“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Friday, 5 April 2013

The Devotion of Friends

I have just been re-reading Vera Brittain's two volumes of autobiography - Testament of Youth and Testament of Experience. It has made me reflect on the nature of true friendship.

There is something very special about devoted friendship - the best marriages are based on it, for example. Such loyalty and devotion between two people is rare and precious, whether it occurs between a man and a woman, or between two people of the same sex. The relationship between Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby is a beautiful example of a very strong same-sex devoted friendship. They met at Oxford after the First World War, and after a rocky start, became the best of friends. In her wonderful tribute to Winifred, Testament of Friendship, Vera writes of her time with Winifred in London before her (Vera's) marriage:

"Those years with Winifred taught me that the type of friendship which reaches its apotheosis in the story of David and Jonathan is not a monopoly of the masculine sex ... After a year or two of constant companionship, our response to each other's needs and emotions had become so instinctive that in our correspondence one of us often replied to some statement or request made by the other before the letter which contained it had arrived."

Winifred's love and loyalty to Vera were complete and absolute. After Vera's marriage to George Catlin, the friendship between the two women is as strong as ever; indeed for some years, Winifred shared a house with the Brittain-Catlins. She wrote a typically rueful letter to Vera shortly after the latter's marriage and subsequent removal to America for a year: "I am happy. In a way I suppose I miss you, but that does not make me less happy ... When a person that one loves is in the world and alive and well, and pleased to be in the world, then to miss them is only a new flavour, a salt sharpness in experience." When she died at the tragically early age of 37, Vera was devastated.

Every human being needs at least one deep, true friend, who, in the words of the Arabian proverb "is one to whom one may pour out all the contents of one's heart, chaff and grain together, knowing that the gentlest of hands will take and sift it, keep what is worth keeping, and, with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away. This is the sort of friendship that can, with luck and care, grow between people of all kinds.

Today is Golden Rule Day, on which we are exhorted to do unto others as we would wish to have done to ourselves, and to refrain from doing to others that which would give us pain. Every time we obey this, we are putting out a small tendril of friendship towards another person - who knows where it might lead?


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