Reinvigorating Friendship

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.

Don Draper on Prozac

John Hamm plays Don Draper (

That is the image that comes to mind while reading Ronald W. Dworkin’s “The Rise of the Caring Industry.” The caring industry consists of the “77,000 clinical psychologists, 192,000 clinical social workers, 105,000, mental health counselors, 50,000 marriage and family therapists, 17,000 nurse psychotherapists, and 30,000 life coaches” at work in the US today and the additional “400,000 nonclinical social workers and 220,000 substance abuse counselors working outside the official mental health system yet offering clients informal psychological advice nonetheless”  According to Dworkin this represents “more than a 100-fold increase in the number of professional caregivers over the last 60 years, although the general population has only doubled.”

Most conversations about what Dworkin has neatly labeled the caring industry eventually come around to Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism (1979) and Philip Rieff’s The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1965).  Both make the obligatory appearance, but in Dworkin’s view both are inadequate.  Regarding Lasch he writes,

Many people who go to counselors share nothing with the stereotypical self-absorbed neurotic.  On the contrary, they are average people with conventional values who face real-life problems but have no one to talk to.  Fully a third of the American population has undergone some form of psychotherapy.  It strains the imagination to think that the majority of them are narcissists.

Rieff was simply writing too soon to know the full import of the unfolding sea change in Western culture:

What Rieff had observed were the first stirrings of a new social order, one that would rest on a nation-spanning network of caring professionals.  Today, countless institutions and millions of people  are dependent to one degree or another on the caring industry.  Therapy is no longer just a “culture.”  In the form of professional caring, it has become our way of life.

Now we might question whether Dworkin’s take on Lasch and Rieff is itself adequate, but the main point he makes in bringing them up seems sound:  the profound transition in American life that gave rise to the caring industry predates the 1960’s and 1970’s.  The caring industry is rooted in the “seemingly placid 1950’s, when mass unhappiness and mass loneliness began.”  Dworkin goes on to remind us that

So great was people’s unhappiness during the 1950’s, and so suddenly did it emerge, that both the political and medical authorities called it a “mental health crisis.”  Rates of alcoholism and juvenile delinquency skyrocketed during the decade, which popular magazines dubbed the “Age of Anxiety.”

If you’re familiar with Mad Men, and just now it seems few are not, you’re probably taking exception to my title since Mad Men is set in the early 1960’s, not the 1950’s.  But keep in mind that the early sixties were much closer to the 1950’s than they were to “The Sixties” which really start up mid-decade and spill over into the 1970’s.  In a fascinating essay titled “The Other Sixties,” Bruce Bawer argued that the early sixties as a period had a certain integrity of its own, but it was still a period when “men wearing ties and neatly pressed suits on all occasions” was the norm.

Freud's Couch

And so the image of Draper on Prozac, or perhaps Draper on the couch, to imaginatively capture the period in which far-reaching transformations in American life gave rise to the caring industry.  This is, in fact, a connection made explicit in the first few episodes of the first season in which Betty, not Don, Draper ends up going to a psychiatrist for her “nerves.”  Part of Mad Men’s brilliance derives from its poignant, and sometimes painful, explorations of the growing  unhappiness and loneliness of the era that Dworkin identifies with the birth of the caring industry.  If this were all Dworkin was intending to drive home, that the caring industries roots go back to the 1950’s, then it would be merely an interesting and compelling historical narrative.  But there is more, Dworkin argues that the rise of the caring class was necessitated by the breakdown of peer groups which had previously provided the resources and support ordinary people relied upon to navigate the difficulties and hardships of life.

Today’s caring professionals offer the same service to lonely, unhappy people that friends and relatives once did . . .   People want to be able to go about their daily lives with the knowledge that someone is there for them.  This basic truth led to the rise of the caring industry.  Millions of unhappy people use professional counselors to compensate for having no one to talk to about their everyday problems.

Dworkin details a number of factors contributing to this sad state of affairs:  Americans were increasingly moving to new towns alone, “urban renewal projects that tore down impoverished but vibrant inner city neighborhoods,” decreasing attendance at church or synagogue, longer work hours, a loosening of family ties, and more.  The end result:  “many people found themselves with neither the time nor the energy to listen sympathetically to a friend’s problems.”

We were becoming, as a classic work of sociology from the 1950’s put it, The Lonely Crowd.

Dworkin concludes his essay by arguing that the rise of the caring industry is most significant because it marks the end of a civilization based on an ideology of love.  This is Dworkin’s most expansive and sweeping argument and, consequently, the most controversial and debatable; but there is a certain plausibility to it.  In his view,

Many people today meet their basic psychological needs, including self-esteem, fulfillment, and identity, not through a social system of friends, intimates, and communities, as people did in the age of love, but by working directly with a caring professional.  Although lonely, they are psychological stable, and society is spared the tumult of an earlier era when people satisfied these needs through loving communities.

Dworkin’s thesis possesses a certain explanatory elegance, but it also raises a number of questions.  I wonder, for example, what difference the rise of social media might make to his analysis.  Nonetheless, there is one claim Dworkin makes that strikes me as being quite right.  The chief problem with the ideology of love, as Dworkin describes it, is that it finally encouraged people to love humanity.  “But it is impossible to know humanity in the concrete; humanity is a fiction, it cannot be loved.”

We cannot love an abstraction.  But we can love and befriend the particular people that are our families, friends, and neighbors.  It is a messy business, loving real people; but apart from it, we become faceless members of the lonely crowd.