Public Friendship

Over at Commonweal, David Michael writes about his Swedish wedding and how it drew his and his wife’s friends in at every turn:

Ignoring the standard U.S. wedding magazine checklist, filled with inconceivable items like second lingerie fittings, my then-fiancée Johanna made a simple checklist: food, decorations, music, readers, a priest. Next to every item, she wrote the names of our friends.

I balked at putting our friends to work, but for Johanna, it wasn’t even a question. “That’s the best part. They actually get to spend time with the bride and groom during the preparations. You might only get five minutes with them at the actual wedding. Besides,” she added, “I helped out at all their weddings.”

When she set up shop at her grandmother’s house a few days before the wedding, several of her friends joined her. A law student who had previously studied cooking began to bake the desserts and cake. A couple arrived with their baby tucked in their backseat alongside a PA system, dance-floor lights, and a keg of homebrew. They were joined by more Swedes, and soon there were more than a dozen family members and friends working side-by-side. We made decorations and prepared the food, pausing for a meal or to go swimming in the sea before continuing with the preparations. Even the Americans got in on the act: our friend Rachel arrived, all the way from Seattle, bearing the programs and nameplates that she’d designed and printed, and her husband came with the suit I was borrowing from him. The day before the wedding, a dozen or so people—Americans and Swedes—helped decorate the church reception hall from mid-afternoon until well into the night. Admittedly, there were moments I wished we’d had the money to pay someone else to set up, but the work provided a sense of quiet meaning and care that’s hard to find at a bar or a restaurant. For our friends, the work provided the opportunity to make their love manifest.

I was lucky enough to be a guest at this wedding, arriving with two other American friends in time to help set up the reception hall and mingle with the other guests while doing so. One of them brought me a beer and pulled his chair close to mine so we could chat and get to know one another while he kept an eye on his baby son asleep in a carrier on the lawn. The way David describes the atmosphere in his essay is precisely how it was: the mood was laidback, the conversation was meandering, and the occasion wasn’t “about” anything other than being together.

And for David, one of the most significant things about these Swedish customs is that it provides something in short supply in the States: “a public notion of friendship.”

What occasions do Americans have to tell friends that we love them for who they are and to acknowledge that love publicly? Our culture allows us ample opportunities to make friends, but it affords very few opportunities to mark that friendship. And even when we have those opportunities, we often squander them.

At least among American men, declarations of love between friends are frowned upon, if not verboten. If we do express our mutual love, we frame it in irony and wit, employing terms like “bromance.” But when you cannot directly say “I love you”—privately or publicly—your capacity to love your friends becomes diminished, and friendships are reduced to what Aristotle calls “friendships of pleasure.”

By contrast, at David and Johanna’s wedding, the multiple-hours-long reception provided an opportunity for friend after friend to offer toasts, publicly celebrating and declaring their love for the bride and groom.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that this is one of my hobbyhorses: We need more ways to honor and celebrate our friends! On finishing David’s essay about his Swedish wedding, I found myself thinking about the times, after my speaking gigs, when I’ve been asked for thoughts about how we might begin to do that—how we might learn to more easily and readily declare in public our love for our friends. From now on, I may just send them a link to David’s piece and say, “Start here. Look for ways to do things like this.”


2 thoughts on “Public Friendship

  1. Oh! My hubby and I were fortunate enough to have a wedding somewhat like one of these… we had it RIGHT after undergrad – two days after I graduated.

    Therefore, we used the same means that everyone used to find volunteers for an activity in those days:
    Put a sign-up sheet in the lounge of my dorm. 😀
    Our friends did much of the food, they did the photography, they played the music during the wedding…
    …and I’m not sure of the extent of their help, because I was sort of “out of the loop.” (taking care of all the things a person tries to take care of to graduate…)

    Actually, the possibility of having friends help so much maybe began partially when during a late-night homework session one of my friends expressed her strong desire to organize a wedding:
    She turned to a close friend and informed her, “You need to get married so I can plan your wedding.” (Said friend didn’t have any prospects at the time – I think – so it was an especially silly moment at 3 in the morning.)
    I turned to the friend who said that, grabbed her by the shoulders and pleaded, “Plan myyyy wedding!?”

    And yet, that’s not to carelessly throw the gifts we were given by family under the bus. My husband’s family was AWESOME. His mom made all the bridesmaid dresses… and my wedding dress… handled flowers… repeatedly asked us if we wanted to give input on wedding-related decisions… (though she mostly got the response, “no – we don’t care / don’t want to think about it. Please decide for us!”)
    Multiple members of my hubbie’s extended family flew out days early to work on stuff for the wedding.
    (They’d also made molded candies for wedding favors MONTHS beforehand!)
    His mom and brother and I-dont-know-who-all put in amazing work on (and research for!) the cake… my church opened up the mysteries of its kitchen to my family for that work.

    One of our neatest wedding gifts…
    A friend who’d been one of our photographers… after having sent us the link to get our photos printed out… just went ahead and printed them for us and gave them to us a few weeks later.
    He explained, “I didn’t think you would ever end up doing it.”
    And he was correct!
    Because he was our friend and knew us.

    If I think about all the things I didn’t have to manage and solve and stress over… that list must be enormous!!!
    (I -don’t- actually think a lot about what I was spared!)
    I only had a handful of things I had to concern myself with: Shopping with my mother-in-law one day during spring break to choose the fabric for dresses. Calling two friends from “back home” to ask if I could get them tickets to come.

    Little else.
    Everything was taken care of, and I just kind of found out what it was going to be like as things happened.

    And it all left me feeling incredibly cared-for and loved.

  2. I have greatly benefited from “Washed and Waiting” and from the articles on this site. I’m a bit disappointed though. I came to this site hoping to find that there was an online apparatus for doing what you advocate: abolishing loneliness and proliferating spiritual friendships. Reading about it is great, but meeting others who share the same convictions would be even better.

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