In Praise of Friendship
Last night a bunch of my friends got together with an old friend of ours who was visiting from overseas. We had become friends about a dozen years ago, and since then some people married and had children while others have been ordained; some have moved interstate and overseas while some of us have returned to Melbourne. We did what any group of friends does when it gets together after a while: we brought each other up to speed on what life is like now, a wide-ranging conversation of windy career paths, buying houses, study and different ministries in the Church. Of course we also reminisced about times we had shared in years gone by, which by this stage required being reminded of things we had said and done that some of us had long forgotten. For a part of the evening the Indigo Girls provided the accompanying sound-track, conjuring up memories of similar soirées in years gone by. I think most of us realised that there were a few ghosts present too: friends who for various reasons couldn’t be there last night. They were missed. Mostly though, we laughed. A lot.
As I drove home I couldn’t help but reflect upon the significance of those friendships in my life. I had been a pretty lonely kid, wounded by the taunts of school yard bullies, and these were among the first friends that let me feel safe in truly sharing myself. Our friendships have survived mistakes and conflicts and diverging journeys, and in so doing have taught me a great deal about forgiveness, about myself and about friendship itself. While I was driving I was reminded of Yeats’ famous poem, ‘The Municipal Gallery Revisited’, in which the poet reflects upon the portraits of his famous friends hanging in the gallery. My friends will almost certainly never be as famous as Yeats’ friends, but as I revelled in the ordinariness of our gathering, I felt the final lines of Yeats’ poem nevertheless expressed my sentiments too:
Think where man’s glory begins and ends,
And say my glory was I had such friends.
I have recently had cause to wonder about whether young people find friendship more difficult today than in the past. There seems to be fresh pressures that conspire against deep friendship at work in our culture. Of course, young people desire friendship as much as they ever have; it is their capacity to forge enduring friendships that I am not so sure about. Some young people possess a precarious sense of security and self if they have not experienced the love of their parents that can make the levels of trust required to form friendship problematic. Many voices in our culture are suggesting that the social media can stunt genuine relationships as people spend more and more time online. The pervasive perception of all relationships through the lens of sexuality can also obscure the distinctive form of friendship from other kinds of love. And our culture’s obsession with image and success can combine to produce a fear of being vulnerable and a satisfaction with superficiality that militates against the depth and vulnerability that make friendship possible. Just as the mere sight of a steak by a starving man only intensifies rather than satisfies his hunger, these impediments only increase young people’s desire for friendship. And so E.M. Forster’s famous epigraph may well be the most appropriate epigraph for this generation too: ‘Only connect…’
While friendship is one of life’s chief joys, I think it is possible to fall into a certain idolatry of intimacy that paradoxically punctures the very thing it most desires. Friendship, like all forms of love, needs a little air to breathe, and it can be suffocated when people make it an end in itself. Our passion for connection, for friendship, actually find its fulfilment in God. We’re made for communion with God, and in and through him communion with one another. And so memorable gatherings of friends are signposts to heaven, because they point to the eternal communion we are to enjoy with God and with one another forever. As C.S. Lewis was wont to say, Christians never have to say goodbye, because we know that our friendships here are elevated by grace to the joys of eternal life.