Who we call our friends and why is a good place to start learning how to refine our sense of discernment. It can be a great help moderating the emotional roller-coaster of balancing a life writing novels with the challenge of regularly searching for another day job. This posts explores these themes using La La Land as a cinematic example.
Discernment and resilience can be cultivated by exploring the niche in which you live your life. This includes the nature of your friendships – what you do with your friends, where and with whom. True friends are important to almost anyone who wants to live a good life that is authentic. To Ancient Philosophers like Aristotle and the Roman writer Seneca, true friends were friends and people we enjoy friendship with — a distinction worth pondering.
We can see how important Stoic friendship was to Seneca by contemplating it’s foundational role in the course of moral development he lays out in the 124 letters to Lucilius. Friendship appears to hold the sole motivation for Seneca to write his moral epistles. Aristotle thought the right sort of friendship was the greatest external good in human lives. To the ancient philosophers, having a true friend was a great aid to living a morally sound life.
In the 3rd of his 124 letters, Seneca berates Lucilius for sending a ‘friend’ to him, and advising Seneca he couldn’t be trusted. To Seneca, above all, a friend is a person you can speak openly to, a person you have sufficient confidence in to reveal yourself. Without that trust, we cannot enjoy the experience of friendship. In this life coaching article I explore Authenticity and the principles of friendship using the Seb (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) characters from the film La La Land, as an example of two true friends whose experience of friendship was central to the realisation of their vision of an authentic life.
In our popular culture — dominated as it is by hedonists, romantics and superficial connections — we can be distracted from nurturing our most trusted friendships, and their special role in the challenge of creating and living an authentic life. In The Ethics of Authenticity Charles Taylor discusses how central dialogue is, to the sort of self-definition we need to facilitate authentic living. From time to time when we are engaged in dialogues with our true friends, a spontaneous expression can establish an important facet of our self-definition. These spontaneous utterings are often the initial spur we need for our personal view of our identity to flourish throughout the niches of our life. However, we have a problem Seneca and Aristotle didn’t have to face. Our way of life is not governed by rigid roles of convention. Whereas prior to the 18th century, almost all human experience of life was lived within the conventional roles mandated by communities and clans. In our age, we have to assert a self-created identity and our expression of it in life roles. We also have to live with the problem that these assertions can fail. The way we define ourselves in one relationship, group or community may not be accepted in other niches of our life.
Authenticity in creative industries
La La Land illustrates many of the challenging aspects involved in creating an authentic life. Seb and Mia share a defining life theme: they live for their art, it’s history and its day-to-day creation. They also share an experience of the ongoing indignities that have to be endured to carve out a niche in their respective industries. The actor Mia’s life is a succession of auditions for dozens of often very badly written parts, as she tries to win a TV or film role. In each of these auditions Mia’s self-definition as an actor is simultaneously reiterated to her, and represents another failure because she never wins a part allowing her to perform a role in a professional production, the standard of success in her chosen profession. Mia has to constantly draw on her ideal of a good life for the courage to continually apply herself to actions that increase her interactional effectiveness as an actor.
Loving relationships are a, if not the, primary field of activity for the unscripted dialogues that enable us to articulate an authentic mode of living. The relationships that enable us to have those dialogues are often our deepest and most trusted friendships. The spontaneous nature of unscripted dialogues in these relationships help give expression to our inner voice. In one of the unscripted dialogues in La La Land Seb calls Mia a prodigy playwright and actress. That expression of Seb’s deeper understanding of Mia has a far reaching influence on her creation of an authentic and meaningful career.
The sort of relationships that provide a space for the creative dialogues that support an authentic mode of living cannot be instrumental (i.e. they cannot be based only on the usefulness of a person for our own needs at a particular point in our life). Nor can these relationships be a form of entertainment for us. It is often the case that a relationship entered knowing it will only be a passing phase, is either a form of entertainment, or the other person is being used as an aid to self-ish expression.
Aristotle on friendship
For an authentic mode of living to emerge we need deep, authentic friendships, the sort of relationships Aristotle called philial, or the best sort of philia. Seb and Mia have just this relationship. Mia’s relationship with Seb is grounded in his virtue – the goodness of his piano playing. She does not start out seeing him as someone useful to know in LA. While she enjoys his company, the sheer seriousness of his approach to music ensures she never sees their relationship as a form of entertainment. She has too much respect for his artistry.
