The Lost Art of Friendship: Building Trust and Affection with Strangers as the Medicine of Life

This article appeared first in shorter form here in the Christian Courier.

My wife sometimes compliments me as a husband. “I’m strictly average,” I remind her. I don’t want expectations to rise.

Marriages today are emotionally over-loaded. We want someone who will be a lover, spouse, soulmate and friend—someone who “completes us” as Hollywood suggests. This is much more than the biblical “suitable partner.” High expectations lead to disappointment and sometimes divorce. No human can fulfil another human’s every wish or need.

In his book The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis writes: “To the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.” Or, I would add, eroticizes it. Since Freud, all our relationships have been sexualized—our whole psychological structure is deemed to revolve around subterranean desires. This suggests that enthusiastic friendships focused on common interests, complementary personalities, and mutual delight are first of all sexual.

That’s not only awkward, its untrue and mixes two of the four ancient loves Lewis refers to: eros (erotic), philia (friendship), storge (affection), and agape (sacrificial and unconditional). Friendship love need not be based on undercurrents of hungry desire.

Let’s admit it. Its not just that we are busy, career-focused, hyper-mobile and glued to our screens. We moderns have over-emphasized marriage and family at the expense of deep friendships. We are a lonely, friendless society, and no “loneliness pill” will heal such a wound. Loneliness is a bigger killer than obesity, say researchers.

This fragmentation is a critical part of the Human Sexuality report now circulating in the Christian Reformed Church in North America; it is a central theme that is over-looked in the controversy. Yes, the report affirms the historic Christian teaching on sexuality. But it is at heart a call to repentance from an idolatry of the nuclear family, and much of what it commends is cultivating friendships that disrupt the insularity of rigid kinship circles. 

Sexual ethics is a polarizing conversation, and its one that will not be resolved on this side of heaven. Everything has become politics these days, and we are all poorer for it. Churches will be torn apart by the matter, no doubt, but committed friendships I truly hope can weather the storm. I would even suggest that our non-married acquaintances might be our teachers in friendship. Focusing on the family has been myopic. We need to focus on friendship.

Love without Lust

The Atlantic last October 2020 had an article entitled “What If Friendship, Not Marriage, Was at the Center of Life?” which suggested marriages ought not to end friendships, and that more friendships that replicate sibling relationships “can be models for how we as a society might expand our conceptions of intimacy and care.” These are not the superficial “friends” of Facebook, which are really a network rather than buddies or besties. As one inseparable pair say in the article, its “having a life partner you just don’t want to kiss.” 

Another interviewee describes a buddy as “the friend of my heart, the partner of my joys, griefs, and affections, the only participator of my most secret thoughts.” As historian Richard Godbeer says, “we can love without lusting” and so “nurture qualities that would radiate outward and transform society as a whole.” The article suggests changing laws so that our best friends come in the circle of legal protection; this would be one way to switch the price tag on the value of friendships.

This is not to say, as my kids would quip, that friendship is all “rainbows, Skittles, and unicorns.” As every parent knows, friendships can be toxic, cloying, and destructive. “Bad company corrupts good morals,” said Paul. We all have friends who disappointed us, and some of us have friends who betrayed us—betrayed our trust, turned their back to us, or suddenly went off the rails and took off in a destructive direction leaving a wake of hurt behind them. No one can hurt us more than a trusted friend.

Making a World of Difference

The third weekend of this October I was involved in a national conference entitled “Friendship That Makes a World of Difference” and the focus was the nexus of faith, friendship, and academic life.

One speaker noted that all his best and richest friendships that have survived decades came from his undergraduate and graduate days (see the video or manuscript). When students choose universities, they often consider the reputation of the institution, the promise of the academic program, and probably costs and geography. Maybe a few still consider worldview, too. But do we consider that when we choose a college or university we are also choosing the kind of friends we might make?

Academic training can easily be over-rated—at any level of schooling. Most schools offer us the basics at least, and family and on-the-job training can fill in the rest. Worldview is certainly a life or death matter, but one recently deceased sociologist, Peter Berger, always contended “Your friends determine your gods.” Beware what friends thou choosest.

I have gathered for a winter weekend each year with the same guys I’ve known since grade school. (I’m far right, but only in this photo. They would enjoy that joke.)

I’m a social scientist/religious studies professor, but I wonder if the natural scientists have more fun. God in the Lab: How Science Enhances Faith by Ruth Bancewicz isn’t a discussion of scientific friendships—its about how the creativity, beauty, wonder and awe of science draw people to worship God. But she’s been in five labs over the years, and she talks about champagne celebrations when grants came in; Christmas parties with comedy skits that tease the senior professors and razz the administration; and one lab where they ate lunch together everyday, with one person always designated to bring the cake on Friday. It made me wish I’d chosen a discipline that required labs. In fact, it does seem scientists are more likely to co-publish, and I imagine that as an improvement on the solitary scholar sitting alone in their ivory tower.

How To Make Friends?

It seems males have a harder time making friends, although as women invest more of their identity in the workforce the statistics may even out. One older male asked me “How do you make friends?” It was an honest question.

I wonder if our teachers in friendship can be children. They seem to know how to simply strike up a game together. I’m reminded of that tiny book called The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupery. In this magical book, the prince wants to play with a fox, but the fox insists he must be tamed first.

             

“What does that mean—‘tame’?” asks the little prince. 

“It is an act too often neglected,” say the fox.  “It means to establish ties.”

The fox then goes on to say that the prince is just one of a hundred thousand other boys, but if he tames the fox, then they shall need each other. Then, says the fox, “To me, you shall be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world.”

But how? 

“It requires patience. Ties are established by consistent presence,” says the fox. “Show up everyday at the same time and sit a short distance from me. Everyday come at the exact same time, and sit a little closer each day. As time passes I will not only come to expect you, but to anticipate you, and become happy even before I see you. This consistent showing up is what establishes ties. It is what tames me.”

I noticed another parent from our children’s school walking my way one day. He’s a computer science professor, and although that’s as far from my academic competency as one could possibly get, we share a faith in Christ and critical passion for the public university world. We decided this year to walk together once a week, and slowly threads of attachment and understanding are multiplying between us. I look forward to our walks as sort of balm, a refreshing break. We talk about our kids, our bad day, our family baggage; about the reduction of truth to power and the absurdity of some university administration decisions. Tiny threads of attachment are growing between us.

If we are called to love as Christians, certainly that love includes friendship. Friendship within marriage, friendships beyond marriage, friendships in church, and friendships beyond the circles of familiar faith. Ecclesiasticus 6:16 proposes that “a faithful friend is the medicine of life.” Here lies one ointment that might heal the wound of loneliness that plagues our hyper-connected but socially isolated society.


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