by Kate Carty
She opens the front door; Tosca comes bounding towards me wagging her tail. I bend and rub the soft fur on her head, she rolls onto her back and I tickle her belly. I inhale the faint fug of the bungalow. Her face lights up with a smile as I approach her, her arms outstretched for a hug. I plant a soft kiss on her cheek. I fall into her arms. I smile as I survey the little dining table set with mats and knives and forks and linen napkins on two little china side plates. The blue jug I brought her back from the Azores sits centre stage stuffed with scarlet tulips.
I place a wooden salad bowl on the table and put the chocolate pudding I made into the fridge. We sit, eat and converse about family conflicts, my fantasies of Mark Carney, the parlous attraction of intellectuals, the childhood neglect that made Boris a narcissist, finding love online, how pornography is ruining adolescent’s sex lives, whether that novel without a full stop was a work of genius or just a ploy, what on earth to do with our ex-husbands and to conclude; an agreement that sweet peas are the best flowers in the history of the universe.
After we load the plates into the dishwasher, we sit with our tea in front of the fire reading poetry to each other. I love these afternoons in this woman’s presence. She is one of my favourite people on earth. She is from a different generation, a different class, a different profession and yet she is in truth one of my best friends.
It took me a while to work this out. To realise her value in my life. For a long time, I believed that my weekly visits were motivated by duty. How wrong I was. They were motivated by love.
Ever since I was a little girl our culture had made one thing very clear to me: romantic love is the purpose of my existence; love of friends’ pales into insignificance in comparison with this coveted prize. I had absorbed this message from so many novels, pop songs, films, TV series, even poetry— that romantic love is the highest most prized of all loves and provides the greatest pleasure and fulfilment. I was taken in by this folly for years and thought there must be something very odd about me because I loved my friends so much and gained so much pleasure from our conversations, so much solace from their support and so much craic from their company.
Then I discovered that I may be odd, but I was in esteemed company: Aristotle loved his friends too. In fact, he valued what he called his “true friends” more highly than any other relationships. In his opinion they contribute most to our happiness. And it turns out that modern psychologists have identified that spending quality time with our friends helps us create more serotonin—a neurotransmitter that helps combat depression and can create a general feeling of well-being. In fact, the head of psychiatry at Stanford University in the USA said that spending time with a friend is just as important to our general health as jogging or working out at the gym. He said that failure to create and maintain quality personal relationships is as dangerous to our physical health as smoking.
So, what is a true friend? I believe it is someone who shares our values but not all our opinions. They want to spend time with us, and they listen with an open mind because they genuinely want to understand us. The renowned psychotherapist, Alice Miller, believed that all human beings from earliest childhood, yearn for a trinity of attention from others—to be listened to, respected and taken seriously. That is what you get from a true friend.
I now realise that this trinity is also the fundamental building block of a good conversation and that, after all, is the basis of all fulfilling relationships. Aristotle was also an advocate of the joys of good conversation. Recent research in psychological science has found that a happy life is one filled with reflective substantive conversation and not just small talk. Greater well-being is related to spending less time alone and more time talking to others. In one study the happiest participants spent 70% more time talking than the unhappiest and had twice as many meaningful conversations.
I have had some of the most enlightening, fulfilling conversations in my life with my eighty-seven-year-old friend Maureen. Through our friendship I have become larger, cleverer, more resilient, more fair minded and more compassionate. Our friendship has taught me who I want to be. Our conversations have quite literally transformed my life.
That is why I am passionate about Conversation Salons. I know how much pleasure and wisdom are to be found there amongst a diversity of people I would never otherwise meet.