Good friends can be lifesavers. In the Bible, the friendship between Jonathan and David is now legendary. The Jewish scriptures hold theirs as a model:
Whenever love depends on some selfish end, when the end passes away, the love passes away; but if it does not depend on some selfish end, it will never pass away. Which love depended on a selfish end? This was the love of Amnon and Tamar. And which did not depend on a selfish end? This was the love of David and Jonathan (Avot 5:1)
But good friendships, like the other most valuable things in our lives, are not relationships that we are in the position to choose to have, and thus the presence or the absence of a close friend in our lives proves just how little control we exercise in our lives, despite what we think. Yet we are not completely at the mercy of invisible forces.
Many of us have plenty of friends of the lesser kind. Aristotle, writing about friendships, identified these imperfect relations as friendships where a utilitarian calculus is at work: we use our friends and get used by them; we are friendly with people who give us some sort of pleasure and vice versa. In our culture of competition and individualism, these relationships based on exchange are remarkably ubiquitous, so much so that they seem to be the norm: deeper connections often seem suspect, even threatening because of their apparent inflexibility and demand for commitment, and therefore are at odds with a cultural narrative of change.
A culture of change is a culture of climaxes, one that reflects the reality of consumerism: we are forever on the move from one climax to a new and better one. Not only products must keep up, their manufacturers introducing new and better iterations; friendships, too, must keep up with us and our changing lives and changing interests. To try and hang on is to invite madness. But these relationships of convenience, as all relationships based on any accounting, always ultimately disappoint, leading to a feeling of emptiness and alienation, because they never recognize the other as itself, only its capability signaled by its surface. Jewish sages write, “Anyone who establishes a friendship for access to power, money, or sexual relations; when these ends are not attainable, the friendship ceases…love that is not dependent on selfish ends is true love of the other person since there is no intended end.” (Magen Avot – abridged and adapted translation) But true friendship is a celebration of the self as it is: we don’t love our true friend because he can do something for us, but because of who he is apart of his abilities.
Still, it is difficult not to become attached to imperfect friends. It is human nature to wish to reach out and to from connections. We are social creatures, after all. But the emotional pain that follows the severing of such a relationship can be hard to deal with, even cause one to become jaded and regard the motives of others with undue weariness, the past casting a pall of disappointment that taints future possibilities for happiness. The deeper we allow ourselves to become invested in these necessarily temporary connections, the more likely we are to become cold and bitter when they end, the more we are likely to become lonelier. Some call this process of alienation and heartbreaks one of “growing up” and recognizing the realities of life, at least the realities of our culture. Relationships of convenience and interest seem unavoidable, despite whatever emotional effect they seem to have. They are certainly recognition of the fact that to get anywhere in life we must cooperate with others to some extent, and so we lose and let go and work to find new friends.
Yet such constant sifting and threshing that imperfect friendships occasion leaves some of us secretly wishing that we had better, truer friends. Aristotle thought that the best friend is one who is very much like we are. He called them good men, as did Cicero. This similarity could, of course, be broadened to include character or social class, education, or personality. Whatever we chose to call it, the principle that both thinkers were thinking of was that of a common ground, one that allows us to enter into a relationship in which no accounting takes place and no score is being kept. The relationship between Jonathan and David seems to have been based on just such a recognition of the sharing of something essential, an aspect of themselves that then created a bridge between them through the crust exterior built up by jadedness and disappointment, a recognition that bound them together.
When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. (1 Samuel 18:14)
When Jonathan gives David his weapons and armor, he gives him status symbols and so his most precious possessions. Clearly in this relationship there is no accounting; things are not more valuable than the other person. And so, while we may exchange favors with our true friends, the relationship is not about keeping a score of who did what for whom. We trust our friend, unlike our imperfect friend of convenience, even if he taxes our good will, because our true friend is like us and trusting him or her is like trusting ourselves. But our imperfect friends are not like us, can’t be trusted, and so the only relationship we can have with them is one framed by an economy of pleasures.
