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The puzzle of friendship

By Michael Jensen - posted Tuesday, 7 April 2015

In the recent fracas over the career of Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson, a journalist knocked on his fellow presenter James May’s door.

Faced with a microphone and camera, May uttered these words:

“I've said many times before, the man is a knob. But I quite like him.


He may not ever have said more profound words. Because May names in this pair of sentences a very human puzzle. Why is it that we are patient with the flaws of one person, and completely intolerant of the same flaws in someone else? I have friends that are vain, unreliable, dogmatic, ambitious, workaholic, hold political and theological views I think are appalling, not always truthful, moody, bad-tempered, and that drink too much.

But I quite like them.

And I am sure I am many of these things, and I have friends who quite like me anyway.

There are other people who cannot do any right in my eyes , because they are vain, unreliable, etc….

With them, I tend to interpret their actions, which may be trivial in and of themselves, in the light of the negative feelings I have towards them. 

I am at a loss to explain this entirely. But maybe that's the point: we make the decision about who we like not on the basis of a rational evaluation of virtues and vices. We just mysteriously ‘click’ with some people, and not with others, and then find ourselves rationalising our ‘clicking’ in terms of a narrative of their actions that fits with our feelings of either bonhomie or enmity.


A friend of mine, a fellow pastor, suggested a more causal explanation:

“The tendency is to like those who like us, to like those who offer us least harm, and to like those who benefit us. In that order probably.”

Perhaps that explains the May/Clarkson case. James May is prepared to tolerate Jeremy Clarkson’s foibles because he benefitted a great deal from their partnership, even if that is not a conscious (and therefore cynical) calculation on his part.

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About the Author

Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark's Anglican Church at Darling Point. He has a doctorate in Moral Theology from Oxford University.

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