Some relationships in life we are “stuck with.” One can’t very readily change one’s blood kin, and until fairly recently one couldn’t break the bond of marriage for light and transient causes.
Historically, “being stuck” has widely been considered a good thing. It sets the stage for loyalty and faithfulness. One shouldn’t abandon one’s parents or siblings or children without extraordinarily good reasons. One shouldn’t cheat on one’s spouse. One should be loyal to family (by blood or marriage) through thick and thin. Cheats and traitors are nasty people; neglect and abandonment are vices.
There are/were advantages to having the back door sealed in certain relations. If your kids do stuff you don’t approve of, the proper first move is not to throw them into the street and disinherit them. They are yours, and you have to work with them. The same holds true for parents, siblings, and (again, till recently) a spouse. Filial or covenanted bonds hold a relationship in place – secure it, we might say – so people are forced, often against their feelings, to sort out their issues and do the hard work of loving.
At the other end of the spectrum of human relations stands the totally “non-stuck” variety. One is not bound by blood or contract to strangers. There are no ties here beyond that of mere human to mere human; there is no circle to which both the stranger and I belong, beyond that of humanity in general. Whatever one does for the stranger, one does voluntarily, not because of a particular preexisting and inviolable tie. This doesn’t mean relating with a stranger lacks moral entailment: there is great virtue in going good to someone to whom I owe, strictly speaking, nothing. Still, to “neglect” a total stranger is almost a contradiction in terms, for the simple reason that there’s no particular arrangement to be neglected. One should treat strangers as fellow human beings, with kindness and respect (especially where one finds them in need), but it would be hard to argue that one owes them something more.
Between these two poles – family at one end, strangers at the other – lies another sort of relation. In this sort, one is not exactly “stuck with” the other; but neither is one free of all obligations beyond merely treating the other as a fellow member of the human race. There is a real “circle” to which both I and the other belong, though it’s not secured by blood or contract or covenant (at least as modernly conceived). Here we find ourselves in the strange sphere of human friendship.
Friendship is voluntary, but anyone who’s ever experienced the bonds of deep friendship would affirm that rupturing them could never be a matter of mere choice: “Today I’ve decided not to be your friend.” To experience neglect or abandonment, or worse still betrayal, at the hands of a friend is crushing. Even to feel the cooling of a once-vibrant friendship is, in most cases, to feel that one or both of you has not behaved well – there is what feels like a moral summons not simply to walk away and wash your hands, but to seek reconciliation and amend your treatment of each other.
Oddly enough, great friendships work off the capital of great trust, and they do so without obvious warrant, such as blood or covenant might supply. This extraordinarily fragile relation, which cannot rely on the instincts of blood or stipulations of covenanted loyalty (though, as Wesley Hill and others have pointed out, it was not always thus), seems to work best when two friends demand little of each other because they assume so much. What is assumed is a fundamental wanting of each other, a desire for and delight in each other. Could anything be more subject to whim and the winds of change?
It’s not quite so simple, of course. The catalyst for friendship is always (at the risk of overstatement) something shared in common. Some sort of physical proximity – of shared place – is how it generally starts. It’s hard to become friends with someone with whom one has no contact. (The virtual world has dramatically altered our conception of place, but that’s for another time.) In the shared place, something mutually catches the eye – some shared experience or interest. Suddenly two people see each other, see themselves in each other, experience a kinship of loves, and from that day on they are friends. The bond that forms can carry over great distances, and seems immune even to the ravages of time. It’s not unusual for two friends to “reconnect” after months and years apart, and it’s as if they were never parted at all.
Here, then, is the rub: is friendship secure? Does it rest on anything more substantial than feelings, or the caprice of human choice? If you don’t like your spouse anymore, (at least on a “traditional” view of things) you should learn the discipline of faithfulness. If you don’t like your parents or your children anymore, that doesn’t mean you can just pretend they never existed. You have to work at the relationship, because there’s more to it than your feelings and choices. You belong to these people; that’s your blessing and burden to bear. Can anything comparable be said of friendships?
The question matters if for no other reason than that the bulk of our human relations are not those of blood and marriage, but rather varying degrees of friendship. Most of our neighbors are not kin, but a great many of these neighbors are far more to us than strangers. What do we owe them? What may we rightly desire and expect of them, and they of us?
There’s an odd symbiosis in friendship between trust and commitment. One must trust one’s friends, or else one may easily start applying pressure that actually erodes the friendship. No one enjoys a friendship where reassurances are constantly demanded, or in which proof of the friendship is made to lie in this or that performance. Friendship is not, and cannot be, transactional. With that said, a friendship in which commitment is lacking can go only so far and so deep. If one gets the sense that one is merely useful to a “friend” for a time, but there’s no real prospect of a rich and lasting bond, that’s not a relationship to which one can or should give too much of one’s heart. A friend loveth at all times – that’s what makes him or her a true friend. Friends are faithful. Friends stick by each other. Friends aren’t going anywhere, even when things get emotionally rocky. To be clear, friends are committed to each other as persons, not simply to a mutual activity or place or interest; so if the activity stops, or the place is no longer shared, or the common interest wanes for one or the other, this should create no anxiety about the durability of the friendship (assuming it is a real friendship). If you love a friend for who he or she is, that isn’t going to change because one of you moves away, or you don’t do exactly the same things together or share exactly the same interests anymore. Still (to turn the coin over once more), true friends don’t simply put their feelings for each other in the bank and stop all concrete investing in their relationship. By whatever means are available, and in proper proportion to their other callings and relations, they will seek each other out; they will affirm and give themselves to each other, not because they have to but because they deeply want to. And it’s this feeling of being wanted, as the wanting finds expression in tangible, meaningful ways, that makes friendship so enriching, so satisfying, so comforting amid the many uncertainties of life.
Because they are “freer” than family relations, friendships don’t hold up well under the burden of demands. A demanding friend is, candidly, a pain in the ass. Even too strong a sense of desire from a friend can begin to be worrisome, if not suffocating. Trust must grease the gears of a good friendship, allowing both parties to relax and work out their relationship without feeling that either is saving the other from drowning. On the other hand, however, trust in friendship too often proves to be misplaced in a world where we have more options, more mobility, and more “networks” (not to be confused with communities) that ever in the history of our species. Professed friends turn out to be flighty, non-committal, uninterested (the fashionable term is “too busy”), and unwilling to invest in ways that draw out the heart and provide opportunities for deep knowing and rich sharing of life. One would do well in modern times to be wary of assuming too much in friendships; faithful commitment and whole-souled investment are hardly relational hallmarks of our time.
It seems to me that friends who care deeply about each other might occasionally discuss together their respective views of the state of the friendship. Does each feel secure? Does each trust the other? Is there anything that either desires of the other that might reasonable be offered and received? Is there room for growth into new activities, new interests, or new levels of communication? Is either feeling pressured by the other? Is there a way to introduce healthy “space” without a decline in trust or affection? Good friends should be able to speak of these things openly, and without fear. If such a conversation is out of the question, that in itself says something about the quality of the friendship.
Jesus had friends, and to His most intimate friends He opened the deepest joys and loves of His soul, around a common table (e.g., John 13:15). It’s not to be missed that His friends failed Him badly, or that He afterward sought them out when their hearts felt the breach, and restored the bonds of their fellowship. We have much to learn in following Him. There is no friendship without vulnerability, and it is not in demanding love from one’s friends but in faithfully loving them that the durability of friendship is to be found. How many of us need to look long and hard at the way we have treated our friends, and ponder whether we have failed Christ Himself in failing to care for the least of these?