“To See Beyond Our Own Secret Countries”

When I was in high school I remember Sports Illustrated having a regular feature called “This Week’s Sign That The Apocalypse Is Upon Us” which cited some particularly absurd or ridiculous bit of sporting news from the past week.  I’m not sure if they still run that feature or not, but if not perhaps something similar needs to be revived for stories like the following.  By way of the well deserved rant it elicited from Russel Arben Fox at In Medias Res, I became aware of a piece in today’s NY Times, “The End of the Best Friend,” describing the appearance of “friendship coaches” who intervene to prevent young children from forming too close a bond with any one other child.   I wish I were making this up.

Real concerns lie behind this well-intentioned nonsense, however, the managerial impulse has its limits.  The risk of inhibiting real and meaningful friendships seems almost tragic.  But as Fox noted, it is probably “pointless and silly to allow oneself to get worked up over another one of the NYT’s patented create-controversy-and-concern-out-of-a-no-doubt-minute-slice-of-upper-middle-class-New-York-life Style section articles.”

The article did have an upside though.  It reminded me of another essay that couldn’t be further afield in tone and depth.  In 1993, Gilbert Meilaender wrote a superb piece in First Things titled “Men and Woman — Can We Be Friends.” It is a wonderful essay and I recommend you read it some time.  Meilaender concluded 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?”

To learn to see beyond our own secret countries — to what is at the same time both terrible and beautiful — is, from the perspective of Christian faith, the purpose of friendship.

Let us hope the “friendship coaches” are just one more short-lived, soon-forgotten fad.

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