations, he thought that the solution lay in shutting everyone out from his personal feelings.

Many psychologists will tell you that parental abandonment usually triggers feelings of shame and guilt in children who come to believe that the abandonment was caused by their own perceived inferiority and flaws.  If their parents have rejected them, isn’t it because they did not deserve affection and love?  Even if they do not suffer abuse, such children often succumb to emotional and social disorders or worse.     


The importance of having friends

New research has delved into what friendship looks like, including just how many friends the average person has and what they mean to them.  A Pew Research Centre study in the USA found that over 60 percent of adults say that having close friends is essential to living a fulfilling life, outstripping those who cited marriage, children, or money.  A slim majority (53 per cent) put the number of close friends at between one and four, while 38 per cent said that had five or more.  The rest admitted to having no friends.

Friends can be anyone from the guys who come out with you on a drive to Ċirkewwa on a Sunday morning, the gals who join you for a ladies’ night out on a Friday at Paceville, or those work colleagues who can fill you in on all the office gossip over a drink or two at Trabuxù in Valletta.  But the satisfaction one feels from having friends is not related to the number of them, but to the quality time one can spend with them.  Conversations with friends can range from family, through sports to current events.  Another advantage is that one can connect with other people who are not necessarily close to you but could become so.  The idea is that the more diverse your social portfolio, the happier you are and the higher your well-being.

Do we have any figures that can compare the Maltese with those in the USA?  Indeed, there are.  Research carried out by the Faculty for Social Wellbeing of the University of Malta shows that 79 per cent of Maltese people aged 11 and over feel they have enough friends and acquaintances but that just over 9 per cent (equivalent to 34,000 people) find their circle of friends and acquaintances too limited.

The Maltese research found that having a sense of belonging to the community where you live is likely to translate into more friends and acquaintances.  In fact, only 5.3 per cent of those with a very strong sense of belonging and 6.3 per cent of those with a fairly strong sense of belonging feel that they do not have enough friends and acquaintances. These figures are, however, more than double among those who experience less belonging to their neighbourhood.

Being lonely

Does it matter whether one is lonely?  Well, the US Surgeon General found that lacking connection can increase the risk for premature death to levels comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.  Author Lydia Denworth, who wrote a book on friendship, contends that friends can change your cardiovascular system, your immune system, how you sleep, and your cognitive health.

It also seems that it’s not just friends who are important to one’s well-being.  Hanne Collins, who studied Organisational Behaviour at Harvard Business School, has co-authored a study on the importance of talking to strangers in your everyday life, a factor that is defined as “relational diversity”.

The lack of friends. or even strangers with whom one can relate, brings about a sense of loneliness which seems to be growing.  In the Maltese study, just over a tenth of respondents did not feel positive about their life while two out of 10 (21 per cent) experienced a ‘general sense of emptiness’.  Almost 10 per cent of respondents revealed that they ‘do not feel there are plenty of people they can lean on’ when they experience problems as opposed to 78 per cent, who feel they have a robust support network on which to rely on.

Technology by itself is no answer

One might wonder how it is that, in a world where the social media are so dominant, people feel lonely.  The truth is that one could have a thousand friends on Facebook or get a million likes on Instagram, but still feel lonely because loneliness is about the quality of one’s connections.  Technology by itself does not guarantee that people will interact with each other in sufficient degree to overcome loneliness.

It is therefore not difficult to understand why Perry never found lasting love. “I need love, but I don’t trust it. If I drop my game like Chandler and show you who I really am you might notice me – but worse you might notice me and might leave me, and I can’t have that.”  That is why he avoided commitment and found it so hard to let people in.  It is the dilemma he laid bare when he wrote “The End of Longing”, a play that explored his characters’ search for love and commitment.

Misfortune and empathy

In spite of that, Perry still found the will and empathy to turn his $10m Malibu beach compound into Perry House, a men’s sober living facility – a project that received the Champion of Recovery award from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.  Now, following his death, that work is being acclaimed alongside the impact he made with his acting talent.  It never ceases to amaze me how deeply unfortunate people – like our Bjorn Formosa – can find it within themselves to help others and make such a huge difference in the community.

Perry had written: “When I die, as far as my so-called accomplishments go, it would be nice if Friends were listed far behind the things I did to try and help other people.”   Whether it will be so or not I don’t know, but as far as I am concerned, I believe that Perry’s portrayal of friendship in the sitcom will turn out to be, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote, “the sheltering tree” for others that he himself never found.

Photo credit: CBS

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