Last week I spent a number of posts attempting to “lay some groundwork” for thinking about the life of the single adult in the Christian church using the lens of Ephraim Radner’s A Time to Keep. Now that I’m “ready” to talk specifics about friendship, I feel like Frodo in Mount Doom: I’m reticent to drop the Ring and get on with things. But friendship can be a slow climb against falling rocks in our contemporary culture, so one should talk about it with care (particularly when addressing the single/married dynamic, which can be rife with implications of guilt and frustration).
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One “falling rock” that Radner addresses is how friendship has been one of the key victims of the Great Transition (which means it’s also probably a significant cure for what ails us). Whether its Bowling Alone or the current Psychology Today cover story on our lonely culture, something is off in our culture when it comes to relationships and belonging in general. From A Time to Keep:
Recovering the special task of singleness is important in our own day because of the way that creaturely diversity has been subverted through Western society’s radical reordering of friendship itself . . . Friendships have, in fact, been starkly severed from their traditional place in the creaturely, and hence sexual, lives of persons, in the sense of being essential and ongoing aspects of human flourishing. In contemporary Western societies, friendships are often ranged over and against sexuality, the latter something that is acted out constantly, profligately, cheaply, and hungrily, tied to fleeting moments and the spilling of money; the former, hard, uncertain, precious, regretted.
Radner points to things like the “bromance” or the necessary role of friends in finding either actual love or a farcical fulfilling of lust (with friendship all-but-discarded in the end). Which is not to say that the two are mutually exclusive (that married people and single people can’t be friends). It should challenge us to ask questions about the frequencies of friendship (something I’ll get to in a later post) and how friendship can exist (and hopefully thrive) in a world full of more immediate and seemingly important relational needs. It reminds me of a scene from How I Met Your Mother where Lily joins Ted and Marshall on a road trip, which is something that Ted and Marshall are quite known for. Add Lily into the mix and everything changes, as if both realities couldn’t somehow co-exist.
The weird reality concerning the perceived flippancy of friendship and the seriousness of romantic love are the result of a culture that maybe has lost a “true north” sense for either kind of relationship. Or maybe we just see this dynamic as an acceptable loss.
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The Great Transition has radically frustrated the slow climb of friendship in a second way. Radner asserts:
Geographic mobility has crucially subverted friendship, repeatedly separating individuals at various points in generational growth; but so has the breakdown of long-term family cohabitation. The relation between the two is interesting but well-developed in human history: men and women’s friendships have historically been linked to the networks of stable families and shared needs of children and work.
You can get a sense of this in how people talk about their groups of friends (myself included). Childhood, high school, and college friends can be based on both time and location, depending on how much one has moved around. You might work somewhere a good distance away from home (with an easy commute thanks to the interstate). The same can be true for church friends, particularly with the rise of larger, pseudo-mega churches. There are also “real life” and “online” friendships in contemporary culture.
One could argue that technology has both frayed and strengthened the ties that bind. Frayed them by giving us the mobility. Strengthened them by giving us communication opportunities that (some see as) keeping people closer together than ever. Beyond that, it helps us find “online” communities to make up for what might be “missing” in day-to-day activities. Even still, every few months there seems to another voice added to the chorus saying that social media is actually making us lonelier.
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Beyond these two concerns, I would add a third “falling rock” to the mix: people and families with wide orbits and overly-busy centers. A great deal of overlap exists between the two, but I’d like to look at each briefly.
I remember being younger and having different groups of friends that would rarely, if ever, overlap. In fact, I can remember a handful of times where different circles met, and it was kind of awkward. That’s because each group often has its own language and norms. Many people today have very wide circles of relationships. I think of them like planetary orbits, really. For some families, perhaps those with newborns, the orbit is pretty small for practical reasons. For some with larger “orbits,” though, it might take a month to “get around” to seeing everyone on their unspoken lists. I remember well an older friend of mine who often scheduled things like coffee a month out. On one level, it felt like a great privilege to “make the list.” At the same time, such distance between conversations looks more like reporting more than a friendly relationship.
At the same time, and this is particularly true of families with children, the difficulty can look more like having overly-busy “centers”. This isn’t so much about relationships as it is about responsibilities, which makes it less like orbits at a distance and more like immediate gravity. This is the “household economy” consisting of the demands made on spouses and children, whether its music lessons or church committee responsibilities, grocery shopping or simply trying to carve out some time so the family can be a family (and who can argue with that?). The struggle of the overly-busy center (to use another analogy) is like a sturdy cell wall, where nothing outside of what helps the plant survive gets through. The temptation here (and perhaps with the wide orbit scenario) is to take a “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” mentality, which could be more damaging in the long run.
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Two final-for-now quotes from Radner.
First: “Friendships that are solely utilitarian or pleasure giving, by contrast [to Aristotle’s insistence that friendship be an exercise in virtue], are ultimately perverted.” This is a particular danger for our very utilitarian culture.
Second: “friendship’s cultivation is indeed a “responsibility” to be taken up, pursued, ordered, and cultivated.”
More on both of these things later.