One of the curious things about friendship is that it is often “death-haunted.” “It is as if,” writes Andrew Sullivan, “death and friendship enjoy a particularly close relationship, as if it is only when pressed to the extremes of experience that this least extreme of relationships finds its voice, or when we are forced to consider what really matters, that we begin to consider what friendship is.” So, many of the great literary depictions of friendship—Augustine’s, Montaigne’s, Tennyson’s—don’t depict so much the daily course of friendship but rather its dramatic loss. It is death that moves the poet or the preacher to take up the theme of friendship and try to pay tribute to that most un-dramatic of all loves.
Alan Jacobs, in a beautiful essay, has speculated that this nexus between death and the verbal portrayals of friendship may owe something to the “homely, comforting” nature of friendship. Friendship usually isn’t about “a story to tell, a sequence of events to dramatize, an intensity of experience to lyricize.” Furthermore, friendship isn’t about undertaking some quest to achieve some goal. Unlike, for instance, the love of parents for children, which is very much oriented toward the telos of “training up a child in the way he should go” (Proverbs 22:6), the love of friendship is its own end. And because of that non-flashy, goal-less quality of friendship, it sometimes takes the dramatic rupture of death for us to see the friendship as a whole, and for us to be able, then, to give voice to our gratitude for it. As Jacobs puts it,
Having so specific goal in mind, having nothing to strive towards, friendships possess no intrinsic narrative quality. This is not to say that we should not strive to be better friends, that is, to practice more assiduously the virtues that strengthen friendship, but we cannot do so for reasons intrinsic to the friendship. It is in the nature of friendship, I think, that the demands a friendship makes upon us wax and wane: we go through seasons of relative closeness, seasons of relative separation, without re-evaluating the basic character of the friendship. (I have dear, dear friends whom I can see only rarely, but they are no less dear because of this, and would be no more dear if we could meet regularly.) This stability of affection coupled with great variation in occasions for intimacy is almost impossible to represent in narrative terms, or indeed in other literary terms.
Whether it’s for these sorts of reasons or for others, I’m not sure, but I have been struck this week in the wake of my dear friend Brett Foster’s death on Monday night by how Brett’s death has prompted an outpouring of appreciation for his friendship, specifically.