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.
We 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.