It was the twilight of a blurry year. December 11, 2021, and I was reciting a grammar-school poem in a rusty Australian accent, attempting to hide my emotions at a farewell party for a close friend. Just before COVID-19’s omicron variant would make all gatherings ill-advisable, this was a warm circle: Peruvian flavours and Christmas-tree lights twinkling around songs and spontaneous laughter.
The friend we were celebrating has known me since I was eighteen. Not a lifetime, but enough to be family-level in the sorrows and joys shared, covenants witnessed, and needs reciprocally met. Ann, her husband, and three young children were moving across the country after twenty years of our sharing geographic proximity, and while we knew airplanes can be flown and calendars carved, there was a sense of finality clanging on this chapter. I was losing physical access to a sister.
“You are my people,” said one woman simply, bringing the thousand adjectives to a point. “That’s all I know to say.”
The next morning while cleaning up and putting chairs back in their rightful place, I found myself overcome. There was something heavenly that had crept into our home, a foretaste of an eternal party. Here not only had I commemorated my own friendship with a kindred spirit, but I had also experienced the texture of others’ with the same: young mothers who had walked with Ann through the scary moments of keeping babies (and oneself!) alive, neighbours who had been on speed dial to help when her husband was travelling, fellow church congregants knit together by layered histories of prayer and healing, colleagues inspired to higher behaviour as a result of the couple’s integrity and creative excellence. Webs far beyond my own friendship history had been woven, and the myriad flavours were on full display: the friendship birthed out of a shared love, the one built through creativity and iterative problem-solving, the one forged by hardship, the one sustained by levity, the one dignified by quiet service and a consistent meeting of needs, the one baked in the simplicity of living next door.
What dynamic relational tapestry had just shimmered into the foreground such that I found my heart so tender, and my conscience pricked? In the fullness of days stretched to their limits and a fracturing culture that forces nearly everything into à la carte one-offs, had I lost sight of friendship’s root system, allowing it to be choked by a thicket of less grace-giving commitments?
Atrophy by Omission
It is a small comfort to know that I am not alone in waking up to the quiet melt of relationships these last few years. Like with so much else, the pandemic only accelerated the consequences of our inattentions. We know that fundamentals like friendship, Sabbath, nature, and all that could invite us to make and create are vital for our flourishing, yet somehow the nudges of a performative and very busy culture persuade us that the roots of life are sufficiently ancient so as to need no watering. We’d rather die for perishable things.
According to the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life, the percentage of people who say they don’t have a single close friend has quadrupled in the past thirty years. Since COVID-19, nearly half of Americans report having lost touch with friends. Young people text more than talk, and nearly a quarter of the general public says it has been at least five years since they’ve developed a new friendship.
The demographic breakdowns are particularly interesting. Friendship is in rougher shape among white folks than it is among blacks and Hispanics, with nearly eight in ten African Americans reporting that they still have a significant friendship with someone they have known since childhood. (Only 66 percent of whites say the same.) Democrats are twice as likely as Republicans to end a friendship over a political disagreement (20 percent versus 10 percent), and no one is more likely to do so than a liberal woman. Of the Americans who report having ended a friendship in the last few years, 22 percent cite Trump as the catalyst.
It would be too simple and socially myopic for me to narrate these trends with the usual declinist explanations, even if they apply to a whole bunch of us—the weakening of institutions and the decline of associational life, geographic transience and the digital displacement of in-person engagement. The qualitative differences experienced by men and women, different generations, class and cultural heritage should probably invite more of a horizontal learning lab than always kowtowing to Tocqueville as our standard.
Still, there does seem to be a cocktail of forces battering the societal substrate that makes friendship possible, yielding a mass anxiety and inwardness that are keeping too many of us from entering—let alone encountering—models of relational joy. The weave that I witnessed at Ann’s going-away party—the thick overlaps of memory and interdependence at once built with intention yet also given by shared institutions and shared place—moved me precisely because this kind of tapestry seems so rare, almost endangered.
So Comment’s going to linger here for a season. We want to know: What are the ingredients of friendship at its most life-giving, and how do you be a good friend? What is the art and skill of seeing another deeply, and allowing oneself to be seen in turn? Where is the fork in the road at which choice and covenantal commitment collide, and how do we sustain those friendships that may cost us our reputation, stretch our comfort, and themselves change on the tendrils of time?
My team and I have been so encouraged by the opportunity to reflect on this crown of the good life. We are living through tumultuous days that will either corrode our souls or cleanse them. It could just be that friendship, in all its gentle strength, will free us to know the difference.