In a comment on my last post, Karen K wrote,
I wonder if your book will be exploring the practical aspects too? What I see is difficulty in people knowing how to form these kinds of deep friendships. So many lonely people walking around and we can’t seem to break through the barriers to deeply connect.
How do we begin, for example, to have deeper levels of affection when our culture is so touch phobic? Do we have conversations about it with a particular friend? Begin to take more risks in expressing affection to others in hopes that it is returned? Etc etc. Do we make different life decisions to stay rooted somewhere instead of chasing the job because there is community and deep connections in a particular place? (I think that needs to be considered more than it is) Etc etc.
How do we get beyond the theoretical to the experiential?
These are all excellent questions, and the fact that Karen isn’t the first to press me on this point leads me to think we need a lot more conversation around these kinds of nitty-gritty practicalities. I tried to raise those questions briefly in a post from earlier this year—on “Celibacy and Friendship ‘After 30’”—and a reader sent me an email:
A (straight) friend of mine… said she’d be interested in hearing anything more you had to say about the practical side of finding lasting, sacrificial friendships—I think she’s especially interested in figuring out how you can broach the topic of seeing someone regularly. How do you move from “I recognize you from that thing we did” to “Once a week we have dinner”? I get the sense that a lot of [people] are similarly wondering whether and how they can ask for friendship without coming across as crazy or clingy…
There’s a certain irony, of course, about pursuing friendship, since, as C. S. Lewis notes, “The very condition of having Friends is that we should want something else besides Friends.” Sadly, and this is borne out in my experience, the times when someone is most desperate for friendship may be the times when it is hardest to find.
And that’s why I’m interested in what’s implicit in Karen’s comment—that most of us are already involved in certain friendships that we can work to strengthen, rather than create from ground zero. The question then becomes not, “How do we find the perfect friend whose qualities we’ve already enumerated ahead of time?” but rather, “How do we do undergird and deepen the ones in which we’re already involved?”
This all hits close to home for me, since, at the prompting of a wise director, I’m currently learning to better express to certain friends the precise, definite ways I need them. Obviously, given my public speaking and writing, I’ve more or less mastered a type of macro-level confession. I can talk pretty well in sweeping terms about “questioning my sexuality” or “loneliness,” but it is much more costly and difficult (and not always best, outside of my circles of appropriate transparency) to talk about particular manifestations of confusion or loneliness. Eve Tushnet has written well about this—about how “transparent honesty with one’s friends may be considered an antidote to the shame we feel at exposing our own needs and weaknesses”—and that’s one concrete answer I’d give as to how to strengthen friendships: get specific about what makes you feel disconnected and about how, specifically, you imagine that could be remedied.
Here’s the kind of thing I have in mind. My friend Sarah Hall tells the story of doing some quiet work at her house and seeing an incoming call from one of her close friends. In the interest of staying on task, she chose to ignore the call. A minute later her phone rang again, and this time it was her fiancé’s number. She immediately answered but heard her friend’s voice on the line—the friend whose call she had just declined. It turned out that Sarah’s fiancé had been in a minor accident, and her friend had been calling to let her know. A few days later, Sarah inquired of her, “Did that hurt your feelings when I didn’t pick up your call but then immediately answered Jon’s?” Her friend admitted that, yes, due to some challenging circumstances, she was feeling especially in need of reliable friends and therefore it had been disappointing when Sarah hadn’t picked up. To which Sarah replied, “Would it be good for me to put you in the ‘I’ll-always-answer-even-if-I-have-to-say-I’ll-call-you-back-in-five’ category?”
It’s a small story, with no magic-bullet conclusion. But I find it prompts me to think practically when talking about the loneliness of the everyday and its remedies.