Friendship: The Mysterious Bond

Author: Eugene Kennedy

1979 Oct 79

Friendship, like all good things, is stronger than its critics and hardier than fashion. Just as it is more powerful than the demanding gods of distance and time, friendship remains the only thing that can lock arms with death and stare it down.           

Friendship is what we all look for, even when we do not recognize or admit it; it is a prize that matches the needs and aspirations of human beings. It fits us and allows us to know who we are and more besides, for it is a mystery filled with hints about the meaning that rises up from our everyday longing and heartbreak and laughter.

As eager as adolescents to taste its bittersweet wonder, we sometimes define friendship falsely, idealize it excessively or, with no perspective on the way our own needs group unreasonably against our best interests, interpret it solely in terms of what it can deliver to us. Nothing may be sadder, and nothing more certain of disappointment, than the quest to “find” or to “win” a friend as if friendship were a commodity or a customer.

Friends are discovered the way we find a charming route home, without road maps of plans and with only our openness to guide us. We fall over friends the way heroes in mythology stumble and discover gold, and like them we sometimes do not understand our good fortune. Friendship grows naturally if we make room for it and respect its inner truth but it withers (as a healthy plant does) when we interfere too much with its innate pattern of development.            

Despite the blunders so often associated with our search for friendship, nothing is more poignant or more truly reflective of what human beings are like than the core of the friendship experience. People are not really looking for much; they seek someone else toward whom, in a profound way, they can reach in continuing commitments of faith and hope and love.            

Friendship energizes all of us to a sense of life; it breaks the glassy shield of narcissism that seals us inside ourselves by demanding that we give something freely and without seal or contract to someone outside ourselves. How could we ever enter the river of existence except in the company of someone else? What else could friendship be but finding a person with whom we can stand comfortably on the edge of mystery and pain, with whom we can discover wonder and joy, with whom we can weep or laugh or do nothing at all? Friends are not just people with whom we share activities. They are people who, quite literally, let each other be.           

At the heart of friendship we are face to face with all of life’s terrors and promises. That may be why friendship sometimes degenerates into a species of camaraderie — all-male adventure that is broader than it is deep, because it almost purposely avoids the questions of the heart that friends must ultimately consider. Those questions are enough to make us tremble because we can be strong enough for the muscular companionship of war and sport and still not deal with truth and fidelity.           

Everyone who passes the inner tests of friendship — the seemingly simple ones, for example, of being true to our world or meaning what we say — is a hero; quiet and unnoticed perhaps, but a hero in the richest spiritual sense. Men who drink or carouse together may not be able to do anything else together; that is why some people destroy even the possibility of lasting friendship by burdening it with too many activities, killing it by working it to death so that they will not have to examine it closely. That is not to say that friends cannot share a drink or go on the town together. It is to observe that the essence of friendship is something far different. Where there is communion, some unselfconscious reaching out to each other, a renunciation of using or devouring each other, then friendship takes root securely. It takes more than the tugs of misunderstandings and hurts to dislodge it.           

The exchange that occurs between friends, while rarely heady or dramatic, involves them in a mystery that is mistakenly thought to be remote and inaccessible to us. But like most of the wonderful things in life, what is asked for and delivered in friendship is a part of almost every day. Scholars talk of revelation as thought it consisted of directives that God uttered a long time ago from a great distance. But God, in fact, has scattered revelation like a gentle rain across our lives, especially in the close quarters of friendship.           

When we stand near each other in faith and trust a fine and glowing mystery erupts as brightly as flames form the burning bush, the mystery of illumination at the heart of friendship. As friends reveal themselves to us we can see more of them and by their inner light we can also see more of ourselves. Revelation involves us in a deepening of our understanding, not just of the other, but of what we ourselves are like as well.           

Friendship gently kneads the truth out of us so that we become more of ourselves. That is why so many people look at themselves differently after they have accepted friendship’s challenge. How with the secret of life, uttered by people whose identities have been illuminated by friendship. “I used to be afraid,” they say, “but I don’t feel that way anymore.”            

