The Frequencies of Friendship

FrequenciesIn Monday’s post, I used Ephraim Radner’s thoughts on singleness in the church from A Time to Keep to consider three obstacles to friendship in contemporary culture.  Today I’d like to spend a few paragraphs talking about “the frequencies of friendship.”

It can be difficult to tell whether friendship is “easy” for people or not.  Some people, extroverts in particular, seem to navigate rooms and relationships easily.  Introverts, on the other hand, seem perfectly content with peace, quiet, a good book, and maybe a good show to binge.  I’ve felt the draw of both, really.  There have been seasons of my life where I was an “organizer,” trying to bring people together for this or that social event.  And I’ve been the guy accused of having a “cave” and of requiring “Tony Time.”  Life, I would argue, is not that simple.  Or it’s that simple if you reduce people to something manageable (and therefore usable).

Friendship, it turns out, is hard work.  And I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the best at it.  And some of that, I think, is rooted in my singleness.  I think a lot of single people feel stretched between what can feel like the demands of a fickle social life and the sober consistency of a quieter, more solitary life.  If you embrace one, you can lose the other.  If you try for both, you end up with neither.  Either way, the presence of others is vital.

So let’s think of friendship as something that exists with two baseline “frequencies.”  To think well about these frequencies (and how other people might express need and gift in such contexts) might be to make some way forward in understanding friendship.

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The first frequency of friendship has to do with the “contact time” and “rhythm” of friendship.  Different people have different needs when it comes to being with others.  One must assume that a key benefit of marriage is the commitment to be with someone (for better or worse and all).  Using the language of “orbits” from Monday’s post, this looks like someone you actually share the same orbit with.  This exists most easily (for better or for worse, some might say) in marriage and the nuclear family.  I can’t help but think that “contact time” in the classroom creates a kind of familiarity that can look like a kind of friendship (though obviously not a friendship of equals).  It can be difficult to think and talk about “contact time” or “rhythm” in friendship without ultimately talking about some kind of commitment, be it spoken or unspoken.  This can look like a weekly meal or a commitment to see one new movie a month or even a seat at an event or meeting.  One could call this the frequency of lives.

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The second frequency of friendship has to do with sharing a similar view of the world and how best to move through it.  You get a sense of this when C. S. Lewis speaks in The Four Loves of “the moment two men are friends [because] they have in some degree drawn apart together from the herd.”  Unlike lovers, Lewis asserts, friends are “side by side, absorbed in some common interest.”  This common interest, regardless of how simple or complex, points to a way of seeing the world, of ordering some kind of importance with relation to things.   Like Lewis, Radner points to the ancient Greeks for a sense of this particular frequency of friendship.  Aristotle, Radner asserts, saw a particularly good kind of friendship as “liking someone because of their good character” where “each partner seeks the welfare of the other based on the same character and values.”  Friends are “equals” then when these friends experience a “growing and sharing in common virtue.”  This, Radner reminds the reader, stands opposed to a strictly utilitarian approach to friendship.  This particular frequency of friendship is something like what Alan Jacobs argues in How to Think: that a certain kind of camaraderie can come from believing the same things, but a different and more generative connection is made with those who think in the same way (even if they disagree about the specifics).  So whether in thinking or growing in virtue or simply sharing a common but personal interest, this frequency hints at the sharing of common values and perspectives, a common way of understanding and engaging the world.  This could be called the frequency of loves.

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All of this is meaningless, I suppose, for those who don’t have to think much about friendship (and I have to assume that those people do exist).  But for those of us who, for whatever reason, find ourselves trying to make sense of life in light of the Great Transition or simply in what my college political science professor called the vicissitudes of life and who are looking for whatever handle we can find in a constantly shifting relational landscape, maybe this is something (if only an amateur recasting of things said more eloquently by others).

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I do think that for those Christian communities who speak of doing “life together,” these two frequencies have to come into play, even if they overlap infrequently.  I would also argue that at some point, the frequency of loves has to form the frequencies of lives intentionally.  This is especially true since Christians believe that Jesus is just as much “the Way” as He is the Truth and the Life.

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