When I was thirteen I persuaded my parents to buy me a year’s subscription to a hockey magazine. We had only recently arrived in Canada and almost every boy in my school either was or had been a hockey player at some time, though in some cases quite reluctantly. The boys who actively played hockey formed one of the elites of the school and most of them would not have given me the time of day, but one of my first, and lasting, friends in that town happened to be one of them. I read the hockey magazine for him, because of him. I didn’t know anything about hockey, other than the field hockey I had played in England, and I thought that taking an interest in hockey would be a friendly thing to do.
I learned something about hockey and made a good friend.
This week I planned to write a post about the things that are difficult to say because there is no situation or community in which to say them. In fact, I had already written that post when the spirit of Valentine’s Day reminded me that although I do struggle with finding a community for my work, I’ve always been keen to learn about things that my friends are interested in–things that I have no particular interest in except that they are interested in them. And the more I thought about this, the more I realized how much I have learned from taking an interest in what other people do, rather than looking for people who do what I do. Among the things I’ve learned about in some detail because of someone I liked, or loved, had a passion for the subject are: the history of the early church, how to drink real beer, kendo, The Spice Girls, Tibetan Buddhism, how to play squash, Rembrandt’s etchings, and science-fiction.
Now, this may be a particularly gendered way to acquire knowledge. It is at least partly the result of being socially trained to relate to others as a listener, spectator or receiver rather than as the speaker, performer or doer. If I didn’t have my own intellectual, artistic and practical interests, there would be a danger in just following in the wake of other people’s passions. There is a valuable space, however, for learning things purely because they interest the people who interest you. It is the natural context in which many of us learn as children though we don’t usually reflect on it as such. If your parents enjoyed going to the opera rather than canoeing, you are much more likely to have done the same simply because of your relationship to them. I would have preferred to do more sports as a child but my father was fairly unatheletic, as a result of which physical exercise was not emphasized much in our home.
As it happens, my earliest experience of learning something outside the classroom was entirely driven by affection, rather than a personal interest. My younger brother wanted to learn the piano when he was as young as three years old, but he was both too little and painfully shy to go to classes by himself. He would, however, happily go to sit in on lessons with his older sister, and so I was given piano lessons so that eventually he would learn to play. Of course, I learned to play too, though never as proficiently as my brother, who is genuinely a more talented and natural musician, but my life is also enriched by having studied music for the love of him. (In that case, the affection worked both ways. He would go where I was and I would do things for his sake, and it was a dynamic my parents skillfully made use of.)
We live in a moment when managing your own life projects is paramount. You are obliged to develop yourself according to your skills, your interests and your talents, so that you are perfectly customized to realize your life as an individual. In such an environment, working with others is still important, but only insofar as you are working on your own project that somehow meshes magically and productively with theirs. There is something apparently authentic about working on your own hobbies or research, but equally something vaguely dependent or immature about following your affections for others wherever they may lead.
It is probably true that something you pursue for the sake of a friendship is unlikely to become your life’s work–you will remain an amateur. As a way of living, however, it has considerable attractions.