The Specificities of Friendship

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.

10 thoughts on “The Specificities of Friendship

  1. Wes, lovely post. When it comes to the practicalities of building friendship, two authors lurk in my mind, framing how I tend to think. First, the sense of “membership” as developed among friends in Wendell Berry’s fiction. He may say it outright somewhere, but even if not, there is a strong sense that part of what binds this network of friends and neighbors together is sustained practical mutual dependence. In other words, the friends/neighbors in these books are not premised on episodic gatherings for coffee and the exchange feelings. These friends are present to one another because they are also collaborating, involved in a non-monetized economy that is geographically localized. Second David Matzko McCarthy’s book “Sex and Love in the Home” has a poignant but trenchant critique of seeking romance by means of advertisements (as in “in search of” classifieds in magazines or newspapers), and in this case, I think “romance” is analogous to friendship (both are attempts to fight loneliness in this book). Matzko McCarthy talks about why aspirations to romance that do not arise organically from one’s practical situation, and thus from the people you’re dealt prior to your preferences, are handicapped by a certain degree of abstraction. I guess Berry and McCarthy could both be criticized for idealizing pre-volitional communitarian limitations, but I’ve always taken both books as encouragement to love the folks Providence has put in our proximity. A small example: note how many church friendships arise not simply from coffee hour after liturgy (standing around talking, which is good but in itself only bears so much), but from the committee that actually hosts coffee hour (doing the practical labor of gathering food, setting up tables, and sweeping the floor afterwards). It’s the difference between willfully saying “let’s talk and be friends” and “we’re collaborating on a task, and, in the doing, it emerges that trust and affection accumulate naturally.”

    • Love this response Chris. I think you are definitely right. It seems the trick is how to have those organic connections in our very mobile culture. Even committees and groups at churches can seem so transient–people coming and going for a few months here and there rather than the long term of working together over a period of years. I think your comment would lead to a good article or post if it was expanded and considered how these kinds of connections can be built given our fragmented culture. I should say also that maybe we need to be more deliberate about being rooted even if it means choosing a different kind of vocation. That is, looking at the reasons for the transience and mobility and seeing if there are possible different decisions that could be made that would enhance staying in long-term community. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove wrote a little book on this: “The Wisdom of Stability.” Anyway, I think a lot more needs to be said and written about this organic aspect of relationships as I believe it is essential.

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  3. I’m currently grappling with issues such as this with a friend of mine, where I constantly feel that I don’t want to come across as too needy or clingy and scare them off from our friendship. It’s a slow process for me to admit that this person is truly there for me whenever I need them and is always willing to hear out my problems and offer their advice. Despite the repeated signs that I can rely on them, though, I still feel that nagging hesitation that I’m burdening them with my issues, that they have their own things going on in their life, and that they don’t need to always be worrying about what’s wrong with me. There are a lot of people out there who aren’t like that, who don’t have time for you and who do feel burdened by your issues. The trick is finding the ones that genuinely care for and love you and then working past all of your own barriers to open up to that person and rely on them. Just this past week I was having a hard couple days and thought about calling my friend, but I naturally hesitated, convinced that I would be bothering them. I actually spent a couple of hours arguing with myself about whether or not I should just go ahead and call them before I finally gave in and did it. And after a conversation with that person last night, I said, “I hope there will be a day that I’m finally done coming to you with issues and problems,” and he just smiled at me and said, “There won’t, but that’s okay.” The first half of the struggle is over, I’ve found someone who is really and truly there for me, but the other half falls on my shoulders. I need to now allow myself to believe them in my heart and know that I can come to them with anything. So the battle is two-fold. First, finding a person like that, who loves and cares for you no matter what and is always there for you, and second, letting yourself believe in that love.

  4. I’ve been blessed with a great group of friends. The only problem is that I am terrified of being open about my sexuality with them. We’re a group of orthodox Catholic guys and I just fear that they’ll see me differently even if they don’t reject me. I don’t want to make it ‘ weird’.

    • I was for many years very secretive about my bi orientation with my Catholic friends. Several years ago I just started telling almost everybody who I’m close to. It started with only my closest and safest friends, but given my experience, I’d say there’s a 20-25% chance the guys you tell will react badly. But! That means *most* of your friends will react well, and the upside is that you’ll be able to be more honest and more genuine in these friendships. By sharing the full truth of what your struggles are, you’ll be able to be a better friend, I think.

      One thing I’ve noticed: as a man, some guys are safer than others to tell. The safe ones have in common certain qualities: they tend to be merciful and compassionate in general, and oftentimes are genuinely confident and well-adjusted. Guys who are insecure, or wary of their place in the social heirarchy, have reacted poorly. The confident ones have treated me no differently than before. I didn’t get “downgraded.” I got upgraded because they were honored that I trusted them.

      Another reason I’d encourage you to at least tell some of your Catholic friends is that you describe yourself as terrified, and this is not good for you. Most dudes in a Catholic context, in 2013, will want to be a help and a support in your efforts to live a virtuous life. And people who aren’t going to support you are also probably not very genuine friends. But, if and when you tell your friends, be sure you also tell them, “…and I need your help.” Give them a role that they can understand, like, “I want to be treated the same, and I will need encouragement, and ___(you finish the rest)___.” Due to how stigmatized this is, some of them will be “icked out” and might need a week to… sort it out, but, if you give them a framework of expectations you have of them, or hopes you have in relation to their friendship, it’ll steer their thoughts positively. I wish you the best, whatever you decide.

      • Thanks for your advise! I’ve noticed that I need to do something different if I want to keep my sanity. I absolutely support the church’s teaching but it can sometimes make you hate yourself. I’ve found myself in that boat. I really hate being gay but I think part of it is that I’m not honest about it with anyone so I have no way of venting or letting out my frustrations. I’m always left wondering though what a faithful gay Christian life looks like. it’s an enigma to me. I love SF but sometimes it’s all philosophical and little practicality. Thanks again for your words! very helpful!

  5. Yes. Such needed words, Wes. I was going through a particularly challenging time recently and had a friend say “if only you hadn’t been so together, I might have known that something was wrong.” Another friend said: “when you talked about it, it sounded like it was under control.” Thank you for sharing this. Much to think about.

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