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What to celebrate this Thanksgiving: Friendship

Mark Milke on the “poor cousin among the four loves,” and why it matters more than ever.
Real friends are nothing to turn your nose up at.

Unless you live on a blessed tropical island, the past 18 months of pandemic plus extreme actions from mobs and movements might have left you a bit deflated, discouraged, and annoyed.

With that reality in view, on Thanksgiving weekend, it’s healthy to stop, take stock, and be thankful for what life has served up – if only to renew one’s perspective. One doesn’t have to be pollyannish and in denial about life’s troubles, but it’s a dead-end to focus only on that. Let me thus suggest at least one thing to be thankful for this Thanksgiving weekend: our friends.

A recent U.S. poll on friendship showed that most people report having fewer friends now than was the case a few decades back.

For example, in 1990, fully 33 percent of American reported having ten or more close friends; now, only 13 percent of Americans report having that many friends. Similarly, those reporting somewhere between five and nine close friends showed a decline from 1990 as well.

Having fewer close friends is thus on the rise. The proportion of respondents who told the pollster they had between one and four friends who the felt close to rose to 48 percent this year, compared with 32 percent in 1990. Worryingly, those who reported they had no close friend at all rose to 12 percent in 2021 from just three percent in 1990.

What are we to make of such polls? My observation: It was helpful that the pollster asked about “close friends” and not just “friends.” That forced respondents to think carefully about those to whom they actually feel close.

Still, count me as a skeptic vis-à-vis anyone who responded that they had ten or more close friends. I have a wide network of people and I’m pretty relational, but in truth, we often label acquaintances as friends, when in reality, it might be better to make this distinction: Define a friend only as someone who is close, and everyone else as a mere acquaintance.

The underrated love: Friendship

Why does this matter? Because true, close friendship is, as mid-century Cambridge don C.S. Lewis wrote in a marvellous little book, The Four Loves, rare and rarely celebrated as a love. (For the record, the other three loves are affection—think of the love a mother has for her child; eros—infatuation, romantic love and sex; and charity, which for a devout Christian like Lewis, meant love of the divine and vice-versa and includes our unselfish love of others.)

Lewis’ observation was that unlike eros, few celebrate friendship as a love, and thus it is under-appreciated. He was on to something. After all, for centuries now, plays, movies and books celebrate romantic love. Think of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as a timeless example.

But friendship? Friendship is the poor cousin among the four loves. Sure, there is the occasional comedy about a “wingman” or “girls’ nights out.” Beyond that though, I think Lewis was correct and for reasons he also enunciated: “The first and most obvious answer [as to why few value friendship as a love] is because few experience it.”

Back to the poll. If Lewis is correct, it may be that those who report having fewer close friends actually are the ones with true friends and who value them and friendship more highly. Anyone who claims to have ten, or perhaps 20 or 30 friends is in fact likely talking about acquaintances.

Friends rescue you—and it’s utterly normal

What’s the difference? I once had an English professor who escaped from Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime at some point in the 1980s. His friends smuggled him out at great risk to their own lives. That was friendship, and he knew it. It was also why he disdained mixing up the notion of casual acquaintances—buddies perhaps and only that—with friends.

I’ve never had that death-defying escape from a tyrant, but when I think of my friends, their help has been just as devoted – if in more normal circumstances. Friends have sat with me through the tunnels of tragedies and accompanied me on the successful voyages of life and the latter is much more meaningful because they endured the former.

On rare occasions, we have as friends also corrected each other—when I’m being an unreasonable, difficult so-and-so. Another true mark of a friend is that they will tell you when you’re headed over a cliff and try and divert you from the same. Of course, most days, a true friendship is about the jolly acceptance of each other. A friend enjoys you as you are.

Fake-ness is opposite friendship

Another writer who thought deeply about friendship is Ralph Waldo Emerson. The 19th century writer, poet and abolitionist wrote an essay entitled Friendship and made the case that friendship is rare. That’s because fakeness and hypocrisy are mortal enemies of friendship and true friendship requires utter honesty. As Emerson wrote in 1841, “Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins.”

Emerson wasn’t being cynical. Think about our own lives: Go to a cocktail party or a business function. Are you really going to share your truest thoughts or feelings about every topic? Or be completely honest about yourself—your hopes, fears, loves, and “issues” with near-strangers who are there to close a business deal, and not to ponder the depth of your id?

In addition to likely being inappropriate, it’s also risky to open up in such settings—so, pace Emerson, hypocrisy begins. Instead of telling the annoying narcissistic client that he’s an annoying know-it-all out of his depth, you fake it: “Thank you for sharing. What a unique perspective on how NASA faked the moon landing. I had no idea.”

Emerson’s view was that such distance and dissimulation was necessary because most of us, most days, don’t want honesty but flattery. It is not that honesty has to be brutal—far from it most times, even with a true friend. It’s not just that friends accept each other for who they are, but only want each other as they are. Anything less than untrammeled access to a friend’s heart, head and life and they’re not a friend but a passerby in life.

Friendship: Think “chemical reaction”

A friend is thus not most people who we encounter. That’s because, as Emerson writes, most people have some fame, talent, “whim of religion or philanthropy in his head that spoils all conversation with him that is not to be questioned and which spoils all conversation with him.”

In contrast, and in wonderful 19th century language, Emerson writes of how “A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere…a man so real and equal that I may drop even those undermost garments of dissimulation, courtesy of second thought…” He then compares true friendship to the “simplicity and wholeness with which one chemical atom meets another,” i.e., two stark realities meet and change each other forever.

There are a lot of ingredients necessary to actually create and sustain a true friendship. A la Emerson, sincerity is one critical bit as is courage—it is not easy to be honest about one’s own being. Also, Aristotle thought high character was another necessary feature of true friendship; lousy character leads to lies and betrayals.

C.S. Lewis thought when such ingredients were there, the result was this fourth love, this friendship, where it is obvious by the mutual help that is obvious in true friendship and which binds friends together, usually forever. It is also why the authorities—governments and others, dislike true friends. As Lewis notes, a circled of tight friends is impregnable and can change the world.

Let’s end with Emerson. He compares friendship to diadems, a type of crown—the highest type worn by royalty and note that rarity once again— he muses of how friendship is a paradox of nature: “I who alone am, I who see nothing in nature whose existence I can affirm with equal evidence to my own, behold now the semblance of my being in all its height, variety and curiosity reiterated in a foreign form.”

If you actually have one friend or four, you have experienced that rarity where sincerities and similarities do mix as in a chemical reaction. It is why Emerson writes that “a friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature.”

Indeed, and masterpieces are worth our thankfulness.

Mark Milke wears many hats and one is that of an author. His most recent book is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations.