A Cedar Rule of Friendship


Friendship has become like plastic wrap: stretchable over everything, yet easily poked and ripped. The word has become thin in meaning; in a Facebook context, a “friend” may be someone we’ve never met, have met but may never get to know, or have known for years. With a few clicks, you can “unfriend” someone; friendship is not a commitment but a “status.”

All of this has been said before, by many people. I am about to propose a cedar rule that can make friendship more meaningful, no matter what its depth or context. It’s difficult to follow, but it seems good as an aspiration. (I call it a “cedar rule” rather than a “golden rule” because cedar suggests durability and majesty. It’s one of the most vivid symbols in the Hebrew Bible. (See Psalm 92 and Ezekiel 31, for instance.)

The cedar rule is this: Never say anything about your friend that you are unwilling to tell him or her directly. Moreover, avoid speaking disparagingly about anyone, friend or not.

This goes for a stranger, a best friend, and anyone in between. A friend of any kind or level deserves this dignity.

I am using the pronoun “you”  not to be preachy but rather to avoid the awkwardness of “one,” the insularity of “I,” and the groupiness of “we.” Pronouns can be a pain (and I would say this to their face).

Now, some would object: What’s the harm in talking about my friend to someone removed from the situation? There’s no harm, if this conversation prepares you to speak directly with the friend. But if it replaces such conversation, it’s a way of keeping the friend in the dark about your thoughts and needs (specifically regarding the friendship).

If you are annoyed with a friend’s habits (of being late, of texting too much, of showing off, of not replying to an email, of putting people down), then the question becomes: How important is this person to me? If important, there are two choices: put up with the habits, or address them directly. Talking about them to someone else is not fair; it does not give the friend a chance to respond. The friend may think you’re fine with it all.

In addition, disparaging talk (even with the person’s knowledge) does damage and should be avoided in general. This idea is a bit harder to take; my own response would be, “so, am I supposed to pretend I just love everyone, that everyone is great, that there are no human flaws in the world? Must I avoid saying anything about Trump, then?”

No–there is a difference between criticism and disparagement. It’s possible to object to a person’s actions–frankly and fully, laying your cards on the table–without putting the person down or claiming superiority. Public figures are automatically subject to criticism because of their responsibility to the public; but even there, the criticism can hold to standards.

Jewish law forbids “lashon hara“–the evil tongue–defined as speech that says something negative about a person, is not intended to correct the situation, and is true. It’s the second quality here–speech not intended to correct the situation–that sets “lashon hara” apart from helpful criticism.

So when criticizing, be specific, do away with the sneer, acknowledge your own limitations, and allow the person to respond to your complaint. In all cases seek the good. Aristotle saw the best friendship as the kind based in good will (eunoia). While he considered it rare (and while he was probably right), its underlying principle can serve as a general guide.

The two parts of this rule depend on each other. To treat a friend justly, you must have a foundation of just speech in general–that is, speech that provides an opening for the good. With people in general, it is sufficient to avoid putdowns and hurtful gossip. With friends, you go one step further by saying directly to them whatever you would say about them, including the most thoughtful and helpful criticism in the world.

Of course there are qualifications to this, particularly when it comes to praise. Sometimes direct praise can become too much for the recipient; indirection may be kinder (and will rarely cause harm). But even there, it’s worth asking: Am I willing to say this directly to the person, and if not, why not? Sometimes people have little idea how much they are respected and appreciated; it would help them to know. Or sometimes the excessive gush has other, less honorable, causes; in that case it may be worth holding back a little, even from the wide world with its vast indifferent ears.

If the cedar rule were applied to all friendships–light or serious, distant or close, online or offline–how much the discourse would improve! Not only would people speak more kindly, but when they had an issue with someone, they would approach the person directly. What trust and good work this would engender. This doesn’t require intimacy or stiff formality; all it requires is care with humans and words. “All” it requires! This may be the greatest human challenge: to treat words and humans with care.


I took the photo in Central Park a few weeks ago.

I edited and added to this piece after posting it.

Teaching the Underground

undergroundOne aspect of teaching that rarely gets discussed (on blogs and in education news) is the intellectual and ethical challenge of taking students through a complex work like Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. I find myself turning lessons in my mind, asking myself what to bring out, what questions to ask, what background to provide, what comparisons to draw. This would be the case with just about any lesson—but with Notes from Underground it’s particularly important, as the work is easy to misunderstand in one way or another. Once the basic understanding is there, it’s possible to appreciate the work’s paradox and play on the one hand and its serious moral questions on the other.

Its narrator and protagonist, the “Underground Man,” lives alone in a dingy Petersburg apartment, from which he does not emerge. He writes and writes, in some sense baring his starkest truths, in some sense fooling the reader. He rails against the formulas that others embrace, formulas for a perfect society or even a reasonable one. No perfection, no happiness, he insists, matters as much to man as his own free will—and for that reason he will knock down any structure and deny any equation, even if in doing so he only harms himself. The Underground Man seems to rebel against formulas and final answers, yet he clings to his own formula, a formula of negation. In the second part, we learn how he landed there; we learn something about his life and actions before his retreat. (I won’t reveal what he tells—but it isn’t comforting.)

A reader of Notes from Underground can easily fall into one of two traps. One error is to judge him without any kind of compassion or identification—to say, “I’m not like that; that man is messed up” and be done with it. The other is to identify with him completely—to see him as a reflection of the hidden self. While this error is a bit more fruitful than the first, it’s still an error, if the reader does not recognize the Underground Man’s responsibility for his condition. To grasp the Underground Man, one must bring both compassion and judgment, both identification and distance. The proportions are difficult to determine (and will vary from person to person and from reading to reading), but both elements need to be there, if the work is to come through. (Other elements need to be there as well; one needs to be able to hear his tones, jokes, allusions, and much more.)

Isn’t that one of our ethical challenges in general—to determine the right mixture of judgment and compassion? Too much judgment without compassion, and you write the person (or work) off. Too much compassion (if that’s the word—I’m not quite satisfied) without judgment, and you neglect the person’s free will and choices. Yet there is no perfect ratio; it shifts from moment to moment and from situation to situation. Nor can it be calculated; one must find it through experience, teachers, and instinct.

From what I have seen, it is more common for students to write the Underground Man off than to see themselves in him. This is partly because introspection gets short shrift today. These kids have been brought up to think in terms of success and achievement, not in terms of understanding human nature. That’s an oversimplification, though; many do understand something of the Underground Man; many do see aspects of themselves, and a few have even found a combination of judgment and compassion. In any case, both extremes have dangers.

The first time I read Notes from Underground, at age eighteen, I couldn’t separate myself from him (until part 2). I thought I was him—and was horrified. Years later, I approached him from a distance and found him very funny. In between, I have had mixtures of responses. Today I see a great deal of the Underground Man in myself but understand, also, how important the differences are. I am not advocating “text-to-self connections”—but Dostoevsky clearly wants us to ask who this Underground Man is and how he might reflect us.

There’s a lot at stake in reading Notes from Underground properly, yet there is no “proper” reading. There is only alertness and avoidance of pitfalls. Or, rather, there’s much more, but it can’t be taught directly, just as one can’t be taught to understand another person.

These are the thoughts that occupy a good deal of my day, when I’m not scrambling to get things done. It matters to teach this work well; that, in turn, is not just a question of bringing out key themes, devices, etc., but involves careful reading, a good understanding of the students, an understanding (when possible) of the original Russian, and a strong ethical and aesthetic sense. It involves a great responsibility: you have to be a good guide to take students into the underground and out again. In short, it requires a good chunk of all that I have and am—including the ability to put myself aside as we focus on the work.

I wish policymakers (of various kinds) had an inkling of this aspect of teaching. It seems completely forgotten, except in nooks of the education world. It’s as though “content” didn’t demand one’s soul, intellect, and conscience, as though you could teach it “effectively” without vitality. No wonder so much work gets piled on teachers; few realize that to teach well, one must be willing to leave the busyness behind, to take a long walk, attend a concert*, or read a book slowly, in order to be shaken into life, the life inside and outside of books, the jumbled, mistake-ridden life that, even at its most perplexing, has room for courage and grace.

*Concert: On Friday I attended the Wingdale Community Singers’ record release show for their new album, Night Sleep Death. A gorgeous performance. The title(-ish) song brings together two Walt Whitman poems, A Clear Midnight” and “O Living Always–Always Dying.”