Self-knowledge does not require a journey to a distant guru or strenuous meditative exercises. It is more like a pilgrimage which, because we have to make room for somebody else, takes us outside of ourselves and then returns us home with an expanded sense of identity. “There are not tricks,” wrote Shakespeare, “in plain and simple faith.” And because faith is a chief ingredient, there are no tricks to friendship and love — and how could we separate them? — just the grand and abiding mystery of two persons meeting and sharing the truth of themselves with each other.           

Perhaps those people who reject the world are motivated by fear of the hurt that life regularly piles on lovers. The dynamic that shatters the locks on joy also makes us the prey of those we allow to draw close to us. Who can wound us more than the person who holds our heart? And who has not been hurt in attempting the journey of friendship and love?           

But there is no way to eliminate the risk, no way to experience friendship except by making ourselves vulnerable, by grasping firmly every relationship that means anything. The search that is going on in singles bars is not proof of the world’s decadence as much as it is evidence of the universal but fear-be-deviled seeking for someone kind and understanding, someone trustworthy, someone who heals rather than hurts the proffered heart.           

That is the risk of all life, and happiness is delivered only to those who bravely take it. They are rewarded by a deeper involvement in the mysticism of every day. For them, time and separation are not apocalyptic horsemen of the spirit. True friends understand that what they share is neither diminished nor changed by distance or time.           

The friendship that breaks us open to each other also breaks us open to what is enduring and undefeated about the human spirit. Only those who appreciate the insistent longing to share life with someone else can possibly grasp the idea of a God who wants to share His life with us.           

Yet friendship is not a solemn affair. It seeds life with happiness, with the unforced enjoyment that increases even as it is spent; it is the vessel of oil that never runs dry, the food that fills us and never runs out. Friends are those who have fun together and leave each other refreshed but not exhausted. They laugh together with a special heartiness because they know that they can cry together as well. That is why they stand close in difficult times, in those terrible aching places in life in which nothing can change oss or pain, in which time cannot be stopped nor a single footstep retraced. Friendship can ease the burdens that would otherwise bring us down.

But friendship is not a solution to life’s problems. Although it is exhilarating and indispensable, it also has its challenges and difficulties. Neither friendship nor love takes care of itself. Both require attention and work because they are not separate from the relationship between two people any more than energy is separate from the pounding river.           

Friendship, for example, has no chance at all in the lives of people who believe in generating an image rather than being themselves; it is as dead as a prehistoric animal in a glacier for those who opt for coolness, for protecting themselves from hurt by keeping people at a chill blue distance from their hearts.

Nor can friendship wax strong in the lives of those who neglect ritual. Friendship demands celebration. It recalls its birthdays and other times of special meaning; it enfleshes remembrance of the small personal events that hold our lives together.           

Friends alter their lives for each other because they value their shared relationship. They cannot go along as though the relationship makes no claims on them. Abigail and John Adams could address each other through a long life as “my dearest friend” because they understood that they were more fully alive together than they were separately. They made sacrifices for the sake of their relationship, for the creation that exists only as people open themselves freshly to each other every day.           

Persons who worry excessively about their rights in a relationship have still to learn something essential about friendship. Stipulations about rights and privileges add nothing to friendships or love. Friends freely surrender something of what they want individually because they want to preserve and enrich what they are together. Friendship stands free or it doesn’t stand at all.            

Friendship is an imperfect venture, filled with hazards and therefore eminently suited to human beings. Were we perfect the possibility of friendship would not exist. What need would there be for friendship if we were fully self-sufficient, if we never made a mistake, if we never fell short or had our hearts broken, if we never had unfinished visions and dreams? Friendship is imperfect, and we are deceived to think otherwise. Yet how could we recognize it or give ourselves to it if it were not so humanly familiar?           

Many people say they want “respect,” not the kind demanded by Mafia godfathers, but the kind that goes with friendship. Respect comes from linguistic roots which have nothing to do with showing deference; they mean rather “to look again at,” the very thing that friends do all the time. They look freshly at each other, wiping away yesterday’s blurred perceptions, always viewing each other as filled with new possibilities rather than old failures. Friends keep each other going, often against the odds, in the long and sometimes shadowed journey of life.  

Robert Frost once wrote, “Earth’s the right place for love: I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” In the same way earth is the only place for friendship, for although the earth may shudder and quake it gives us birth and takes us back in death, granting us a place to stand together, in the mystery of meeting and sharing that is all of life.