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Adults Have Imaginary Friends, Too

The friendly ghosts and strangers we love devotedly though they don't know us.

I’ve got these best friends whom I’ve never met. I know them intimately but they wouldn’t know me from Adam. Some died long before I was born, and of the living, I’ve never even been in the same room with some of them.

Still, these friends mean a lot to me. You can tell by my effort do what would please them, trying to be the kind of guy who they would recognize as a true friend if we ever did meet, not that we’re going to. I’ve been as influenced by them as by my parents, siblings, teachers, and my other best friends, the ones who actually know me.

I suppose they’re like a kid’s imaginary friends. If I’m Calvin, they’re Hobbs, which is weird in an adult. Since I’ve never met them, maybe I’m not very realistic about who they really are. Maybe I’m so far off that they wouldn’t like me at all, which is a reason I don’t really need to meet them. Some of these important friends have security staff to protect them from best friends like me. For all I know, my long dead best friends would turn in their graves, agitated by my dedication to our non-mutual friendship and my misinterpretation of what they’d look for in a friend.

I almost prefer keeping our friendship as it is, me BFF in my imagination only. Though I devote a lot of attention to pleasing them, I wouldn’t necessarily know what to say to them in person. I prefer to just assume they would befriend me, rather than finding out whether they really would.

Weird as these virtual friendships are, I’m not alone in having them. Millions of Americans follow the Kardashians' news as though they were best friends, even though the Kardasians don’t reciprocate. Fox News viewers think of Bill O'Reilly as their buddy. Daily Show viewers think of Jon Stewart as their pal. Lenin never met Marx who died when Lenin was 12. Paul Ryan never met Ayn Rand who died when Paul was 12. No Muslim today ever met Mohammed, and no Christian met Jesus, though they sing that they have a friend in him.

We ask people to name their heroes, and they list them proudly. Heroes, we assume are important influences on our characters. Clinton met Kennedy briefly. We doubt that Kennedy was shaped by Clinton, but we assume Clinton was shaped by Kennedy, their one brief meeting making Clinton feel like he had a buddy in the White House, and asking himself “What would Jack want me to do?”

Machiavelli, the founder of political science spoke of his imaginary friends. When he was exiled to rural Italy after decades as a political insider, he was lonely by day; imaginarily popular at night:

“When evening comes, I return home and go into my study. On the threshold I strip off my muddy, sweaty, workday clothes, and put on the robes of court and palace, and in this graver dress I enter the antique courts of the ancients and am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born. And there I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives of their actions, and they, in their humanity, reply to me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death: I pass indeed into their world.”

Newton had his imaginary friends too. He famously said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” We can picture Newton communing with these giants, getting to know them intimately as he scaled to their shoulders, though some were long dead.

We talk of people’s sphere of influence, the people they influence. We talk less of our sphere of influences the population of people who influence us. Who, present and past, dead and alive do you care about so much that you go out of your way to please or be like them so that they would like you?

We would do well to survey our sphere of influences. We humans are social creatures. Like all creatures we’re shaped by our environments, but our environments are mostly comprised of the company of other people, real and virtual. If you want a good estimate of the direction someone will grow, look at the company they keep and especially the company they keep close, even if only in their imaginations. We grow toward what would please the people we depend upon even if they don’t depend upon us in return.

Some Hindus practice Bhakti yoga, Bhakti meaning devotional service intended to please their beloveds. Their beloveds are the gods themselves though more often the gurus who the devotees see as representing God or God’s qualities. Catholics practice Bhakti yoga toward the pope, God’s representative. Many Catholics display a photo of the Pope in among their photos of friends and relatives in their homes. And a picture of Jesus too—the full constellation, everyone important in their personal sphere of influences.

Guru worship can get cultish very easily, but that’s because the devotional impulse is so strong. We’re born devoted to our parents so we can tap into their adaptive wisdom before we mature into our own. We mature into our own by expanding our sphere of influences, the people alive and dead whose standards become ours. We never outgrow the strong impulse toward devotional service.

We can become too tightly and narrowly devoted to our spheres of influences, unable to hear or consider alternative influences. And we can become too strongly devoted to the wrong sphere, bad influences who we later come to realize have grown us in the wrong direction. The perils of Bhakti gone bad are enough to make us wonder if devotional service is just a bad idea across the board, best replaced by independent mindedness, figuring everything out for yourself.

But nobody ever figures things out just by themselves. There’s no such thing as a mind uninfluenced and un-devoted, except perhaps with rare mental disorders.

I say do your Bhakti. Exploit your naturally and adaptively strong tendency toward devotional service to the people, real and imagined, dead and alive, who you would want to please.

Just pick your influences carefully. Monitor your sphere of influences the way you monitor your loves and addictions. Notice who you depend upon enough that you do dedicated work designed to please them. And distinguish as best you can between the loving devotional work you do that you’ll be glad you did and the addictive devotional work you’ll come to regret.