Reclaiming Friendship

Men don’t know how to be friends anymore. Have you noticed?

Ancient literature expected men to have close friends, who could bitterly betray them if they proved false and be the close loves of their hearts when they proved true.

We could think of Achilles and Patroclus, Damon and Pythias, or for an example that went less well, Arthur and Lancelot. It may be that these examples are unfamiliar to you, which should be to the deep shame of our education systems, but not to you, which is a matter for another day

Let’s look instead at a Biblical example, perhaps the most famous of all: David & Jonathan. The best of friends, with their love ‘surpassing the love of women’ (2 Samuel 1), and Jonathan’s loyalty to David staying true despite deeply trying circumstances and outright civil war.

These men are for each other in any circumstance.

We don’t have many friendships like that anymore, that are comfortable with displays and declarations of love without having to get all embarrassed and ‘blokey’ about it. Part of that is changing social mores, and that’s all perfectly reasonable, we would find much of the culture of the ancient near east unpleasant.

But we remain uncomfortable with close male friendship, and it’s rarely depicted in our TV or novels. There are of course rare examples, but they are almost all from the military, a setting that even today builds bonds of deep and lasting trust due to the necessity of regularly saving each other’s lives.

Our discomfort is writ large in modern interpretation of David & Jonathan, or the various classical and medieval characters I mentioned earlier. It’s very easy to find their friendships interpreted as homoerotic. It’s even on the Wikipedia page for David & Jonathan, and I recall it being listed in a textbook from when I used to be an RE teacher. We recast all close male friendships from history as being romantic. While its plausible that some of them could have been, I suppose, this says more about us and our inability to perceive of the self without sexualising it, than it does about the past.

The Four Loves

I recall being deeply moved when reading C. S. Lewis’ account of friendship in The Four Loves, I would commend it to you. He sets a high bar for friends as people who draw out of you something that no one else does.

I have the sort of character that we call ‘introverted’, and while a lot of nonsense is paraded under that banner, it would be true that I most naturally want a handful of deep friendships. I’m not good at small talk, and I want to talk about stuff that really interests me with someone else who is similarly exercised.

I found Lewis’ depiction of friendship compelling, but ultimately depressing. I didn’t have friendships like that. I deeply desired them, but I didn’t know how to get them. I suspect I hurt some of my friends by bemoaning to them that I didn’t have any friends. Funnily enough, that complaint isn’t a good strategy to gain any.

Yet this lack of abiding and deep male friendships is apparent. Young men that I know are terrible at articulating their feelings—which is the classic stereotype, but in my experience bears out—I suspect this is because they don’t have many people with who they would bear their souls, and so they have never learned how.

How to make friends

I am the last person to give this advice, but I’ll try anyway. Even men who seem to have lots of friends have few, if any, deep friendships. When they do, culture frowns at them. The church has to be a place where genuine soul deep friendship is possible and encouraged for men as well as women. This means leaders need to model it, churches needs to encourage it, and men have to be willing to have a go.

A few steps I have learned, mostly through falling off things:

  • Friendships are built on shared interests. One of my closest friends is a man with whom I share my deepest pains, and he shares his with me, but sometimes when we catch up we geek out about fantasy novels for an hour, or we message each other hilarious metal covers of Christmas carols.
  • People rarely go deep until you go deep with them. Why not be vulnerable and tell someone whose company you enjoy something that is hurting you? If a friendship blossoms, they will reciprocate.
  • It might seem childish but ask. I genuinely did this once with a couple who are still our close friends, we asked over the dinner table ‘will you be my friend?’ It’s not for every circumstance, but it’s not as stupid as it sounds. We shouldn’t have to but standing in idealism doesn’t always move us forwards.
  • It takes time to build relationships worth having. I often fall over here, wanting a real friendship before we’ve had the time to build one.
  • Short accounts are a good idea. Tell them when they hurt you, and expect them to tell you the same. It’s eye-opening, and hardly fun, but vitally important.
  • Don’t put pressure on it. This is my usual mistake. You might want soul-deep companions to walk through the veil of tears with, but you have to let that develop over time.

And then the two big ones, which are all you need really:

  • Pray. Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find.
  • Suffer together. All of my deepest friendships are built on pain that we either walked through together, or that one walked through with the other. Comfort is the death of reality, and with it of friendship.

And perhaps, if we put the work in, we might find the Tolkien to our Lewis, and laugh delightedly in the Bird & Baby for many wonderful hours, and then for the countless eons after the resurrection.

Photo by Donovan Grabowski on Unsplash

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