What is friendship? For one reason or another I found myself thinking a lot about this over the last few weeks. On the one hand it seems to be an unnecessary question – we all know what friends are, don’t we? Perhaps we do. Perhaps we’ve never questioned what friends are. Perhaps we just meander through life without questioning what it is that has attracted the people around us to us, and us to them. Perhaps like the big issues of life and death, we’d rather not think about it. Perhaps friendship is like gossamer, the act of touching it being enough to break it. Perhaps it is like a spider’s web, enticing and bewitching. Perhaps all of these things and none.

When we were children, it was simple. A friend was somebody who would let you ride his new bicycle. Someone who would be goalie, between muddy jumpers, while you played centre forward. Someone who would play Scalextric with you. Someone who would stand up to Robert Jenkinson, the school bully. Those were friends. Always boys. Never girls. Except Agnes Fairweather, in 4B with freckles and a squint who once shared a bag of sherbet lemons with me. The girls in her class would tease her till she cried. We had nothing in common but that bag of sweets. But that was enough for her to be a friend. At the end of term she told me she didn’t really like sherbet lemons. Somehow that broke the spell. I was heartbroken.

I grew older, I moved on and so did my friends. We would see each other occasionally and nod in acquaintance. We became gawky and geeky, with septic faces, spotty and oozing, while the girls laughed at our disfigurement. Agnes Fairweather had her squint corrected when she was 11. By 16, she was 5’8″ tall, with ruddy golden curls that reached below her waist. A goddess. All the girls who had once made her cry were desperate to be her friend, to be cool. She didn’t remember me.

I moved school, to another town. My friends changed. Old friends from my old school soon stopped writing. Although we had been friends, when it came to the formal act of writing, we did not know what to say. We had never had to think about it. Friends were just the people around you. And there were different people around me now. I never questioned their friendship, never assumed its permanence. Friendship was just there. I had friends and best friends. We all did. It was nothing more complex. And as my old friends had fallen away, often so would these in turn, as I moved on to university.

I suppose the point I’m making is that friendship is very difficult to define or to characterise. The mere act of analysis or definition seems to strain it. The Tao Te Ching, the “Bible” of Taoists, begins with the words “the Tao that can be told is not the true Tao”. It makes the same point. In seeking to define it, we somehow find ourselves further away from definition.

The Oxford English dictionary offers a range of definitions but principally “one joined to another in mutual benevolence and intimacy”. It defines friendship as “friendly feeling or disposition felt or shown”. Well that’s not very helpful. When a linguistic reference of the power of the OED draws a blank, where are we to go?

Perhaps friends and friendship are beyond definition. Or maybe we need to define the word ourselves. I was given an interesting definition today. “A friend is someone you would invite to stay in your home”. I can see how that would work, as a practical code certainly. Nobody would ever invite enemies into their home. But perhaps they would ask acquaintances. Where do acquaintances end and friends begin?

There is a school of thought that suggests a key component of friendship is equality – similar give and take between two friends. Again I can see the logic. With such an equal balance, it should be plain sailing. But that doesn’t take into account perception. My father-in-law once said to me that the key to a successful relationship lay in the fact that each friend felt the balance to be 90% to 10% receiving and giving. And each perceived themselves as the major receiver.

I can see that. I can see how it would work. But I also see an element of exploitation. If you believe yourself to be the major receiver, would you not feel compelled to redress that balance? Would you not feel that you owed more? I once found myself in exactly that position, took no action to redress, and paid a very high price. I deserved it.

But that’s not to say that friendship is always equal. There will be times when one friend needs another more than that balance strictly allows. Maybe it’s through illness. Fears perhaps. Maybe it’s just insecurity. But for whatever the reason, friendships will always be dynamic. There will be times when one shoulders the burden for both. It is a measure of the depth of friendship.

And depth is critical, I think. True friendship is only really discovered in times of hardship. We can all be friends with each other when times are good. When times are hard, it’s a different matter. How many of our friends tell us that they are “always there for us” yet are absent when needed most? We make promises we cannot keep. Or more accurately, promises we do not anticipate having to keep.

I had a time, some years ago, when I found myself literally crying on a friends shoulder. It was in a pub, as embarrassingly open a place as it could be. I had lost someone special and the circumstances had got to me. Eventually I regained my composure and looked up. My friend was looking at her watch.

I’ve taken a long way to get to this point. In essence I admit that I don’t really have a clear definition of friends or friendship. But I think it has something to do with need. Each person fulfils not a wish but a need in the other. I may return to this topic when I have thought more. The answer is out there.

I think sherbet lemons may be the key.

Defining friendship