Come together for a laugh
On finding a partner, the real meaning of a friend, and what's no different about the advice columns of today from what people wrote in the Roman Era
Psychotherapist Philippa Perry argues that those who search for a partner have a simple set of options: "I think the answer is BE FRIENDLY or FUNNY or both." Her advice is sound, inasmuch as people follow it by making the most of what comes naturally to them. Partners who plan to be with one another for the long term should, of course, be compatible without being contrived.
■ Perry's advice may be modern and contemporary, but it sticks because it is consistent with the advice given by many other wise individuals across the course of human history. And the consistency of that advice should be reassuring, particularly because it reassures us that human beings everywhere are more alike than we are different. Good advice is consistent across time and space in large part because human nature is, too.
■ The modern philosopher Jonathan Sacks unintentionally explained why Perry's advice resonates when he wrote, "A joke testifies to our ability to see things differently, and because we can do so, we are free. Humour is constitutive of humanity." Every reasonable person who seeks a partner wants someone with an authentic humane depth; otherwise, why waste the time?
■ Some decades before Sacks, the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl advised that humor fit the broad purpose of supporting the mettle people often need in order to survive: "It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds."
■ Two centuries before Frankl, Benjamin Franklin endorsed being funny because it makes a person a better friend: "Friendship cannot live with ceremony, nor without civility." To disarm another person with a sincere laugh is perhaps the ultimate act of civility -- and it deserves to go without saying that laughter dismantles overwrought ceremony.
■ Going back almost a millennium, Maimonides praised the virtues of friendliness as the characteristics of an enlightened person: "He greets every man first, so that they will be pleasantly disposed toward him. He judges every man in a favorable light. He speaks in praise of his fellow man, never disparagingly. He loves peace and seeks peace."
■ Another millennium before that, Epictetus is credited with the advice to "Try to enjoy the great festival of life with other men." And Lucius Seneca said essentially the same thing: "There is a pleasure in being in one's own company as long as possible, when a man has made himself worth enjoying."
■ "Be friendly, be funny, or be both" is great advice with a very long history -- because human nature really doesn't change. It has always been like it is now. We can (and should) train ourselves in good habits, including those that don't come to us instinctively. But in romantic life and in Platonic interactions alike, effectively the same advice has always applied (and ultimately always will): A person doesn't have to fake it, but each of us should try to cultivate what makes us funny or friendly.