18 September 2015

Ubuntu. An ode to friendship

Sonnie Bailey

“Friendship is like pee in your pants. Everyone can see it, but only you can feel its warmth.”

Many years ago, I read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. I remember thinking it was a special book, but in all honesty I can’t recall much of it.

Except one passage, near the end. It wasn’t central to the story, but it screamed at me then and screams at me now. 

Fewer people came to my father’s funeral than we expected. None of the franchise owners [where he worked] showed up, not one of the men [he] had socialized with for years and years; and so we realised that, despite his bonhomie, Milton had never had any friends, only business associates.

It’s a fate that terrifies me. Because, to me*, success in life isn’t about accomplishments, but about the relationships we cultivate with the people we care about. At the end of the day, I subscribe to the view that our ultimate happiness and despair is founded in our relationships. 

When I think of relationships, I think of a powerful South African word: ubuntu. It means “I am because you are”. Or, “a person is a person through other people”. It’s our relationships with others that define us.

There’s a common saying that “your health is your wealth”. I think it taps into an important insight, which is that wealth can’t be measured solely by your bank account**. And likewise, if your net worth has many zeroes in it, but you don’t have rich, rewarding relationships with people you care about, there’s a strong argument that you’re impoverished.

I’ve recently written that many of the biggest risks we take in life aren’t swashbuckling risks, but risks of omission. When it comes to cultivating our relationships with our friends, family, and other loved ones, this can very much be the case. (You’re especially at risk, for instance, if, like me, you have a busy professional life and young children demanding your time…)

Perhaps now is a good time to make a phone call, send a text, send an email, or arrange to meet with an important person in your life. It’s worth it.


*To be fair, I understand that a person can have different values. Joseph Epstein (Friendship: An Expose) acknowledges that “Not all fields of endeavour permit the time that full participation in friendship requires”. He cites Henrik Ibsen’s suggestion that “Friends are a costly luxury”, which Ibsen explains come at the significant cost of investing in your profession or mission.

** A relevant quote: “‘Abundance in all things – material, emotional, intellectual, spiritual – is the goal of any first rate soul. But into which of these categories does money fit? Automatically you say “material”. Uncle Larry disagrees. Uncle Larry says “spiritual”.  Money may be our greatest spiritual teacher. More edifying than a stadium full of swamis.  Nothing can knock a pilgrim off the path as fast as money. That’s the job of a spiritual teacher, you know.  Not to hold us on the path, but to knock us off of it. Until we can stay on the path without ever being knocked- or tempted- off, until we can resist the teacher’s carrot and withstand his rod, our transformative journey can be little more than fits and starts.” (Tom Robbins, Half Asleep in Frog Pyjamas; emphasis added).

Or a more direct point: Nattavudh Powdthavee is the author of a fascinating 2007 paper titled “Putting a Price Tag on Friends, Relatives, and Neighbours”. In the paper, Powdthavee regresses British survey data relating to well-being and suggests that “an increase in the level of social involvements is worth up to an extra £85,000 a year in terms of life satisfaction”.


About the author 

Sonnie Bailey

In his spare time, Sonnie likes telling people that he’s a former Olympic power walker, a lion tamer, or that he is an orthodontist. He is none of those things. In reality, Sonnie is a financial planner based in Christchurch. Through his business, Fairhaven Wealth (www.fairhavenwealth.co.nz), he provides independent, advice-only, fixed-fee financial planning services. Sonnie is a “recovering lawyer”: he has specialised in trusts and personal client work. He has also worked as a financial services lawyer for many years.

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