Part of this true friendship is the experience of personal comfort. This comfort comes from the knowledge that we don’t have to be anything but ourselves in order to be accepted for who we are. An imperfect friendship is all about appearances, were the participants in the exchange do so only because of the personas that they create for that exchange. Unlike an exchange economy of imperfect friendship, which engenders anxiety about performance, comfort of true friendships brings peace and emotional contentment.
And yet, no matter how much we’d like to do so, we can’t choose to be true friends because we can’t chose to become compatible with others with whom we would like to be true friends. We may try, exercising our will and resources, but we will inevitably fail. We can’t, in other words, create that similarity that Aristotle thought true friendship was founded on. And so true friendship is a gift: through synchronicity, God, or whatever higher force, we meet another who is very much like we are and we recognize one another and become true friends. But our modern sense of reason and notions of free will chaff at the idea. To see that this is true, all we have to do is to attempt to try to make a true friendship happen to see the universe mock us just as it would if were tried to make someone love us.
We are not completely at the mercy of unseen forces, however. We can learn to listen, to open ourselves to the possibility of finding a deep connection, thought this is challenging in a culture of climaxes, for its emphasis on surface readings and valorization of instant gratification does not encourage the sort of slow deliberation that is necessary for compassion, and without compassion we can’t truly listen because we only hear what we want to.
For Aristotle friendship was also the means through which we develop moral character and notions of public good. Yet the culture of climaxes works against getting to know others deeply: we just don’t seem to have the time or the desire to engage others beyond their personas. And so our culture robs us of the attention span to find out if God has placed in our path true friends, if we view others as nothing more than potential sources of pleasure, means to the next climax in a string of climaxes.
Friendship has been under stress lately in America it would seem. According to a study, Americans in the last two decades have lost friends. Fewer Americans have anyone close with whom to share their life challenges and problems, a phenomenon that has been associated with the rise of the therapeutic culture—in the last 60 years, the numbers of mental health providers have increased by 100-fold while the population has only doubled. The loss of close friends has contributed in no small measure, it would seem, to the rising disaffection with life and anger. Incidents of depression and anxiety have risen in the last two decades. One could argue that the Age of Anxiety of the 1950s has not really ended. In some ways, one could consider the 1960s, 70s, and 80s a continuation of the crisis of anxiety of the earlier time, an era of self-medication by millions of Americans with illicit drugs. A Times article from 1981 put the situation this way,
…coke is the drug of choice for perhaps millions of solid, conventional and often upwardly mobile citizens — lawyers, businessmen, students, government bureaucrats, politicians, policemen, secretaries, bankers, mechanics, real estate brokers, waitresses. Largely unchecked by law enforcement, a veritable blizzard of the white powder is blowing through the American middle class, and it is causing significant social and economic shifts no less than a disturbing drug problem… Read more.
In the 1990s, this drug culture became mainstream with the availability of legal substitutes to illicit drugs for treatment of anxiety and depression, such as the SSRIs, the new psychiatric drugs that allegedly would successfully treat depression and anxiety. Unfortunately, despite the fact that antidepressants are widely prescribed, anxiety and depression have not gone away but have intensified with more people being identified as anxious or depressed.
Not only has stress increased along with the decline of meaningful friendships, so have our communities undergone a decline. According to Aristotle, a network of friends is necessary for the creation of a good society, for it is through our friendly relationships we develop ideas of public good and pursue it. Friendship builds community. No wonder then that community in America in the recent years have been under stress, too. We are more likely to regard others with suspicion or else as investments, dismissing people who don’t fit into our agendas. Our political discourse is increasingly indicative of an atomized, lonely, and suspicious people: discussion of policy rarely revolves around questions of public good; rather, it often resembles a stalemate reminiscent of trench warfare where the two sides never budge from their position but labor to smear and discredit the other in order to make way for their ideas and legislation.
Perhaps the current economic climate will lead us to consider what we may have been missing in our lives so far. Perhaps we will slow down, contemplate and consider the fact that the gifts provided for our journey in the world, such as true friendship, are only visible if we develop the compassion to see beyond that which is on the surface.