What Eleven Ducks Said

On the core attributes of true friendship

Etashe Linto
6 min readApr 8, 2020

In the Celtic tradition, there is a beautiful understanding of love and friendship. One of the fascinating ideas here is the idea of soul-love; the old Gaelic term for this is Anam Cara. Anam is the Gaelic word for soul and Cara is the word for friend. So Anam Cara in the Celtic world was the “soul friend.” In the early Celtic church, a person who acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide was called an Anam Cara. It originally referred to someone to whom you confessed, revealing the hidden intimacies of your life. With the Anam Cara, you could share your inner-most self, your mind and your heart. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an Anam Cara, your friendship cut across all convention, morality, and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the “friend of your soul.” The Celtic understanding did not set limitations of space or time on the soul. There is no cage for the soul. The soul is a divine light that flows into you and into your Other. This art of belonging awakened and fostered a deep and special companionship. _ John O’Donohue

Two weeks ago, a heart-warming video was released by People’s Daily, China. It showed eleven ducks on the move, in an unnamed Chinese town.

At sunrise, six of these ducks habitually stood on a sturdy concrete floor, in front of an unpainted brick-layered building. They wagged their brown coloured tails and independently quacked for the attention of their pals, a flock of ducks that belonged to a Chinese netizen, who shared the video with People’s Daily.

Following a bout of persistent quacking, the six would wait on for the emergence of these pals, and when the five arrived, all eleven ducks would proceed to their daily rendezvous. Through the course of the day, the ducks moved as a single flock, waited for each other at different points, returned home together, and while the six walked the five to the door, — in a typical prom night fashion — they all reluctantly said goodbye before turning in for the day. The video was a queer reminder of friendship in its truest form.

We’ve all lost a friend at some point in our lives; either to the Ineluctable hands of death, or to the more conscious reasons of unacceptable personality traits, and unexplained self-distancing. While death often occurs beyond our control, the latter reasons are more a function of our mind and biology.

Too often, we spend time in this class of relationship but never stop to question its true meaning. We get lost in commoditizing the word “friend” and, like things, we consequently toss aside any person that no longer serves the special purpose we desire of them.

So, what then is friendship? What does it mean to invite another into our ship of wavering emotions? What does a flock of eleven ducks teach us about the core attributes of friendship?

Being Present

When we think about presence, plain availability simply comes to mind. We’re often deluded by the idea that being in a person’s face — either through daily chats, during merry moments, or proximity-based fondness — adequately establishes our ground as friends.

Eighteen centuries before Emerson wrote on the two pillars of friendship that “a friend is a person with whom [one] may be sincere,” the great first-century Roman philosopher, Seneca, advised on the early path to friendship.

Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself… Regard him as loyal and you will make him loyal. _Seneca

In true friendship, being present means listening — an art of the ear, eyes, and mind. It means purposeful involvement in the life of an Anam Cara, with whom we plough the snow and walk the ocean. Listening is the element that breeds understanding, a key driver of patience in friendship.

Being Patient

If you consider any man a friend whom you do not trust as you trust yourself, you are mightily mistaken and you do not sufficiently understand what true friendship means… When friendship is settled, you must trust; before friendship is formed, you must pass judgment. Those persons indeed put last first and confound their duties, who … judge a man after they have made him their friend, instead of making him their friend after they have judged him. _Seneca

Understanding is the acknowledgement of another’s flaws, with a healthy absence of judgement. It’s an act that breeds unbiased tolerance and drives wholesome patience. It’s the voice that jumps in with unsolicited advice to another on a potentially destructive path and calls out their bullshit: the voice that’s saddened by moments of “I told you so”: the feet that wait on a spiky surface: the arms that wrap comfort around another.

The late, great Irish poet and philosopher, John O’Donohue, expressed that

Understanding nourishes belonging. Where you are understood, you are at home. When you really feel understood, you feel free to release yourself into the trust and shelter of the other person’s soul…

Understanding clears the weed around love, and plants the seeds for;

Growing Together

We are often too romanticized by the idea of independently moving and winning, that we forget our roles in the lives of those around us. Roles that occasionally dethrone the business of facing one’s front and calls for our involvement — as a sister, brother, mother, father, daughter, son, friend, and more — in the life of another.

He who regards himself only, and enters upon friendships for this reason, reckons wrongly. The end will be like the beginning: he has made friends with one who might assist him out of bondage; at the first rattle of the chain such a friend will desert him. These are the so-called “fair-weather” friendships; one who is chosen for the sake of utility will be satisfactory only so long as he is useful. Hence prosperous men are blockaded by troops of friends; but those who have failed stand amid vast loneliness their friends fleeing from the very crisis which is to test their worth. Hence, also, we notice those many shameful cases of persons who, through fear, desert or betray. The beginning and the end cannot but harmonize. A man will be attracted by some reward offered in exchange for his friendship, if he be attracted by aught in friendship other than friendship itself. _Seneca

As friends, we have a natural obligation to grow with the other. This means reminding them of their strengths when faced with difficulties: it means sharing opportunities — where the only thing given in return is the effort of the other — rather than seeing another as a utilitarian tool for promoting one’s personal goals.

He who begins to be your friend because it pays will also cease because it pays. _Seneca

The word “friend” singlehandedly perpetuates a feeling of solidarity, a feeling of belonging in the life of another. It’s why a tradesman melts a little when we call them by that title. It’s a knowing that has seen to the commodification of the word and its resultant devaluation.

To reiterate the concept of true friendship, I’ll leave you to the thoughts of past brilliant philosophers on this powerful, yet fragile ship.

Aristotle laid out the philosophical foundation of friendship as “the art of holding up a mirror to each other’s souls.”

John O’Donohue drives this home by saying;

The one you love, your Anam Cara, your soul friend, is the truest mirror to reflect your soul. The honesty and clarity of true friendship also bring out the real contour of your spirit.

And Seneca exposes what friendship isn’t.

How closely flattery resembles friendship! It not only apes friendship, but outdoes it, passing it in the race; with wide-open and indulgent ears it is welcomed and sinks to the depths of the heart, and it is pleasing precisely wherein it does harm.

What then should serve as a driving force for the formation of bonds in friendship?

For what purpose, then, do I make a man my friend? In order to have someone for whom I may die, whom I may follow into exile, against whose death I may stake my own life, and pay the pledge, too. _Seneca

A true friend is a person with whom we share the energy called love, in its purest form. Love emerges from the patience of understanding, which is birthed from the presence of listening. It strengthens bonds and perpetuates unified growth.

Friendship is unnecessary. Like art, like the universe itself, it has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” _C.S. Lewis