I was standing in my freshman dorm room, looking out the window, when my roommate walked in. “Mr. Hanauer, I presume?” he said. Who talks like that? Strike one. He had a weird name, “Alasdair,” used only because his first name, James, took after his father and his grandfather and his great-grandfather—Jameses going all the way back to the Mayflower. My Jewish ancestors had landed on Ellis Island with nothing but a dream and worked their way up out of poverty. And now here was Mr. Mayflower welcoming me to college. Strike two.
And he was wearing a stupid leather jacket. Strike three.
Two years later, he flew three thousand miles across the country for thirty-six hours to be with me at my grandmother’s funeral. We sat on a park bench that night, looked out over the San Francisco skyline toward the Golden Gate Bridge with the stars twinkling overhead, and talked about Jesus and grief. It was my first taste of genuine adult male friendship. Growing up in America, I didn’t know men could have friendships like that. I didn’t know how badly we needed them. How badly I needed it.
I was raised, like many American men, to see friendship as a group of guys doing a shared activity. I had three very close friends growing up, from kindergarten through high school graduation, and we did stuff. College football games and poker, getting food, going to movies (we used to sneak in food to the point of once bringing in an entire burger, fries, and shake under our jackets), renting movies from Blockbuster (!), playing baseball at the local park. Video games after school with chocolate milk, and if we were lucky, M&M pancakes. I had a blessed childhood, free of cell phones and social media, free of violence and poverty. I am grateful for it.
What I didn’t have was any conception that male friendships could be more than a group of people doing fun things together. That you could talk about your deepest fears and hopes, your struggles, your uncertainties, your romantic life (in a deeper, healthier way than just commenting on the physical appearance and behaviour of females). That you could be vulnerable and still a man, that you could in fact expect that to be the norm.
My roommate introduced me to an entirely new way of life. He had grown up in a church with youth groups and men’s groups, with a father who had grown up with those same things, with friends who expected them. So when he and I, against all odds, began to form something of a deep friendship, it did more than give me one close friend. It gave me a window into a different type of world, a world in which friendship was something deeper, something healthy, something even possibly normal.
It was this friendship and others that partly fuelled my conversion to Christianity. I began attending men’s groups, small groups, and accountability groups, and their behaviour at once excited and terrified me. Apparently, being a friend didn’t just mean having somebody to talk to when you felt sad or angry. It didn’t just mean being there for somebody when they felt sad or angry. Apparently, it also meant being open about your own shortcomings, your own struggles, and holding yourself accountable to another human being when missteps occurred. In these communities bound by a shared love and a shared commitment to moral formation, accountable friendship meant admitting to somebody things you really didn’t want to admit, and that somebody not only was going to tell you that you had messed up but was also going to remind you that there is an omniscient God of the universe who also knows you messed up. It was inconvenient presence, expectation, and a moral quest all together, and I was drawn in.
Today I run an organization founded on the premise that we belong together—that the divisions tearing our nation apart are a national crisis, yes, but that they are also powerless against our innate desire to be in relationship with others, to be connected to other human beings on a spiritual level.
Our culture is famously rife with isolation and performance posing as action, most of us allergic to forms of accountability when “they” are so much worse. Our friendships—when they are healthy—offer a blueprint for how our society can and must evolve. We must show up for each other, stick around long enough to build real solidarity with each other, and hold each other accountable when we go astray.
I think often about this concept, how we so often fall short of it, and how transformative it is when we see it lived out. Our culture constantly confuses the “showing up” part with the whole package, as though one-off displays of solidarity are enough. I think about when friends or family lose loved ones. Who sends a note of condolence and who shows up several weeks later, after the funeral is over and the leftovers are gone and the well-wishes have stopped? Who shows up then to check in? And who is committed enough to do the hardest thing of all—to tell a grieving person that their grief does not absolve them of their own responsibilities, to others, to themselves, to God?
There’s an old saying: you’re only as happy as your least happy child. And that’s true. But when I stray farther from the nest, away from my own kids, my own parents, my wife, when I feel true pain because of the pain a friend or family member feels, that’s when I know I’m in real solidarity with them. When I know I’ve made a commitment that reflects, in a flawed, human way, the commitment God makes to each of us. To be there not just when things are easy or fun, but when they hurt.
