How Many Friends Have I Really Got?

The most awkward part of the wedding wasn’t the foot-washing, believe it or not. Uncomfortably […]

David Zahl / 8.10.16

hqdefaultThe most awkward part of the wedding wasn’t the foot-washing, believe it or not. Uncomfortably sensual, sure, but there was also something touching about it.

More awkward was the fact that she was there in the first place. You see, she would’ve been surprised to receive an invitation, let alone a request to be a bridesmaid. But there she was, lined up at the altar with six ladies she’d never met before, all of them wearing the same dress, standing behind an amiable young woman with whom she had at best a passing acquaintance.

A more honest person (or less of a pleaser) would have declined. Wasn’t there a cousin who could fit the bill? A step-sibling of some kind?

And yet, how could she not feel sorry for someone who apparently had so few ‘besties’ that she would qualify for this role? Not wanting to cause further embarrassment, she consented. To pose as a close friend for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon wouldn’t kill her, and it would clearly mean a lot to the bride. No doubt part of her was flattered.

Still… super awkward–and that’s before the preacher produced a towel and basin and the acoustic guitars began their wordless rendition of “Come Thou Fount” (a hymn not exactly devoid of repressed sexual content). Oh boy.

What reminded me of that strange day was an article run in The NY Times last weekend, “Do Your Friends Actually Like You?” by Kate Murphy, ht CB. According to the latest research, the aforementioned predicament is more common than you’d think; only half of perceived friendships are mutual.

The flipside, of course, is less flattering. Not everyone we would call ‘friend’ would use that word to describe us.

That’s just the opening conceit, however, of a longer and more relevant meditation on the endangered/complicated state of 21st century friendship. Murphy rhapsodizes:

Some blame human beings’ basic optimism, if not egocentrism, for the disconnect between perceived and actual friendships. Others point to a misunderstanding of the very notion of friendship in an age when “friend” is used as a verb, and social inclusion and exclusion are as easy as a swipe or a tap on a smartphone screen. It’s a concern because the authenticity of one’s relationships has an enormous impact on one’s health and well-being…

[M.I.T. social science researcher and co-author of the study in question, Alex] Pentland said it could be that “the possibility of nonreciprocal friendship challenges one’s self-image.” But the problem may have more to do with confusion over what friendship is… “Friendship is difficult to describe,” said Alexander Nehamas, a professor of philosophy at Princeton… “It’s easier to say what friendship is not and, foremost, it is not instrumental.”

It is not a means to obtain higher status, wangle an invitation to someone’s vacation home or simply escape your own boredom. Rather, Mr. Nehamas said, friendship is more like beauty or art, which kindles something deep within us and is “appreciated for its own sake.”

Pop stars like Taylor Swift and Drake are admired for their strategic, if not propagandist, friendships. And, of course, social media sites are platforms for showcasing friendships to enhance personal image. “Treating friends like investments or commodities is anathema to the whole idea of friendship,” said Ronald Sharp, a professor of English at Vassar College, who teaches a course on the literature of friendship. “It’s not about what someone can do for you, it’s who and what the two of you become in each other’s presence.”…

“The notion of doing nothing but spending time in each other’s company has, in a way, become a lost art,” replaced by volleys of texts and tweets, Mr. Sharp said. “People are so eager to maximize efficiency of relationships that they have lost touch with what it is to be a friend.”

The cult of productivity appears to have taken another hostage. Socializing has been usurped by networking, and what is networking if not a socially acceptable euphemism for ladder-climbing? In that sense, an instrumental approach to friendship may not be so novel after all. Some might say it’s Self-Justification 101. We’ve always leaned on (and objectified) those around us for our own advancement. Just ask Lady Susan Vernon.

Yet as is often the case when love is co-opted by law, even casually, the stakes aren’t negligible. To the extent that an impoverishment of friendship fosters loneliness, we suffer, and not just psychically:

According to medical experts, playing it safe by engaging in shallow, unfulfilling or nonreciprocal relationships has physical repercussions. Not only do the resulting feelings of loneliness and isolation increase the risk of death as much as smoking, alcoholism and obesity; you may also lose tone, or function, in the so-called smart vagus nerve, which brain researchers think allows us to be in intimate, supportive and reciprocal relationships in the first place...

In the presence of a true friend, Dr. Banks said, the smart or modulating aspect of the vagus nerve is what makes us feel at ease rather than on guard as when we are with a stranger or someone judgmental. It’s what enables us to feel O.K. about exposing the soft underbelly of our psyche and helps us stay engaged and present in times of conflict. Lacking authentic friendships, the smart vagus nerve is not exercised. It loses tone and one’s anxiety remains high, making abiding, deep connections difficult.

For me, this casts the familiar description of Jesus as “the friend of sinners” in fresh and comforting light (Matt 11:19, Luke 7:34).

Think about it: we spend time with our friends because we want to, not because we have to, or are told to do so. Unlike our co-workers, or even our family members, a friend is someone that you value independent of what they can do for you (or what you can do for them). Friendships may thrive on activity but the decisive factor, as Mr Sharp notes above, is whether or not they can abide passivity. That is, we gravitate toward those who appreciate our being before our doing–where one precedes but does not necessitate the other. In fact, it’s fairly reliable indicator that a friendship is on the rocks when it begins to “feel like work” or obligation. You can’t be friends with someone who sees you (or you see them) as a project, or an asset, or a liability.

Where the analogy breaks down, of course, is in the reciprocity department. Like the research reported above, there’s something off-kilter at work here. “Jesus the friend of sinners” does not always translate into “sinner the friend of Jesus”. We need God to be and to do, not just with us but for us. More than a friend to the friendless: a host whose generosity exceeds the disposition of his guests, a groom to a faithless bride. Yes, a washer of feet.

And if that’s not an opening for the following video, then I don’t know what is. Pardon the facetiousness–it’s not (entirely) intentional: