So you’ve spent a long day hiking through the woods. You’re tired, hungry and want to eat something other than granola. It’s getting dark and it’s getting a bit cold.

You find a small clearing and remove any debris before creating a small campfire. It’s just some big sticks and tinder, no need for a roaring flame when it’s just you. You put down your bag and start enjoying the warmth when you hear a set of footsteps.

It’s another hiker, like you, and they ask if they can join your campfire. You agree and they throw in a few more sticks and you start talking while you both heat up food. The night gets a bit darker and colder but near the fire it’s comfortable and warm.

A few more people, seeing your campfire in the now dark night, ask if they can join in too. You agree and they help build the campfire a bit larger, joining the conversation.

As morning comes and it’s a bit warmer, some of your new compatriots stand up and say it’s time for them to move on. They’ve enjoyed their time but they have places to go. You wish them well and mention you hope you’ll run into them again.

Eventually you decide it’s time to get moving as well. As you stand and gather your bag, your fellow hiker asks if you’re leaving with some sadness in their voice. You tell them that it’s time for you to head back out on the trail and keep moving towards your goal. After some parting words, you too head on.

Eventually night comes again and you see a campfire in the distance. You hear a familiar voice as you get closer and find it’s some acquaintances from the night before and some new faces. You ask if you can join in their campfire and they agree.

And so the cycle of joining or creating campfires continues, meeting new people and sometimes running into old friends. Sometimes you journey alone, occasionally you journey with new friends. People come and go from the campfire and while you’ll miss them it’s not really a sad event - the goal isn’t to keep everyone at a campfire, it’s to keep them warm along the way to their goal.

Deciphering the Metaphor

Our “warmth”, our time and investment in other human beings, is the campfire. It’s the group events and the efforts to chat up a friend. It’s offering to grab a drink with someone who is feeling down, or being nice with someone even when they’re having a bad day. That being said, it works best when everyone contributes and throws into the fire. Friendship has a cost and a reward, and the campfire is what tries to capture that.

Yet, people change. I am not the same person who I was five years ago, and hopefully I’ll be a better person five years from now. The same goes for the people around me, and we are changing in different ways. That friendship, the sharing of a campfire, may kind of go away as we change in different directions. That’s not a bad thing - everyone is headed to some goal - but we can still feel sad about it.

Unsurprisingly, we tend to form friendships with people who are similar to us. Due to that it’s likely we’ll have friends who come back into our lives as our paths cross again. Yet even when people do leave our lives for good to go on their own path that’s not something to be sad about - instead you should wish them safe travels to their own goal.

The Tradeoffs

Everything has pros and cons. The campfire style of friendship is no exception. Compared with other ways of thinking about friendship the campfire metaphor opens us to making friends easier, but friendships tend to be less permanent.

I’ll make the argument that friendships being more transitory is closer to reality than the idea of being friends with someone for life. People are dynamic things, they’re agents - and that means they change. Sometimes people change for the better or sometimes for the worse, but they don’t stay the same for long.

As we’ve talked about before, this ongoing process of adapting and changing as a person is a critical part of identity. You don’t want friends who are static, you want them to grow and evolve - even if this means they eventually grow apart from you.

When we understand these comings and goings as being a natural part of life and friendship, we avoid the fears of rejection or someone leaving. It’s the stoic tradition1 of anticipating the natural cycle of life as a way to process it emotionally. These things can and do happen, and if we understand that from the start then we save ourselves heartbreak and pain.

  1. Memento mori, amor fati. Knowing that you will die, you should embrace and love your fate. See The Daily Stoic for a deeper explanation. ↩︎