Accountable friendships challenge two toxic worldviews. The first, more common on the left but with manifestations on the Christian right as well, is the idea that there is a single orthodox set of beliefs about the world that is correct, and that educating, shaming, lecturing, and training people to understand them is how you change the world. This idea dismisses friendship, relationship, and trust as insufficient methods of achieving large, structural change, or even as seditious attempts to downplay injustice or prevent real change from happening.
The second, more common on the right, is the idea that as long as you’re a “good person” and don’t outwardly hate somebody because of the colour of their skin, you’ve done your part. This assumption often manifests in people who are willing to meet somebody from a different group and even befriend them, up until the point where the challenges of injustice in our society hatch open in the particulars, at which point any discussion of those challenges is dismissed as “political.”
Accountable friendships inherently reject both. You cannot truly care about somebody if you aren’t willing to examine the structures that affect their life. And you cannot change somebody else if you don’t actually care about them, if you aren’t willing to listen to them, and if you aren’t willing to ever admit that there’s a chance you might be wrong about something you believe.
Accountable friendships are the basic building blocks for how our troubled society might see a new day. It is not that a single accountable friendship will solve our nation’s problems; it’s that 150 million of them will.
So how does a country invest in that?
Running an organization that is trying to bridge divides has granted me a front-row seat to this quandary. Funders, politicians, and the media all seem to be asking: How do we heal society’s divides? Build social cohesion? Combat a culture of isolation and loneliness that fuels political violence, authoritarianism, and division?
These are the right questions, and it’s encouraging to see those questions being asked so frequently and visibly.
But it’s a slow and bumpy road. It’s slow, in part, because the attempted answers from politicians, non-profits, philanthropists, and the media remain embedded in a transactional framework. We want to build trust and relationships so long as they aim to achieve a certain agenda. So long as they don’t involve the “accountability” thorn. Much as the word can be thrown around, we’re all scared of accountability, and in this age of pluralism, we’ve lost confidence in articulating the kind of orienting love that would inspire us to submit to one another. There’s so much well-intentioned programming that aims to bridge divides and promote pluralism, but they’re often floating in the ether, untethered from a structure that could embed that programming deeper into the fabric of our society. It’s still a series of one-way one-offs. It’s not real solidarity. It’s not real accountable friendship.
At the heart of the friendships that ushered me into a much richer way of thinking, acting, perceiving, and living was a shared desire to become better, to conform our lives to a model of beauty that would always keep us on our toes—in our souls, with one another. Diversity is a gift, but unless we desire to be shaped by others, and to look outward together toward a shared love, we’re playing a never-ending game of chess more than we are engaging in the real stuff of life: growing, changing, deepening, expanding.
Accountable friendships work inside a community that has not only shared values but also a shared identity that is held above all other identities. Social scientists call that a “superordinate identity,” which could be expressed as “I’m a Democrat, you’re a Republican, but we’re both Christians and that’s the most important thing.” (Obviously superordinate identities can be good or bad or neutral in nature. Here I’m referring to those superordinate identities that call humans to moral and ethical behaviour.)
In many ways, our country is in the mess it’s in right now because of the collapse of superordinate identities in religious communities. Christians have increasingly sorted themselves into blue or red churches. White and black Christians still rarely worship together. Synagogues are less likely to fracture into red and blue congregations, but many are fracturing internally in ways that lead their congregants to wonder what it is exactly that they have in common with their fellow congregants who vote differently.
What we have lost is incalculable.
When I sat with my friend in college having “accountability breakfasts,” what I was being held accountable to was ultimately a spiritual code rooted in our shared Christian faith. All other belief systems, all other ideologies, were subordinate to that.
We cannot invest in friendships and pretend that those friendships don’t require a moral infrastructure supporting them. We cannot bemoan the loss of connection and belonging and pretend that we can create it artificially through transactional networks and one-off community dinners.
We cannot invest in friendships and pretend that those friendships don’t require a moral infrastructure supporting them.
Image: Gareth Williams
What we need to invest in is the ability—skills and temperaments—to bring people together in an ongoing way, in lasting community. That won’t look like a program. It won’t be an event. It will be an investment. A deep investment in the pillars on which a healthy society is built: faith communities, civic institutions, families.
