C. S. Lewis on Friendship at First Sight

I have visiting nieces and nephews at the moment, which means I’ve been reading more children’s literature recently. As I was reading, I was struck by this passage in C. S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:

All morning on the following day they sailed in fairly shallow water and the bottom was weedy. Just before midday Lucy saw a large shoal of fishes grazing on the weed. They were all eating steadily and all moving in the same direction. “Just like a flock of sheep,” thought Lucy. Suddenly she saw a little Sea Girl of about her own age in the middle of them—a quiet, lonely-looking girl with a sort of crook in her hand. Lucy felt sure that this girl must be a shepherdess—or perhaps a fish-herdess—and that the shoal was really a flock at pasture. Both the fishes and the girl were quite close to the surface. And just as the girl, gliding in the shallow water, and Lucy, leaning over the bulwark, came opposite to one another, the girl looked up and stared straight into Lucy’s face. Neither could speak to the other and in a moment the Sea Girl dropped astern. But Lucy will never forget her face. It did not look frightened or angry like those of the other Sea People. Lucy had liked that girl and she felt certain the girl had liked her. In that one moment they had somehow become friends. There does not seem to be much chance of their meeting again in that world or any other. But if ever they do they will rush together with their hands held out.

Lewis GreevesWe often speak of love at first sight, and, since Freud, are invited to think of it primarily in terms of sexual attraction. But I suspect that the phenomenon of being suddenly drawn to someone—but drawn to them as a potential friend, not as a potential lover—is much more common than we usually think. In Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, Lewis himself related an experience like this from his own boyhood:

Many chapters ago I mentioned a boy who lived near us and who had tried, quite unsuccessfully, to make friends with my brother and myself. His name was Arthur and he was my brother’s exact contemporary; he and I had been at Campbell together though we never met. I think it was shortly before the beginning of my last term at Wyvern that I received a message saying that Arthur was in bed, convalescent, and would welcome a visit. I can’t remember what led me to accept this invitation, but for some reason I did.

I found Arthur sitting up in bed. On the table beside him lay a copy of Myths of the Norsemen.

“Do you like that?” said I.

“Do you like that?”said he.

Next moment the book was in our hands, our heads were bent close together, we were pointing, quoting, talking—soon almost shouting—discovering in a torrent of questions that we liked not only the same thing, but the same parts of it and in the same way; that both knew the stab of Joy and that, for both, the arrow was shot from the North. Many thousands of people have had the experience of finding the first friend, and it is none the less a wonder; as great a wonder (pace the novelists) as first love, or even a greater. I had been so far from thinking such a friend possible that I had never even longed for one; no more than I longed to be King of England. If I had found that Arthur had independently built up an exact replica of the Boxonian world I should not really have been much more surprised. Nothing, I suspect, is more astonishing in any man’s life than the discovery that there do exist people very, very like himself.

I had a rather similar experience in my late teens (so similar that I seem to have subconsciously imitated Lewis’s trick of reversing pronoun and verb order when I wrote about it):

We were standing by the food table at a party, trying to make small talk. “I’m terrible at this social-mixing thing,” I said to a face I knew slightly, the sort of acquaintance you nod at in passing on campus.

“I don’t like it that much either,” Jason replied, creating an instant sense of solidarity: two sane introverts amid the mixing, extroverted crowd. Balancing a plate of chips and vegetables in one hand, holding a plastic cup in the other, we moved off to find a corner where we could chat. We spoke awkwardly of this and that, stumbling through topics like the weather and the food.

“So, what do you want to be when you graduate?”

“An aeronautical engineer,” said I.

“A pilot,” said he.

In memory, the party becomes a vague blur, like farmland from 30,000 feet. Yet the light in his eyes and the image of his hands illustrating maneuvers in the air between us remains.

Hours later, as the party died around us, we found an empty stairwell, where we kept talking—about flying, about our lives, about the dreams we hoped to accomplish. We continued to talk until the night was almost gone, when finally, short on sleep, parted on the promise to meet again.

