For friendship these are the best of times, and these are the worst of times. We claim, with a straight face, hundreds of friends on social networking sites. Our cell phones contain scores of contacts. Rare are the minutes when we are not somehow in touch with someone, whether virtually or in person. It has never been easier to keep up with old friendships or to establish new ones. And yet …
How many of us still experience an abiding sense of loneliness? How many of our friendships surpass mere familiarity and convenience? How many of our friends will we still count as such in ten, twenty, or thirty years? Is it not the case, to paraphrase poet Richard Foreman, that ours are “pancake” friendships, “spread wide and thin,” but with little or no depth? Are we not, as Daniel Akst wonders in a recent essay in The Wilson Quarterly, “America: Land of Loners?”
This is not a new concern, and Akst is not the first to raise it; he is only the most recent. Akst cites Robert Putnam’s well known Bowling Alone, published in 2000, which argued with extensive statistical data that in the late-20th century Americans were increasingly choosing to live in isolation. Putnam’s work, in turn, recalls David Riesman’s earlier classic, The Lonely Crowd. Riesman wrote in 1950, and it was in the “seemingly placid 1950′s, when mass unhappiness and mass loneliness began” according to Ronald Dworkin’s recent article on “The Rise of the Caring Industry” which we noted here a couple of weeks ago. Dworkin and Akst both observe that many of us now pay professionals for what in previous generations friends had supplied at the mere cost of reciprocity (which, admittedly, can sometimes be steeper than a therapist’s hourly fee).
Concern for friendship, of course, goes back much farther than the 1950’s, and Akst touches on this history briefly. He cites Aristotle who, while acknowledging the place of merely useful and entertaining friends, nonetheless viewed deep, meaningful friendships as an essential part of a good life. And Aristotle is only the first in a long tradition:
The myth of Damon and Pythias and the biblical story of David and Jonathan resonated across the centuries, and in the Middle Ages knights bound themselves in ceremonies to comrades in arms. Cicero, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Sir Francis Bacon, Michel de Montaigne, William Wordsworth—the list of Western luminaries who have waxed rhapsodic over friendship is long enough to fill anthologies from both Norton and Oxford.
At present, however, we find ourselves in an unfortunate situation. We have the trappings of friendship all around us, and we can probably list more people we call friends than our parents or grandparents ever could. But somewhere along the way we seem to have forgotten how to transform at least a few of these relationships into the sorts of friendships that will sustain and enrich our lives over the long haul.
Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, authors of Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives (2009), surveyed more than 3,000 randomly chosen Americans and found they had an average of four “close social contacts” with whom they could discuss important matters or spend free time. But only half of these contacts were solely friends; the rest were a variety of others, including spouses and children.
Joseph Epstein, whose essay “My Friend Edward” in Narcissus Leaves the Pool remains one of the more moving pieces on friendship I have ever read, wrote elsewhere that he “can think of exactly seven friends, very good friends, whose death or disappearance from my life would devastate me.” He was there reflecting the ancient Roman historian Plutarch who claimed that one needs no more than seven good friends in a lifetime. Seven seems better than two. I wonder if even those two are of the sort Epstein and Plutarch had in mind — “Close social contact” seems a bit sterile.
Akst explores a number of factors that in his view have contributed to our dearth of meaningful friendships: high rates of mobility, the press of busy schedules, divorce which split groups of friends as well as spouses, the American penchant for “self-reliance,” and the “remorseless eroticization of human relations” that inhibits male friendships in particular. Akst lists a few more and we could think of more still — I wonder how many refuse close friendships because they are fearful of the emotional vulnerability involved — but you get the point.
Fundamentally, however, I wonder if we are not also dealing with a failure of the imagination. Have we contented ourselves with shadows of friendship because we no longer remember what the reality looked like? If so, then perhaps we are in need of reminders. Gilbert Meilaender and Alan Jacobs have both written thoughtfully and evocatively on friendship and in the process offered us powerful images of friendship in its fullness.
In the past I’ve quoted from an insightful piece Meilaender wrote for First Things, “Men and Woman — Can We Be Friends,” and it is worth quoting again. Meilaender concluded his article with the following poignant reflections on Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia:
The friendship in the book is one between a boy and a girl, Jess and Leslie …. In different ways they are both outsiders in the world of their peers at school, and that very fact draws them together. They create — largely at the instigation of Leslie — a “secret country” named Terabithia, in which they are king and queen. This country — a piece of ground on the other side of a creek, to which they swing across on a rope — is, in Leslie’s words, “so secret that we would never tell anyone in the whole world about it.” And, at least at first, it must be that way …. [W]ere no friendships of theirs to be special and particular, were they to have no secret country that others did not share, they would never come to know themselves as fully as they do. Thus, for example, Jess finds that his friendship with Leslie opens up new worlds for him. “For the first time in his life he got up every morning with something to look forward to. Leslie was more than his friend. She was his other, more exciting self- his way to Terabithia and all the worlds beyond.”
Jess says that Leslie is his way not only to Terabithia but also to “all the worlds beyond,” but he learns that truth only slowly and with great bitterness. When the creek is swollen from a storm and Jess is gone, Leslie still tries to cross to Terabithia on the rope. It breaks, she falls onto the rocks, and is killed. Grief-stricken and alone, without his alter ego, Jess can barely come to terms with what has happened. But he does, finally, and in doing so learns something about the purpose of all friendship.
“It was Leslie who had taken him from the cow pasture into Terabithia and turned him into a king. He had thought that was it. Wasn’t king the best you could be? Now it occurred to him that perhaps Terabithia was like a castle where you came to be knighted. After you stayed for a while and grew strong you had to move on. For hadn’t Leslie, even in Terabithia, tried to push back the walls of his mind and make him see beyond to the shining world-huge and terrible and beautiful and very fragile?”
Jacobs closes his “Friendship and Its Discontents” with a justly famous and equally moving passage from Montaigne. In it Montaigne remembers a friend whose death had indeed devastated him:
.. our souls mingle and blend with each other so completely that they efface the seam that joined the, and cannot find it again. If you press me to tell you why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed, except by answering: Because it was he, because it was I.
Jacobs adds,”Few people in any age and in any culture have had a friendship like this one; how many people in our world can comprehend, or even imagine, the experience Montaigne describes?”
We have no guarantee that we will find and sustain such friendships in our lifetime, friendships that help us to see beyond our own secret countries; but it would be very sad indeed if we did not even know they were possible and consequently never searched them out.