In “Make Friends with People Who Want the Best for You,” Jordan Peterson actually offers up mostly cautionary stories from his own youth about acquaintances who didn’t want the best for him.
Chris was a kid who—seriously—made a hobby out of crashing his truck and hating his dad. He tragically died by suicide after suffering a psychotic break. Chris’s cousin Ed, on his first-ever trip out of his village, to Edmonton, spent the weekend in a seedy hotel smoking weed. Peterson’s other acquaintances brandished shotguns, insulted women, fell out of trees half drunk, and spent hours driving their cars in circles around Fairview, Alberta. None amounted to anything, at least by Peterson’s measures.
And, in his one literary example, Peterson describes how the hero of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground damned himself by having fun saying, “No, I won’t help you,” to a prostitute, Liza, even though he had earlier given her reason to believe he was a friend.
With so-called friends like these—stoners, truck crashers, drunks, and sadistic John’s—with friends like these, who needs enemies?
It’s odd. In a chapter entitled “Make Friends with People Who Want the Best for You,” Peterson spends most of his energy describing a bunch of toxic losers, but never describes true friendship. Peterson does echo warnings you find in the book of Proverbs: “A righteous person is cautious in friendship.” Or again, “A person of many companions may come to ruin; but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother." Except that in Peterson’s chapter, it’s all about ruinous companions with nothing about the friend who sticks.
The little Peterson does say about friends is all implied in the chapter’s title: “Make Friends with People Who Want the Best for You.” Or, to put it as plainly as I can, “Make friends if they come with benefits.”
This is an oddly self-centered, almost narcissistic approach to friend-making, one that is so pragmatic about costs and benefits that it empties friendship of all beauty, ideals, and mystery.
But when it comes to friendship, that’s about par for the course these days. Friendship has fallen on hard times. We don’t reflect much on it, aspire to make it a life goal, or spend lavishly on it for the pleasure of it. For most of us friendship is an occasional diversion. In life's banquet, we consume friendship like an appetizer. We don’t dwell on it or deeply value it. For example, if your roommate came home late from a date and you asked her if she was late because she had been out with someone special, she might well reply, "Oh, no. He's just a friend." Just a friend. Nothing special.
The Biblical picture of friendship is quite different. Friendship is actually a kind of love. Here’s the context. The Bible describes at least three kinds of love. There is eros, erotic love, like the love Adam and Eve shared when they were naked and not ashamed; or the love the young man has for a black Shunamite woman in Song of Songs: “How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride! How much better is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your oils than any spice.”
Second, the New Testament emphasizes agape, agapic love. This is the unconditional love for one’s neighbour, as in, “Love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
And finally, in the Bible, there is philia, friendship love. Philia is agapic love not for all your neighbours, but for the neighbour who walks with you, shoulder to shoulder, in some shared pursuit or pastime. For example, when Jonathan died, David sang, "You were very dear to me Jonathan, my brother. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women." Proverbs says "A friend loves at all times, but a brother is born for adversity." In John 14, Jesus links love and friendship when he says, "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends." How is that for a pragmatic cost-benefit analysis of friendship?
But it isn’t only the Bible that so lavishly values friendship. In the classical and medieval worlds philia love—friendship—was thought of as a higher-level love because it is freely chosen rather than commanded by God or biologically necessary for procreation or desired for sexual pleasure. Both Aristotle and Plato (he of Platonic friendship) wrote extensively about friendship—what it was, why it mattered, and so on. In a world without Facebook and toys, friendship was one of the only games going. And so, it was deeply sought after and cherished.
Such friendship begins when you join a person in pursuit of a shared goal or vision, and it grows as you discover that the sharing is a pleasure. The thing shared might be as simple as stamp-collecting, or tennis, or even a glass of wine and conversation. But when, either purposely or surprisingly, the shared walk grows into mutual regard, and then into a mutual love of both being-with and being-for another person, that’s friendship. Friendship is agapic love not for every neighbour but for the one you have chosen to walk with.
Please note. Not just anyone you grow up with, or golf with, or work with is a friend in this sense. Just a few of your two or three hundred or more Facebook friends are friends in this sense. It takes more than liking a post, more than being together; friendship takes a shared sense of a mutual goal or vision that leads to mutual regard that grows over time.
Job’s story, which we just read, is mostly told to help the reader understand—or at least come to grips with the impossibility of understanding—suffering. But the story is told as the tale of a couple of friends who try, at least, to be there for each other in a mutual, loving way while in pursuit of a shared goal. The hero is Job. In chapter one we learn that he had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, seven sons and three daughters.
Then Satan—in the book of Job Satan is one of God’s esteemed cabinet members, and not the demon we’ve made of him since—one day Satan makes a bet with God. Satan says, “you know, if you took everything away from Job—took away his sheep and oxen and children and wealth—Job would curse you rather than worship you.”
God says, “You’re on.” And so, Satan sends evil Sabeans to run off with Job’s donkeys and oxen and slaughter Job's hired hands. Chaldeans rustle his camels. A storm destroys the house his children are partying at and kills them all. And finally, in chapter 2, Job comes down with leprosy.
Job tears his clothes. He shaves his hair. He scratches himself with broken pieces of pottery. Job’s wife says to him, “Hey, why don’t you just curse God and die?”
But no. Instead, Job says, rather philosophically, “Naked I came out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there. The Lord gave, and the Lord took away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” I’m not sure I like the theology here, but it’s what Job believed.
So, Job lost everything. Everything, except his friends.
Eliphaz Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, Zophar the Naamathite heard of their friend’s misfortune, and so went to visit. When they saw him, they wept aloud, tore their clothes, put sand and ashes in their hair. Then they sat down with Job for seven days and nights without saying a word. Sat silently. “For they saw that Job’s suffering was great.”
Well, I’ve heard of dropping by a friend’s house when he or she needs a hand. I’ve heard of going to the hospital for twenty-minute visits when someone has surgery. I’ve heard of travelling across the country to go to a friend’s wedding or funeral. I’ve even heard of travelling around the world with a friend, for months on end, to have fun.
But to sit a week, silently, to share a friend’s suffering while trying to understand it--that’s not anything like the toxic acquaintances Peterson warns against, nor is it anything like his “friends with benefits,” notion of seeking out friendships only after doing a cost-benefit analysis to make sure the friendship will leave you a net-profit-of-some-sort benefit.
After a week of silence, Job and his friends spend forty more chapters discussing the meaning of Job’s suffering, trying to understand a misfortune that all humans must sometimes face. Like many friends, Job’s pals didn’t agree about the subject of their talking together. But they did share in this pursuit, this love of truth, while continuing to express their deep regard for Job. Remember, philia is agapic love for someone who walks with you, shoulder to shoulder, in some shared pursuit or pastime—perhaps a pursuit for truth or pleasure, but in Job’s case even the reality of shared suffering.
Peterson entitles his chapter “Make Friends with People Who Want the Best for You.” I’d say, instead, make friends with people you enjoy walking with, sharing with, and who you hold in high regard. Along the way, you will discover that this sort of philia grows into its own kind of love, a love not subject to cost-benefit analysis before anything else—but a love that is very, very good all on its own.