Imagine if the question we were asking wasn’t, How do we get more people to vote for our candidate or support our cause? but was instead, How connected are the people in our community, and what do they need to feel more connection? Who is lonely, and how do we bring them into the community? Who feels alienated, and how do we invest in their sense of belonging? Who mistrusts our local institutions, and how do we increase that trust and earn that trust?
We are using the wrong metrics to gauge the health of our nation.
There are, of course, many reasons why we don’t make these types of investments.
First, they take a long time to pay off. (But imagine if we’d started a long time ago!)
Second, they aren’t as exciting as investing in a campaign or a project. It’s fun to win. It’s easy to measure. It’s fun to build a building. It’s easy to see when the building is complete. The types of investments that support friendships and community are harder to see, and they cannot be measured by binary wins and losses.
Third, they are hyper-local solutions to a national problem. And that’s a hard dynamic to balance. Many people with influence or money are putting the share of their attention on national dynamics. Our problems are national, but our solutions are local. That can feel unsatisfying to some, and like “mission creep” to others.
But there is another, larger reason why so much of our societal investment feels transactional and not actually about the hard work of truly building community.
The type of “infrastructure” I described earlier that is necessary for supporting accountable friendships is disproportionately religious. I’m not here to argue that it has to be religious. But the reality is that the backlash to organized religion has not resulted in a form of community that can replace religion. Politics has become religion for many, and that is an unmitigated catastrophe. Other forms of community have sprouted up in secular places, and I’m certainly not qualified to speak to how effective those are in terms of creating healthy communities in which accountable friendships can flourish.
But in many ways, the time has come for religion’s detractors to admit that what has replaced healthy religion in America—other than unhealthy, politicized religion—is, for better or worse, more individualism. Social media has not connected us; it has fragmented us into millions of individual communities of one, each consuming and being consumed by a dystopian alternative reality. The forms of community that have grown out of the rise of the “nones” don’t have a set of shared values rooted in a superordinate identity that can build healthy, long-lasting accountable friendships and community. And no, being progressive or conservative politically doesn’t count.
Bashing organized religion is easy, and often fair. Replacing it is not so easy. And much of society is run by institutions and forces that either don’t want to admit that or are still fighting the culture wars of the 1990s in a way that keeps the conversation focused on political divides instead of on whether our communities are healthy and connected.
In many ways, we can’t “scale” friendship because the very thing that makes friendship meaningful is the antithesis of scale. And so diagnosing why our society continues to value transactional, short-term solutions to our crisis of belonging is easier than suggesting a concrete solution. There are no shortcuts, and pretending there’s a single answer would be disingenuous.
But I do believe that society can install a filter. Instead of a new program, project, campaign, or initiative, the filter is a way of looking at all our investments in a new light. In short, before investing in anything, the filter would ask us, Will this investment support the societal infrastructure on which real, accountable friendships can be built? Or not?
john powell of UC Berkeley talks about the dichotomy of “bridging” and “breaking.” In that filter, every action either helps to bridge or further breaks society, democracy, friendships, community. This is embedded in the idea of an accountable friendship. If I care about this person as a person but don’t care about the pain his or her community is facing, am I bridging or breaking? If I care about this person but refuse to acknowledge the possibility that I might not be right about all my beliefs, am I bridging or breaking?
Again, this obliterates the tired, stale dichotomy of asking whether we should fight for our convictions or heal our divisions. The answer is yes. And the filter sees this. We cannot heal our divisions if we allow injustices to continue unchecked. We cannot pursue justice or truth by breaking the relationships between us and other human beings.
A healthy society looks at the way it spends its money in that light. It looks at the way it designs cities and office spaces and work and parks in that light. It looks at the way it designs the digital world in that light. It examines deeply the way it runs political campaigns in that light.
On Good Friday this past Holy Week, my pastor said God saw us in our darkest moments and reached down into our despair to be with us by sending his own Son to the cross to experience the worst of what we as humans experience. Even there, he is with us.
I cannot remember the moment I became a Christian. There was no flash of light. No sunset where all was revealed. No thunderstorm in which I realized that God was in the rain.
But there was the park bench the night after my grandmother’s memorial service. A friend who said, “I’m busy and there are lots of things to do, but my roommate is flying across the country for thirty-six hours to bury his grandmother and he’s not going to be on that airplane alone.”
Solving our nation’s crises is a big task. But we can start with that simple concept: nobody journeys alone.
Not in our country. Not as long as we can help it.