A Eulogy To Friendship
In April the song Forgive Me Friend by Smith & Thell went viral. Listening to the lyrics brought an old post to mind. That post was about the inevitability that haunts all of us, a spectre that lurks in the shadows of our relationships. We will lose those that we love; or they will leave us. As Heather Macdonald writes in H Is For Hawk, “There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes.”
Most of the “holes” that make up our lives are the spaces where people used to be. They are the wounds inflicted by goodbyes. Many of these never heal. For you can replace almost anything. But it’s impossible to replace a person—at least not one that you’ve shared a meaningful relationship with. Describing the “heart of those who love and are loved,” Augustine says is, “to long with impatience for those absent, to welcome them with gladness on their arrival.” But there is unending absence, departure without return, and the unfulfilled longing for someone we have lost. For someone we have left behind.
You might accuse me of being melancholic. But that only proves Friedrich Nietzsche’s observation that we can rarely bear what we know to be true. But, in The Little Way Of Ruthie Lemming, I think Rod Dreher puts his finger on another reason we throttle this palpable and painful truth. He writes, “Contemporary culture encourages us to make islands of ourselves for the sake of self-fulfilment, of career advancement, of entertainment, of diversion, and all the demands of the sovereign self.” We pursue strong independence and protect ourselves from relational entanglement. Vulnerability is reserved for romance. So too is permanence and commitment, together with the personal investment those things entail.
This is why Smith & Thell’s song grabbed my attention. They sing, “And I guess that we don’t mean to be falling apart / But you will always have a special place in my heart / I never wanted this to end, can you forgive me friend?” Using language typically reserved for romance, Forgive Me Friend mourns the end of a friendship. But the lyrics recognise that this is no less tragic or devastating than a break-up. The raw candour of this song simultaneously resonates with my own experience and reminds us that meaningful love is not limited to romance and marriage. For various reasons, friendships can and do end. But for many other reasons, friendships are worth the risk. They are worth the investment.
In his wonderful book Spiritual Friendship, Wesley Hill develops a few lines from Tom Stoppard’s The Invention Of Love. Hill compares the loss of friendship to clutching a piece of ice in your hand. He writes, “Like a wedge of cold, brilliant crystal, the love you grasp will sear your skin. You’ll want to escape the pain. And before you know it, you’ll be staring at a hand shiny with moistness, but the ice will be nowhere in sight.” Indeed, unlike more permanent or avowed relationships—family and marriage—friendship is precarious. As we reflect on our lives, most of us can recall treasured friendships now lost or simply ruined through time. Friendships can be snatched from us in a single moment as much as they slowly melt in our hands.
I have often mourned the dearth of intimate and intentional friendships in popular culture, especially in the Christian church. But preaching on friendship recently I found myself overwhelmed by the realisation that I have loved and lost—to ply Tennyson’s well worn phrase. Is that better? I should answer ‘yes.’ And I believe that it is. My life has been delightfully enriched through numerous friendships over the years. But the obverse of this is that I have also been left impoverished and destitute. Worse still, I have abandoned and overlooked friends I have loved. To return to Smith & Thell’s song: “I promised you that we would never change / That you and me would always stay the same / How I let you down.” How I’ve let them down.
But our solution cannot be the modern world’s, protecting ourselves through calculated independence and avoiding vulnerability. So I will give C. S. Lewis the last word, from Four Loves, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”