I’ve always been a friendly person, but I first glimpsed, painfully, that I might actually not be a terribly good friend—a person capable of the tasks of love necessary to friendship—through the person who would become one of my dearest life friends. I’ll call her Emily. We were fellow students at college, shared a lot of interests, and laughed easily together, a good barometer of those inner, mutual reciprocities that signal a true friendship. Over our four-year tenure in college, I was always friendly with Emily, but I often turned down her invitations to spend more time together. She confronted me once, early on in our senior year, wondering why I appeared so accessible but then turned her down so often. Her demands backed me into a corner of defensive anger, but because I was a self-consciously friendly person, I didn’t voice my anger and instead got quite steely with her. After that, Emily and I didn’t speak for many, many weeks. It might have even been months.
I don’t remember how we struck up a conversation again after that long silent rupture, but I was prepared to be my normal, friendly self, hoping she had forgotten the whole thing. After some time chatting, she said, “I’ve noticed a pattern in you, Laura. You relate to people openly, intensely, and deeply, but then it seems you need some space.” She paused. “Last fall, I interpreted that pattern as your rejection of me. I see now that might not be the case. I’d rather be your friend and know you, as you actually are, even if that means hanging out less than I’d like to. I just want you to know that.”
I had never had someone hold up a mirror of empathic affection quite like that to me before, with such freely given acceptance of the flawed, friendly me. In the strange dynamics of grace, I could see both that she was, in fact, a person capable of real friendship—not just friendly, like I was—and that I needed to learn how to be that kind of person. It wasn’t too late to learn. We were at a time in life, with fewer life commitments and constraints than we would later carry, when adult friendships often can take root for life. We were also beginning to learn better what friendship might require of us. For her, it required a willingness to risk letting me go, or at least letting go of an ideal of close friendship that she hungered for. She decided she was willing to accept me as is, a decision not without real risk and real possible cost.
Only friendship claims the necessitas of freedom: a gift given, a gift received, but always and ever gift.
Emily and I have been best friends for close to twenty-five years. We don’t plan on stopping now. We have never lived close to each other since college, so we’ve made efforts to visit over the years. In my family’s repeated international moves, Emily trekked to distant lands to visit us and witness the foreign contours of our lives. Of course, we’ve written letters. As we’ve aged and life has gotten more complicated, our young propensity for lengthy cards or emails (back when people wrote those like letters to singular individuals) has dimmed. Day to day, we leave each other messages through voice-messaging platforms or chat on video feed. I think she is still the better friend in our friendship, but I do not want to stop trying to be a better friend to her.
I once heard Zadie Smith say that “at the heart of creativity lies a refusal,” and I believe that certain refusals lie at the heart of friendship too. For Smith, truly creative writing refuses to cater to pre-existing demands of ambient consumer appetite. True creativity expresses its obligations to truth freely, often producing friction in a world that prefers its compelling lies and binding demands lubricated and obscured. Creativity risks rejection and misunderstanding in a way that “content production” does not; it seeks true friendship, not mere friendliness.
In the same way, a good friendship can be a beautiful friction to life’s clamouring necessities, a gift guaranteed no one but a treasure to defend and protect when received. Friendships satisfy our hearts in ways we may have forgotten they even could be. (They are far more satisfying than dopamine hits from social media engagement among “friends,” that’s for sure.) They can also be a well from which to draw when life robs us of our human dignity, even when we are the thief. In the lonely crowd, among the pluralities of our networks, contacts, and associates, a friend is the one who is still willing to know us, singularly and freely. In that respect, said C.S. Lewis, “every real Friendship is a sort of secession, even a rebellion . . . a pocket of potential resistance.”
In friendship, we are always free to leave, or to risk change and drift.
Recently I have paid close attention to one famous friendship forged at a time when resistance was rare (and real friendship was too): that of Eberhard Bethge and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In his book Friendship and Resistance, Bethge meditates on their too-short and yet long friendship, for he believed it continued and even transformed after Bonhoeffer’s death by execution in 1945, Bethge as its lone survivor until his passing in 2000. Bonhoeffer believed friendship belonged to the sphere of freedom. Among life’s obligations—what he called the divine mandates (marriage and family, work, and commitments to church and nation)—he said that only friendship claims the necessitas of freedom: a gift given, a gift received, but always and ever gift. Paradoxically friendship is tender and fortress-like, delicate and yet a refuge from fierce storms, “defenseless in freedom.” Bonhoeffer envisioned friendship as a beautiful cornflower on the edge of a hard-worked field of corn. Naturally, his theology of friendship relied on poetry and is witnessed chiefly in a poem he composed in prison in August 1944 for Bethge, “The Friend.”
I am blessed to be married to someone who is also my friend, which sounds like greeting-card doggerel but, in its living reality, is anything but. Not all marriages are friendships. A priest of ours many years ago was wont to quip that the first twenty-five years of marriage are the hardest. We chuckled knowingly when we first heard him say it, having been married five, during which we experienced some real ups and downs. Now that we’re coming up on twenty, we know even better what he meant. In these last two decades, we have learned what terrible friends we can be to each other. We have had to learn—the normal, long, hard way, held tightly by our vows—how to be less-than-terrible friends to each other. In time, we have built tremendous threads of trust between us.
Since I can count many of my dear friendships in decades now too, I marvel at them in a different way because, unlike my marriage, they are not held firm by sturdy, demanding vows. In friendship, we are always free to leave, or to risk change and drift. Grasses wither and cornflowers fade, which is why a good and lasting friendship, rich in acceptance and reciprocity, is such a rare treasure—“the rarest and most priceless treasure,” to quote dear Dietrich—a grace as singular as the selves that constitute it.
While friendship can require much of us, it can also free us to receive even more.
Remaining open to the risks and refusals of friendship—offering it to others afresh, risking rejection or the reality that a friendship may not satisfy the pre-existing demands of one’s heart—is one of life’s greatest adventures, part of the gift of being human, and one worth doing even as we age in order to stay human. The practice starts young and small, in early recognitions of the glorious mystery of another life near to one’s own. My young niece Talia recently told my sister—also my friend, thanks to her loving acceptance of her flawed, friendly older sibling—how cool one of her friends at school was. My sister asked what made her so cool. Talia replied, “She has red hair, she’s left-handed, and she’s a twin.” Talia’s observant, fascinated attention to the sheer gift and bracing realities of another human being is the sign of a person growing capable of friendship. While friendship can require much of us, it can also free us to receive even more. Young, middle-aged, and old, let us defend, protect, and cheer friendship’s freedoms and its frictions, cherishing our friends—both silver and gold—for what they are and what they doggedly, stubbornly, even mercifully are not.