Near the beginning of Lauren Winner’s newest book, there’s this passage:
What do I know about friendship from close to four decades of being, or trying to be, a friend?
I know that friendship both requires and breeds honesty—perhaps foremost honesty with myself. When I am lying to myself (as I have been known to do, usually about something important—otherwise why bother?), I am not available for friendship.
I know that friendship is rich and delightful. I know that I could live anywhere if I had two or three real friends.
I know that friendship is often supported by institutions and the structures they provide. A few years ago, the rector of the church where I served as a priest associate left for another job. The moment she announced she was leaving, I began to dread the ways our friendship would suffer—and it has. It hasn’t disappeared, but now it is entirely dependent on our free time and our admittedly plentiful affection for each other. We manage to meet for a cocktail about every four months, which is better than nothing but a lot more fragile than when we not only adored each other but also shared common work and common concern for a parish. Likewise, I do not look forward to the day I stop teaching at the women’s prison with my friend Sarah. I have buckets of affection for her, too, but it is a relief that we have something to talk about other than current events and our petty domestic squabbles; we also plan syllabi together, and think together about what our students need from us, and argue about which books to assign. Friendship benefits from the support of institutions: classes taught together, church bazaars planned together.
That third point especially stands out to me. You might think of it as an illustrative riff on C. S. Lewis’ opinion: “Friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice…. [T]hose who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travellers” (italics added). Friendships are propped up, energized, and sustained by shared inquiries, tasks, projects, and investments. Friendships thrive on “institutions.”
I like Lauren Winner’s examples because they resonate with me—many of my closest friendships have grown out of and been nurtured by some sort of shared involvement in some kind of Christian ministry—but I also like Lewis’ very mundane examples (a liking for domino games; an affinity for pet mice). I resonate with the latter, too, as I’ve written about before.
A while ago, Beth Felker Jones, who teaches theology at Wheaton College, wrote about how some friendships of hers have thrived on shared TV watching:
In college I gathered with friends to watch Friends and ER—in fact, I did this more faithfully than I did anything else in college. As our coed cohort kept up with the saga between characters Ross and Rachel, we were enacting our own relationship drama as a group of late adolescents relating to each other during formative years. When I think about Friends I can feel the carpet I sprawled on, smell the pizza we ate, and recall each of the people around me.
In my graduate school years my husband and I met with friends to watch The West Wing. We took turns meeting in each other’s apartments and cooking supper. Many of us were deeply immersed in vocational discernment. The idealism we felt about President Bartlet was tied up with that stage of life, and we shared our personal struggles along with comments about the White House plots and characters.
My husband and I have a current standing TV date with another couple for HBO’s Game of Thrones. After we put the kids to bed, we share a meal and conversation about marriage and work. When we talk about the show itself, we tend to nerdy venting: how the war of the seven kingdoms coheres with British history or the pros and cons of the story lines unfolding in both television and novel forms. Maybe we’re settled enough in real life to crave escapism. Maybe there’s something in the show’s power struggles that speaks to the less bloody dramas of the ordinary. In any case, we wouldn’t dream of watching this drama without one another.
Whether big and noble or small and inconsequential, whether they involve teaching classes or just making nachos for this week’s favorite TV show episode, institutions—set projects and activities and pursuits—can be the trellis on which friendship grows. It may not be a very profound insight, but it feels important for us to talk about, all the same.