For Aristotle, friendship was something that developed when two people find something good in each other. The good can be either pleasure, usefulness, virtue or a combination of the three. The strength of the affection tends to be in proportion to the pleasantness, usefulness or virtue of the friend. The friendships that develop from pleasure or usefulness can be unstable because they often dissolve when the pleasure or usefulness fades. This doesn’t mean friendships based on utility or pleasure can’t be valuable, they often involve genuine affection, and over time engender the development of a deep regard for the other.
If a friendship remains anchored to a shallow understanding of the other – focused only on the narrowness of the pleasure or utility they provide – they are likely to be unstable. Without the development of a broader and deeper appreciation of our friend’s character, a relationship is unlikely to become the type of friendship Aristotle took to be the greatest of external human goods, the type of relationship he thought should be included in any conception of a good life that is genuinely good.
Seb begins to gain a broader and deeper appreciation of Mia’s character when she requests A Flock of Seagulls, 1982 hit song I Ran (so far away) at a party where he is playing in a band. He recognises Mia and acknowledges that he was uncommonly rude to her. I think he also recognises her request was a very imaginative and apt retort to his rudeness. The deepening of Seb’s appreciation of Mia’s character lays the foundation for his breakthrough moment: when he appreciates the synergy between his vision of Jazz and that of his colleague Keith. That appreciation of Keith’s engagement and passion for Jazz later enables Seb to commit himself artistically to Keith’s band.
The best type of friendship
The best type of friendship was called philia by the ancient Greeks. The contemporary philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote about the importance of these relationships in her ground breaking book The Fragility of Goodness. She highlighted the importance of personal mutuality in the philial relationship, and how emotion and reciprocity are the key characteristics of these friendships. This includes the obvious reciprocity of attention and well-wishing, but also of esteem and respect. It is an important element of philial reciprocity to do actions beneficial for our friend where possible. It is also important to have frequent, preferably daily interaction with our most significant friends.
Although Seb and Mia become lovers, I’m not sure they were ever destined to have a life-long daily relationship. They had really strong common values in their engagement with creative endeavour, but they both sensed something would prevent fusion of their lives. Not that I think they entered their relationship thinking it would only be an episode of their lives. They were intimate friends, and when they tell each other “I will always love you” they are telling the truth, or at least one of the central truths of their relationship.
True friendships are characterised by the love of the other for their own sake. This is one reason this class of relationships in Ancient Greek society included family relationships, and why Nussbaum’s understanding of relationships is a distinctly Western and contemporary notion of family relationships. While we may take pleasure and find usefulness in our friends, the sort of friendship that should be included in a conception of the good human life is one where the friend is loved for who they are. It is the sort of relationship where we feel love for our friend at the deep level of their dispositions, values, and the patterns of their feelings and thoughts. Our love is deeply connected to their central aims and aspirations, at the goals and values and characteristics which they identify as primary to their sense of self.
This depth of regard is central to Mia and Seb’s friendship. Seb doesn’t hesitate in urging Mia to put everything into her big break. When he learned she had achieved her big break after presenting her one woman show, as a true friend he put himself on the line to drive out to Boulder City. He knew even though she had quit on her dream, she could still pull off her big break, and make good on her vision of an authentic and meaningful acting career.
Friendship and learning wisdom
One of the ways a deep friendship can help us attain wisdom is through the development of our facility for discernment, especially with self-awareness. Friendship is especially helpful for learning about what actually motivates our actions, not just what intellectualised theory of living we are prepared to defend. It’s not easy learning about ourselves, and Aristotle thought true friends could create a mirror of the self over time. By observing and reflecting on our friend’s character, we can come to know our own. The objectivity we create about our friends is more securely attained than the objectivity we create about ourselves. As our understanding of our friend grows and deepens and sustains itself through a close and prolonged association, we learn more about what what we mean by character and virtue, and the value we place on various aspects of them. That knowledge can help to deepen self-awareness about our own character, what created it and what maintains it.
So a friend, as a mirror for the self, can improve understanding of our self, and become an important source of authenticity by adding a sense of depth to our self-awareness. We see this in Seb’s joining Keith’s band as the next step to on his journey to creating the Jazz club of his artistic vision. And, by knowing Mia has to create and perform her own production to get her career off the ground in LA, Seb is able to grasp the fact that he needs to join Keith’s band and pay his dues again as the next step in his career.
When La La Land begins, Seb is coming to terms with his new reality. The money he had painstakingly accumulated to start his Jazz club had been ripped off. As a result he has slid back down the greasy pole of fortune and needs to find a way to make his way back up again. He understood instinctively that Mia needed to put together and stage a production of her one woman show to move forward. That knowledge, once it emerged from their unscripted dialogues brought him closer to the realisation that Mia, his sister and his old school and band mate could see as clear as day – that he couldn’t move forward on his musical dream without moving beyond the narrow comfort of his idea of what a contemporary, traditional Jazz club should be.