(For a more recent take on the same experience, see “The Desires of the Heart.”)

At the time, the only narrative I was aware of that the experience would fit into was the romantic narrative of love at first sight. But the more I have reflected on the actual content of the experience, and on the relationship that developed, the more convinced I am that it was an experience of friendship, not eros.

Reading the description of David and Jonathan’s first meeting helped to expand my understanding of friendship, which gave me new insight into my own experience, helping me to recognize it as friendship, rather than falling into the Freudian trap of seeing all attraction to another person as sexual attraction:

As soon as he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. And Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul (1 Samuel 18:1-3).

This experience of immediately “clicking” with another person is not yet a fully grown friendship. Many such friendships will not last. They must be tested, to see if the person really is what they seem to be, and if the friendship is really able to grow in Christ. But I think that recognizing the phenomenon of “friendship at first sight” is actually an important aid to chaste friendship. It helps us to understand friendship as its own distinct reality, rather than falling into the modern trap of interpreting spontaneous attraction as an expression of libido, a desire that can only be truly satisfied by sexual pleasure or romantic love.

To acknowledge friendship at first sight as a real experience is not, of course, to settle how to respond to the experience in concrete cases. I won’t to address any of those questions in this post, beyond saying that everything we’ve said on this blog about discerning the difference between healthy and unhealthy friendship would apply to friendship at first sight, as well. The excitement of making a new friend provides no excuse from the sometimes difficult sacrifices involved in loving chastely or any other duties of the moral law (a similar point should be made about love at first sight, as well).

However, we can’t even begin to address the question of how to respond to the experience without first acknowledging that the experience is real, and is not the same as romantic love at first sight. Critics who are unable to do this are incapable of engaging in an intelligent discussion of the phenomenon or providing sound guidance about how to deal with it.

12 thoughts on “C. S. Lewis on Friendship at First Sight

  1. I like the thought but I have some doubts.

    If things like “romantic love at first sight” are just constructs (and I think they are), then assumably “friendship at first sight” is too, so there isn’t really a right or wrong answer about “what was this experience?” it would seem.

    Rather, what you could say is something like “a construct of ‘friendship at first sight,’ if there were such a thing or if I myself invent it, would seem to potentially be a better-fit model for the data here.” Fair enough.

    Except we don’t just choose the constructs by which we are going to interpret experiences after-the-fact. The social existence of constructs inserts itself even immediately during the experience itself.

    I can’t unilaterally opt out of understanding my feelings through the lens of the script of sexual orientation, because that is the script that suggests itself by the force of overwhelming socialization via images. I can deconstruct rationally and know other interpretations/constructions are possible, and I can choose to ACT on one of those instead.

    BUT, until society itself changes its constructs, such a course of action is always going to come with an emotional sense of deprivation. And not just deprivation but of a sort of antisocial delusion.

    The person who insists “the personal significance for me is just friendship!” while everyone around him understands him to be clearly infatuated (and who knows that’s how other people would see it) sort of strikes me as like the person who says “homosexuality is disordered” knowing but not caring that this will be read through the lens of psychiatric diagnosis.

    Our meanings are not radically individualistic, they’re *socially* constructed. You seem to be aware that the consensus interpretation of your experience would be “romantic love”…so by what authority do you think you can (ethically) unilaterally opt out of that framework rather than working within it?

    It seems to me that bad or false-conscious social constructs (from a Catholic judgement point) always contain internal contradictions that provide enough wiggle-room to be able to subvert them and transform them from within.

    Wholesale rejection or attempts at radical discontinuity (either through revolution or “resourcement”…often the same thing if one is proposing to overthrow the present order in favor of a rupturous introduction of anachronism) seem suspect to me.

  2. I think this post and this comment are both fascinating. I’m really thankful these kinds of conversations.

    I do view sexual orientation and even romance as social constructs, and dubious ones as best. As Christians, we are called to not be conformed to this world but rather transformed by the renewing of our minds. If a social construct turns out to be inconsistent with Biblical teaching, we have the right to resist that social construct.

