One of the greatest plot twists in life is waking up and realizing that friendship is hard. It’s incongruous. Nothing heretofore has suggested that I might find myself sitting on the couch alone with no time or energy to go out for a drink, even as an introvert.
Childhood was the golden age of friendships. They were easy and plentiful--full of afternoons in the woods, swing sets, and gangs of bicycles patrolling the streets. My adolescent years were invested around cars in the high school parking lot, in church vans, or on open fields with soccer balls and frisbees. All of this escalated until I went to college and lived among another person’s dirty laundry, but oddly organized DVD collection. Friendships are arguably the most efficient curriculum for the self-discovery that leads to maturity. Find someone to pose difficult questions over burnt coffee and greasy hash browns, and then who will walk with you until you discover the answers (which are usually more difficult questions).
Friendships were not a part of my life, but life itself.
Then, you enter your thirties.
I still have great friends and I hardly ever wish for new ones. I only wish that I would tend to the ones I have. The problem is that friendship requires space for another take up residence in your life, and that space has already been filled with other competing goods—usually kids and sleep. Or, sleep because of kids. My priorities have changed. For instance, playgrounds have become cool again. The workforce is also a culprit. Friendships are terribly inefficient because they require time around kitchen tables, and time is in short supply. Life is complicated and busy enough without another person’s issues.
Acquaintances, on the other hand, are perfect because they’re undemanding. You know, the coworkers who are fun around the office, but will thankfully disappear when you take a new job. There’s the person who will meet you at the playground (remember, they're cool again) to complain about children. Others might even share an interest in hoppy beer or esoteric theology written by dead white men. If you're lucky, they'll like both. These people are great to have around, if only as a form of capital—a service for utility and pleasure, or what Aristotle calls imperfect friendships. But few of them will come to love our peculiarities or care to learn what keeps us up at night. (Spoiler: their names are Pax and Eden).
And yet, we also need people to share more than parenting hacks, our lament over politics, and an affinity for Duke basketball. What about the friends who are comfortable enough to share (mostly) everything, including being together in silence? The people who are, as Augustine says, sweet beyond the sweetness of life?
I’ve discovered that we’ve got our priorities all backward, or that we’ve forgotten what we learned so early on in life—there is no growth apart from another human being. Friendship is more than an escape from life; it’s the very substance of living well. Aristotle also wrote that “Without friends, no one would want to live, even if he had all other goods” (EN 8.1). And that’s why the most meaningful parts of my life happen around a table, when my kids are sitting in another person’s lap, and the rest of us open ourselves to see and be seen. It takes work. But it’s good work because the American Dream’s promise of success and self-sufficiency is accompanied with twin vices: loneliness and emptiness.
Aristotle also believed that friendship was a virtue, or at the least, requires virtues to be sustained. I think he’s right—friendships don’t spontaneously mature without proper care. It takes forgiveness to see past another’s posturing, masquerading, and inability to return text messages. Or, how about the patience it takes to send another text message, anyway? There’s the benevolence to drop off a care packages of soup when one can’t get off the couch. Endurance will reignite a lapsed relationship after years of dormancy. Hospitality can open the doors of your heart for a stranger to step inside regardless of risk and mistrust. Most of all, how about the sacrifice to see another person’s well-being as your most important priority? That can't be natural.
Turns out that friendship is the best pattern for becoming a Christian—to love and be loved by God and one another. The reverse must also be true, that Christianity bestows the kinds of virtues necessary to sustain a friendship. After all, what is Christianity except becoming a friend of the world?
Scripture could be read as the story of God’s befriending of the world. It’s the grafting of our stories into God’s eternal love story with the world. God’s heart is for friendship, and not because it’s compulsory or beneficial, but because it’s true and beautiful. I think this is why Jesus called his disciples friends: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends” (Jn. 15:15). It was a surprising move. God could have left us aloof as servants, or even as subordinate children, but has instead invited us into all the love and pain that resides in God’s own heart.
God had all the time in the world to eat with sinners, to take bread and fish and feed a multitude, to set a table for those who wished to linger in his presence. It was a terrible deal. These poor and marginalized peasants could never reciprocate the gesture. The cost to benefit ratio was lousy. It resulted in death. And yet, Jesus reminded us that, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn. 15:15). Here, Jesus shows us the kind of sacrifice that threatens the purely economic character of our relationships which sees people only for their usefulness or future benefit.
Friends are worth dying for.
Friendship may be a virtue particularly necessary for a culture that’s ripe with depression, partisanship, and busyness. Aristotle thought that friendship should be the primary human institution, and that the overall health of a society could measured by its conditions to sustain friendships. When considering our society’s addiction to fast food, to technology, and long work hours—we may be on life-support. Though, there is hope, if only because God became friends with us.
The church exists to form a people who would have no reason to be near each other, unless there was a God who calls us friend. That’s Christ’s body. And part of the church's mission is to remind us that our lives can’t be lived alone. To be clear, church doesn’t always appear to work. Many churches are cold, individualistic, and as exclusive as country clubs. But I haven’t given up on the hope that we might allow ourselves to be a people that rejoices when a stranger rejoices and suffers when a stranger suffers. It won’t always make our lives easier, but it might fill them with friends.
I end up around a table with friends most weeks, and it’s not usually by accident-at the church, a house, a restaurant. Oftentimes, I want to be there, but it’s equally often a chore. I’d rather get the kids to bed on time, put on pajamas, and fire up Netflix. I’ve learned, though, that friendships don’t spontaneously organize. If friendships are a habit that might make us into better human beings, then they must be written in a little box on a calendar and practiced (even when your general hygiene is put on the back burner). Now, that may sound a little depressing, but it's also true.
I guess what I’ve learned is that friendship is a spiritual discipline, or a means to abide in God by abiding in another. If this is true, then there’s always reason to gather with another and lay down your lives. After all, it might end up saving it.