Wisdom gained from double descriptions
The anthropologist, psychotherapist and systems theory pioneer Gregory Bateson was interested in how people can learn about the nature of their self, in ways that can create a change in their self. He found the sort of learning that triggered these changes mainly occurred in relationships, or in relating with others. He thought it was correct to begin thinking about the two parties in any interaction as two eyes, each giving a monocular view of what was going on. The two views together gave a binocular view of what was going on. The resulting double view is how Bateson thought about the relationship in a holistic way – that is free of the distortions and mutilations of purpose and usefulness.
In Mia and Seb’s relationship each had a singular vision about what was going on in their niche. Mia saw LA as an outsider forced to suffer the indignities of auditioning with scores of other actors. She also saw the city as the place where many of the classic films were shot. In fact, she sees LA through film, continuing her connection with the city forged as she grew up in Boulder City. Seb on the otherhand is an LA local. He knows the city from living in it, and he also has a local’s understanding of how it’s high profile industry works. Overhearing Mia talking to her parents on the phone, Seb learns she believes he will find a way to start his club. He was able to recognise Keith’s band as his way forward only because of his relationship with Mia and her belief in his creativity and artistry.
Binocular vision and depth
We know that binocular vision provides a different dimension to what we are able to see. We call that dimension depth. When information from two sources are combined, information of a different logical type is generated. It is this information of a different logical type that is the further dimension. Another way to think of this is to reflect on the hierarchy that moves from data – to information – to knowledge – and then to wisdom. Each person in the relationship, perceives sensory data that their mind turns into information. They develop knowledge by learning how to apply that information in a wide range of circumstances. Finally, by learning when to apply their knowledge and when not to apply it, they attain a degree of wisdom.
One of the issues that develops in Mia and Seb’s friendship comes about because Mia did not have enough experience of performing in professional productions to be knowledgeable about the nature of professional creative endeavours. Her initial misunderstanding of what joining a band meant to a professional musician becomes the rock Seb founders upon. To Mia, joining Keith’s band seemed like an obvious stepping stone towards getting his club going. Seb instinctively understood you could not join a band like that for your own, instrumental purposes. Yes, he saw it as the way to pay his dues again and take a step towards opening his club. But he also knew by joining, he had to commit to that role for as long as it took: which would be several years at least. Bands are more like TV series and if they are successful you have to stick with it if you have a principle role. To be successful requires the work of many, and that needs to be honoured for as long as it needs to be honoured.
Aristotle did not mean for us to think literally of our friend as a mirror. The mirror is a metaphor just like the word depth is a metaphor. Friends are a mirror for us to gain a wiser understanding of motives, character, aspirations and qualities – those of our friends, our own, and about the experience and nature of those categories of human experience. The mirror metaphor does entail a measure of symmetry, as we tend to have some things in common with our closest friends. Friendship can provide a double description creating information that adds thoughtful complexity to our understanding of ourselves and human life.
Mia does come to understand that success is an ongoing process after a big break. That is something Seb knew would happen if Mia won the film role in Paris, and if Keith’s band was successful. Professional breakthroughs create their own demands and obligations, they are literally life changing. Mia also learns that her going away to Paris and Seb staying in the band was the only way both of them could achieve their singular artistic visions. While both of them were fellow travellers in the modern moral ideal of an everyday life with someone you love, they also both have artistic natures with demands that can only accommodate a normal quotidian life if it can flourish within the conventions of an artistic career.
A close friend can provide a double description of our self that is an important source of the self-awareness needed to create our authentic mode of living. One of the first questions to ask ourselves in the quest for a good life that is actually good is not “can I be open and reveal myself to my friend?” Rather we need to ask “can my friend trust me enough to open up and reveal themselves?” Seneca in his third letter to Lucilius gives advice on how to make friends but what he doesn’t say until the 6th letter is that all sound friendship begins with ourselves, with the commitment to lead a good life and be a good person that our friends can rely on, and most importantly, by learning to be a friend to our self.
This is one of the overarching themes of La La Land. Seb in particular had to learn to be a better friend to himself. Mia helps him achieve that by acknowledging that she had failed enough in the ritualised indignities of auditioning; the suffering and pain of failing artistically; and by reinforcing to Seb that playing with others was important to his artistic passion; and that playing on his own was more often than not a miserable or worse experience. Friendship demands the acknowledgement of these realities of life when they occur. To ignore them or dismiss their existence is a destructive and potentially mutilating act incompatible with true friendship.