    In my opinion, both the social constructs of sexual orientation and romance have warped our understandings of what it means to be human. When Freud established the construct of sexual orientation, sex between men and sex between women was still viewed very negatively. That negativity carried over to the social construct of homosexuality. But the logical implications of this social construct woud lead us to believe that it is quite unloving to deny someone the possibility of acting upon something that is so core to their very being. I find that I need to constant remind myself that love and sex are distinct things and that sex is not in any way the highest form of experiencing and expressing love. If love in human form could live a life without sexual relations, then that is enough evidence for me that an amazing sex life is not essential to an amazing love life.

    The social construct of romance I believe has also had negative effects on how we as modern Westerners relate to one another. If “romantic” feelings are closely and even exclusively tied together with sex/marriage/etc, then it must be abnormal for friends to share those same feelings for one another. This subtle and destructive idea has undermined same-sex friendships in our contemporary culture.

    Another interesting blog post that explores related issues:

    http://www.artofmanliness.com/2012/07/29/bosom-buddies-a-photo-history-of-male-affection/

    • I will be honest. I am gay, don’t consider it a sin, and even seek out love with another man in my life and reading through your link made me feel uncomfortable. Specifically the pictures.

      I would never hold hands with my straight male friends, nor would I let one of them sit on my lap or put his hand on my thigh.

      Remember, I say this as an unapologetically gay man, not some stereotypical hyper-macho man where you might expect that sentiment. If a male friend of mine climbed on my lap or grabbed my thigh I would feel uncomfortable. That would be a violation of a sincere boundary of friendship. Things would get “weird” to put it in a more layman term you often hear.

      Plus, wouldn’t having men snuggling up together, holding hands, and so on lead to more temptation to sin via homosexual union for those of us who are built to want to be with other men? I have little moral problem with that but am puzzled why you wouldn’t.

      • Given how culturally conditioned we are to sexualize physical affection, I agree that showing physical affection among friends could cause “weirdness” and in some cases temptation today. But I think it is to our overall hurt that we have sexualized physical affection.

        Even though I do believe that it is a sin for a man to have sex with another man, I don’t think it’s wrong for a man to desire intimacy (emotional, spiritual, non-sexualized physical) with another man. When we rule out such holy intimacy, we leave a void that can actually strengthen sexual temptation.

    • I can see the harm for sure and do agree. I think that women have much better relationships than men do because men are raised in a culture that cleaves sex from all other features of interaction. It stands as something you do, separate from emotional side.

      I can empathize as I think we would be better off if we could live in a world where gender was something you decide for yourself rather than having it decided for you at birth by society. But, as with my own feelings on what would make the world a better place, I don’t see this as something that can be fixes. You can’t make people not feel grossed out or weirded out by something.

  3. Reblogged this on Ben Y. Faroe and commented:
    I consistently enjoy Spiritual Friendship, but this one struck a special chord with me. One of the deep themes of The Unaccountable Death of Derelict Frobisher is the sense of isolation that comes from thinking there’s nobody else in the world who really gets you or likes what you like. These glimpses of another person who understands—these moments of friendship at first sight—cut through that isolation. I suspect introverts may experience this particularly strongly. When it’s hard to connect in general, a deep and instant connection is a precious gift, especially when it proves to have staying power over the years. I love this reminder to honor the depth and reality of those friendships.

    Plus I’m a sucker for C. S. Lewis and Narnia. But who isn’t?

  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you! This is exactly how I have struggled to say it. My best friend and I in junior high school, whom I rarely see, but still consider Best Friend; a young woman, about my same age who was thrown together with me on a work project and whose baby’s birth I videoed and who was my “Best Ma’am” in my wedding; even a Muslim whom I met at a mediation teaching conference and with whom I still have a fun, mystical buddy-hood of two grown men, one a staunch Baptist and the other an Imam! In every case above and many others of like/love at first sight, I believe it was the urging of the Holy Spirit pulling together two kindred spirits meant to be help mates in life. I thank God for His ingenious pairing of Odd Couples!

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