Recovering the lost art of friendship

I picked up the phone yesterday and called Steven, a friend of more than two decades. He couldn’t answer right away but called me back as soon as he was free.

Now, Steven and I don’t talk with each other on a regular basis. We haven’t lived in the same state for 15 years, but when we do, it feels like we are picking up on a conversation that has been on pause but has never stopped. He is godfather to one of my boys, and we have each been there for the other during dark times in our lives.

We share a common history. We share a common faith. We share a common affection for each other and appreciation of one another’s gifts. And we share other friends in common. Each of these is a loop, tying us to each other. And each loop grows stronger with time.

We live in an era of weak and anemic friendship. In fact, in all of history, I’d call this present time the Dark Ages of Friendship.

Ironically, the Medieval period, which we disparagingly call the Dark Ages, was the single most time in human history focused on friendship. Friendship was the main topic of most books written at that time, unlike now, when hardly any books are written about it. One of the treasures in my library is the Aelred of Rievaulx book on spiritual friendship, which, appropriately, is written as a conversation among friends.

It was an age of chivalry, where non-romantic relationships between men and women were valued deeply; whereas, we live in a time where male-female relationships are so sexualized that the old movie When Harry Met Sally was based on the idea that non-romantic relationships between men and women are not possible.

But not only have we made male-female relationships more difficult by sexualizing them, we’ve done the same with same-sex relationships. And as a man, I see this hesitancy in male-male relationships frequently. It reminds me of the scene in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, when Ted has supposedly died. But when Ted shows up again, Bill embraces him and then jumps back, and both say simultaneously, “Fag!” The friendship is there, but so is the fear of being misunderstood.

Until it was definitively debunked, there were those who suggested that Abraham Lincoln was gay or bi-sexual because of his friendship with Joshua Speed. The two friends shared a bed at a hostel over a four-year period. But not only was there nothing sexual or romantic about their sleeping arrangements, it reflects a time when homes and sleeping conditions were a lot more cramped and culture less sexualized. I’m saddened that our overly sexualized era can’t see beyond homosexuality to a brotherly bond.

We have less of an imagination for friendship than we do for sexuality. Because of this, we’ve widened our range for sexuality while narrowing it for friendship.

We’ve even banned friendship from one of the arenas where it has often thrived: sports.

As this ESPN.com story about the friendship between LeBron James and Dwayne Wade suggests, we’ve made competition a higher value than friendship. Coach Pat Riley instituted a $1500 fine for any of his players who helped up any opposing player who’d fallen down. He didn’t even want a hint of kindness, much less friendship. And because of that culture of competition, the James-Wade friendship is detested by the NBA since it has continued from the days of being on the same team to being on competing teams.

The sad thing about that is the James-Wade friendship has real depth to it. In many ways, they know each other better than their wives know them. Wade says, “There’s nothing wrong with men expressing love for each other, if you’re secure in your manhood and who you are. So, yeah. We’ll end a conversation with Aight. Love. Or, Love you, bro. We have that kind of relationship.”

In an era of depleted friendship, we need a revival of brotherly love.

In a brilliant article, based on his interview with Eugene Peterson and Bono, David Taylor reflects on what the two of them said about a “vocation” of friendship during the conversation. And one of the key elements to friendship that they agreed on is leisureliness, a lack of being busy or hurried when with one another. They called it a laziness where one can give full attention to the other.

When friends are together, time takes on a different quality. It isn’t counted. It is spent.

When my friend Dan spent the night at our home on a stop-over to a conference, we ended up having a conversation that sprawled from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. and wasn’t anywhere near finished but was already ruining the next day because of a lack of sleep. But it’s that timelessness in attention to another person that defines love and friendship.

As I think about my friendships, I find two things that are enemies of them.

The first enemy of friendship is fear.

I have an irrational fear that my friends won’t want to take my phone calls. But I’ve never had a friend reject a call. If anything, they’ve been amazing about carving out time they had probably slotted for something else to be immediate to me.

Similarly, there is a fear of being vulnerable, of being rejected for expressing an opinion or sharing a failure. But, again, this turns out to be an unsupported fear, since I have yet to be turned away by someone I’d call a friend for either reason. (I’ve been ditched by acquaintances for such reason, but never by someone I’d call a friend.)

The second enemy to friendship is distance.

For 11 years, I met every 4-6 weeks with three other friends for several hours at a time to talk, drink beer, and pray for one another. It was always refreshingly personal as well as intellectually stimulating. But then one moved hours away to the south and I moved to the other side of a mountain range. So, now we do the Skype thing, which is not nearly as good as being in person, but at least it keeps us connected. Still, not satisfied with that, we make the effort to get together as often as distance permits.

But this is a condition of life in our current setting that economic and family realities have wrought on friendship. In many instances, staying “in touch” is not literally possible on a regular basis. But real friends make it happen anyway.

We get in planes, trains, and automobiles to be with one another. We call, we text, we email, we Skype or FaceTime, we Facebook, we tweet, we instant message, we do everything we can to get some sort of virtual “touch” when we can’t give a physical embrace. But we long to be with each other. To laugh. To tell stories. To share meals. To be challenged by one another. To share ideas. To play. To pray. To simply be, without counting the cost or the time.

To take part in friendship is the closest thing to eternity we have. And as great as sex is, not even it comes close. And our sad culture has cheated itself by trading friendship for sex. May we find a way to return our poor exchange.

It will be difficult. But the effort poured into real friendship results in deeper lives and a kinder culture.

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