A significant part of my love for this city has been the people who have populated my life in it. What has made them, I wonder, more than acquaintances or strangers with whom I happen to share air? What makes these people friends?
Finding friends is one of the greatest challenges young adults seem to face after school’s out. Loneliness is rampant among us: we might be surrounded by people while we don’t feel truly known at all. This is where I see the ironic role of hardship coming into play. I am seeing, over and over again, how the existence of pain, disappointment and hurt somehow opens space for friendship and allows for compassion–a word whose Latin roots literally mean “to suffer with.” One instance that comes to mind is from college, when I accompanied two friends to the airport. One of them was taking a leave of absence due to ambiguous mental and family issues; I still don’t know what they were. On the way back from the airport, though, the first friend and I ended up talking about those personal damages we incur so young–deeply confusing scars some of us are burdened with more than others–and she told me something about her childhood that really surprised me. God, I believe, was with us as we cried, weaving along the Bay Area’s beautiful 280, holding hands in solidarity because somehow that was the only way I could communicate how my heart was breaking over all of it with her.
Are our closest friends the ones with whom we share only the good times, or is it our weaknesses, fears and shame that forges bonds? I say the latter, and over time. For a while I have parroted that idea that vulnerability is the first requisite for any true relationship to develop; self-protection and pride the first things to go. But, the bravest kind of vulnerability is more than just effortless self-exposure. It’s the sharing (and I don’t mean just telling, even though telling and sharing are often conflated these days) of things that we don’t understand, are still in the middle of figuring out. Or of things we never will. The protagonist in Marilynne Robinson‘s beautiful book Gilead (sent to me by a dear friend who predicted well that I’d adore it) said that “every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable–which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live.” Indeed, we are complicated and we have loose ends. Showing someone a loose end is the risky part, because we don’t yet know if they’ll take it and mock us or protect it and support us.
As I think about the friends with whom I feel closest here in New York and away, I see this pattern of repeated, risky open-heartedness. Common contexts or intellectual interests may lay the welcome mat out front, which makes for great acquaintances, but our decision to “let someone in” makes for intimacy. It takes time because it’s only while we are doing other things and getting caught up in those issues that the opportunity arises to walk with someone else through them. I think this is what C.S. Lewis was referring to when he said in The Four Loves, “The very condition of having Friends is that we should want something else besides Friends… Friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice. Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travellers.” Put another way, friends are not obsessed with the other; they don’t treat each other as fixed objects or conclusions. Rather, they’re interested in and care deeply about each other in the middle of issues, unsolvable problems, sad pasts… The truth is that life involves suffering, and our capacity to cry, laugh and pray through it with a companion is one of the most humanizing experiences open to us.