Tending the Tree of Friendship
Think for a moment of the most famous friendships in history and literature. What names come to mind? For me it is always King David and Jonathan; Frodo and Samwise; and Anne and Diana. In my own life there are nearly a dozen soul-knit friends, kindred spirits, whom God has seen fit to bring into the dark places when all other lights go out. Usually they come singly, but sometimes in pairs. Always they bring friendship in their hand like a gift.
In Western culture we use the word “friend” to mean a number of relationships, from an acquaintance to a friend so close that our souls really do seem knit together, as the Scriptures say of David and Jonathan (I Samuel 18:1). My friend Kasey is vastly more dear to me than John, who happens to be our mailman at work. In a way, I am friends with both, and I am friendly towards both, but one can read my soul, be part of my soul, the other has no idea of the shape of my soul.
Beyond a sliding scale of what friendship means, we have social media influencing our understanding of “friends”—making a noun into a verb, and making you feel like you know a person because they update their status bar every day or every ten minutes. If I know what someone made for breakfast, the song they are listening to, and the quotation they re-posted, I still do not know their essence, or ousia, via their social media site. I know their being by living with them, working with them, arguing with them, getting sick of them, and still wanting to be around that person the very next hour or day. We learn someone’s quirks, turns of phrase, and morals by living with them in the daily—at school, work, or home. I cannot “unfriend” my neighbour, I live with her. I cannot decide I only want to be friends when it is convenient, nor would I want my friends to treat me that way. Friendship is time-consuming and takes hard work. It is also gloriously fun, deeply personal, and enriching to one’s soul. Thus, I rebel at the co-opting of the word “friend” in social media, when its etymology is much richer: dear, beloved, to love, to woo.1
A friend is one who walks with us into Mordor, in spite of deadly peril, believing always that we will return home together … Yet even if they lose hope that we will live beyond Mount Doom, they would never dream of leaving our side, choosing rather to die with us if need be. A friend helps us to dream again when all our hopes have crashed to the ground. A real friend speaks truth to us when we are being snippy, selfish, or unrealistic—even at the cost of our annoyance or anger toward them in hearing that truth. We return friendship when we receive rebuke, shine the spotlight on our friend’s accomplishments—rather than seeking our own glory or downplaying theirs—and walk through the valley of the shadow in silence, hope, and companionship with them.
Said more succinctly and wisely, “Friendship is an obstetric art; it draws out our richest and deepest resources; it unfolds the wings of our dreams and hidden indeterminate thoughts; it serves as a check on our judgements, tries out our new ideas, keeps up our ardor, and inflames our enthusiasm.”2
Friendship indeed does all these things and more. Surely only a handful of these infinitely valuable and intimate friends are ever granted in one whole lifetime. In ninety-nine out of one hundred cases I would say that is true; but sometimes that one hundredth person is given overflowing gifts. I am one who has been given an abundance of these gift-friendships. I could never earn them—and I certainly do not deserve them—but I do cherish them. It is sometimes difficult for me to make enough time to maintain all of these friendships, but none of us seem to mind when there is a gap of time between calls, walks, or letters. We pick up where we left off and begin to share our hearts with one another again. This does not leave much room in my life for casual friends—which I would call acquaintances. Yet every now and again, I have dinner or coffee with an acquaintance because they are still a valuable person, even if I cannot invest more time with them.
What I have discerned in our culture is that many individuals seem to devote much of their time to their acquaintances, leaving themselves little or no time to invest in one of those Samwise and Frodo friendships. No wonder the most common answer I receive to “How are you?” anymore is not “fine” but “busy.” Work, meetings, coffee dates, and various events—along with NetFlix and internet browsing—fill up all of our waking moments until we hide beneath the covers at night.
I purposely have to pick one or two evenings a week where I have no plans, where I am not scheduled to make dinner for anyone besides myself, drive somewhere, or run errands. Mostly I end up washing dishes, writing, reading, or going for walks on these evenings. If I am free, I am able to attend to my neighbour when she has had a bad day; or call one of my friends across the country to hear about their souls. To foster the weaving of deep friendships, we must be available. We will have to attend. We must learn to see beyond the surface, seeking to know not simply “How was your day?” but “What made it good or hard?” and “How are you?” as well. We have to listen to the answer, not merely hear it.
To cultivate rich friendship, like husbanding a vineyard, there are times when we have to cut off sucker shoots. Activities, the number of acquaintances we spend time with weekly or monthly, and having our computer or phone on can be sucker shoots. It is hard work to figure out which friendships one ought to pour into. Goodness knows I have invested heavily in some unwise acquaintanceships and too long ignored some close friends. My real friends have been gracious to receive me back again, even as my heart recovers from my offshoot friendships.
That said, it is worth taking the risk of being friends, being vulnerable, being loyal to someone. You should be able to tell a person’s character fairly early on if you spend much time around them. Likewise, they should be able to tell if you are trustworthy and faithful. Will you keep their secrets, or will you gossip? Will you hold them when they cry? Will you share your hard moments with them? Will you drop by unexpectedly and not care if their hair is a mess and they are in their comfy clothes with holes in them? Will you let them do the same with you? Do they bring strength and beauty into your life? Do you build them up behind their backs, before their peers, and in a whisper for their ear alone? Do they make you live in reality, yet encourage you to dream? Does your soul thrill at their hopes?
Friendship is a give and take, not using someone or smothering them with affection. Friendship is made of mundane things like grocery shopping and folding laundry. It is made of looking at sunsets and stars and sharing hopes and fears. There is camaraderie in drinking tea—or coffee, if you must—and just looking at the world together, not saying much. Friendship is indeed an art, a way of life, a choice, a gift. Like all gardens and fruit trees, some friendships have their seasons and then comes the Autumn. Let them go. Cherish the friendships that are like apple trees, blossoming in Spring, green in Summer, bearing fruit in Autumn, and bare in Winter … Yet blossoming in Spring again. Cultivate those, for friendship is the tree itself.
* As a final thought, I am writing above about same gender friendships. Male/female friendships do not work quite the same, unless it is within the bounds or marriage. Then it is even closer and richer than anything I have known or described. It is important to have friends of both sexes, but male/female friendships outside of marriage cannot share in the same depth as male/male or female/female friendships.
- Friend (n.) Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2001-2014 Douglas Harper
- Sertillanges, A. G. The Intellectual Life (Washington D. C., Catholic University of America Press, 1998) 56