I wonder whether one of the best tributes a person can have, is that they kept others company. In an age of trying to run companies (there are 5 million companies in the UK, one for every 13 people), maybe keeping company is undervalued. The thing is, there isn’t much ostensible reward for keeping company. The caring professions are notoriously badly paid, and often so overworked that the mere art of keeping company is demoted to an also-ran. We insist on doing things. Schools are geared up by government to organise achievements, and merely being good company is not something that we put on our CVs.
THE VALUE OF COMPANY
But we are social animals, and as such, we know that we thrive on good company. It makes us feel safer, and even helps us to regulate our bodily functions. Eating together is a habit born of milliions of years, and helps us to get the right hormones and enzymes going at the right times. We are born copiers, relying on messages from others around us for what mood to be in, what to pay attention to, how comfortable to feel, and many other things.
Many experiments related to attachment theory are a testament to how dependent we are, in our development, on being near objects that comfort us in some way. You might have grown up with a blanket, or a soft toy, that was your equivalent of good company. Perhaps it went with you everywhere, and became a kind of home territory for your mind.
As cognitive beings, we like home. Having a base camp in our minds helps us to develop and explore. Remember school? Your teacher was your company, for better or for worse, in your journey through thought. Having a teacher who was bad company could spoil a subject seemingly for ever, until you found a new companion, perhaps in another school, who believed in you a little more and made the road less rocky.
Your notebooks and your phone, your computers and your favourite search engine – they are all your chosen company along the way, providing you with something familiar with which to take off on whatever mental flights you like to make. It goes some way to explaining why social media can be so addictive – familiar pages and feeds become home territory, telling us that we are at home, we are wanted, and interaction is welcomed. Social media gets a bad press, but it’s not all bad; for some, it is the only company, where friends might be absent.
So if someone asks you to just keep them company for a while, maybe go out of your way to do it. They won’t always ask explicitly; in fact, being proud beings, we don’t usually ask explicitly. They will hint that a shopping trip is on the cards; or muse about a possible visit somewhere. They might ask what you are up to tomorrow. All these things might be code for the wish to enjoy your company for a while.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your company has to be a mass of wonderful shared achievement. Some of the best times are had while expressly NOT achieving anything. Furthermore, some of the worst times the world has ever seen have been created by people who plainly had no idea how to sit and chill. The obsession with achievement is not one of humans’ proudest traits, and anything we can do to tone down this arrogant tendency is nice. One of my favourite quotes is something like ‘Sometimes, to be happy, you have to resign as General Manager of the Universe.’
DON’T EXPECT ANYTHING
Whether it’s a walk, or a visit to the coast, or a coffee… whatever it is, maybe consent to it because company is a nice thing. Forget for a little while the perceived need to develop a career or make some money. My guess is that you will find food somewhere, and that there will be a bed or a surface for you to sleep on at some point. That’s about all you need.
You might even find that, keeping company, you regain some energy you have been lacking. Being with yourself can be quite a stale thing. We are not very good at challenging ourselves out of our comfort zones, and so keeping company is a chance to blow out some cobwebs, and see how others think and behave. It probably builds up powers of tolerance, and makes our minds richer.
Keeping others company is a habit ingrained in us through millions of years of evolution. It is maybe undervalued in a modern, go-getting society. But it is how we are built – to develop a home territory, and spend time with familiar others, in whose company we can explore the world. Spending time together helps us forget our obsessions with achievement, probably makes us more tolerant, and helps us to build richer minds.