This is the third in a series of reflections on friendship that I shared with my men’s group known as “Brothers on a Journey” that meets at All Saints Episcopal Church every Monday night. You can read the first two at:
As I looked back over the friendship I formed during the first half of my life, I realized that although I had some amazing friends, I have a feeling of loss as well as gratitude for those who enriched my life during this period. Many of these friends of yesteryear I have lost touch with, and I miss them. I did a google search and discovered that the Dalai Lama had some wise and comforting words to say about such transient friendships:
"Old friends pass away, new friends appear. It is just like the days. An old day passes, a new day arrives. The important thing is to make it meaningful: a meaningful friend - or a meaningful day."
This is a very enlightened perspective, yet the feeling of loss and longing is also very real and worth taking seriously. This desire for a friendship that doesn’t pass away is, I think, at the core of our Christian faith—we yearn for relationships that last for a lifetime and beyond.
Eight years ago I lost my best friend, who also happened to be my wife, yet hardly a day passes that I don’t think of Kathleen. When she died, I took comfort in the words of William Penn: “Life is eternal and love is immortal and death is only a horizon, and an horizon is nothing but the limit of our sight.”
The pain of her loss has subsided but not the memory and the feeling that she is still with me, hovering just beyond my line of sight. I can’t see what lies beyond the horizon of this life, but through faith I catch glimpses and look forward to the day when Kathleen and I will see each other face-to-face once again in a place I can’t even imagine since our marriage and our friendship was grounded in something very special, something that will never die. Kathleen’s example also inspires and challenges me to live my life in such a way that I will be worthy of being reunited with her.
I was asked to define friendship and wasn’t able to come up with a definition. So I went once again to Google and discovered words of wisdom that spoke to me. According Muhammad Ali, one of my unlikely heroes in grad school: “Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain. It's not something you learn in school. But if you haven't learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven't learned anything.”
Ali is right that friendship isn’t taught in school. Certainly not in grad school, where we were mostly too busy and too preoccupied with our careers to make lasting friends. I had to learn about the meaning of friendship in the school of life and through the Religious Society of Friends. I also did some research on friendship to prepare for this share. I went back to my roots, the roots of our civilization, namely, the Greeks. The Greeks believed that friendship is a kind of love. You probably have heard the Greek language has three words for love: eros (sexual desire), agape (spiritual love) and philia (friendship).
Eros is a physical desire for another person that we care about and long to be with. Agape is an unselfish desire for what benefits that other person. Philia has elements of both. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII) Aristotle said there are three bases for friendship:
- . Pleasure. This could be a friendship based on mutual enjoyment of anything ranging from sports to literature to drinking vintage wine or micro-brewed beer.
- . Utility. Friendships that are mutually useful and beneficial usually arise out of some shared activity, like one’s job or career. Phil calls these “instrumental friendships.”
- . Virtue. These are sometimes called spiritual friendship and are grounded in a common sense of goodness and purpose.
In real life, most friendships are a mixture of all these elements.
So here’s my definition of friendship.
Friendship is a relationship of mutual caring and trust, based on shared interests and enjoyments as well as a shared commitment to something greater than oneself, i.e. goodness, truth, justice, etc.
In the first half of my life, most of my friendships were based mainly on shared pleasures. Love of literature, love of ideas, love of music and art, and love of coarser pleasures like going for walks, drinking alcohol, or smoking pot. The English comic writer P.G. Wodehouse wrote that “there is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.” From what I have read of Wodehouse, I’m sure he would agree that alcohol, preferably a very expensive sherry, enhances such literary friendships.
Other friendships were useful. I made friends with class mates, colleagues and co-workers. We are on friendly terms with such people because these relationships are mutually beneficial. When you and the other person no longer need each other, these friendships tend to fade.
The friendships that last the longest and are most deeply satisfying are the ones that are grounded in goodness and spirituality. These kinds of friendship also open us up to new insights into ourselves and the world. As the French writer Anais Nin wrote: “Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.” ― Anaïs Nin, The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 1: 1931-1934.
Finally, I have been inspired by what Jesus says about friendship, particularly how we can have an intimate relationship with the Divine. Quakers have adopted this ideal friendship as the basis for their name, the Religious Society of Friends. In John 15, Jesus tells his disciples that there is only one commandment that really matters. Love. He then defines love as the willingness to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. This is a high bar for friendship, yet it is important to remember that real friendship usually entails some self-sacrifice. Jesus says that if we follow this commandment to love unselfishly, we not only deepen our friendships with each other, we also become friends of Jesus: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” This is a truly astonishing idea—that limited mortals can become friends with God. It makes no logical sense, yet we are told it is possible through the power of love. Spiritual love, agape.
Obstacles to friendship: What blocks us from becoming friends with others? How do we choose our friends? Do we pick people who will help open up new worlds within us, or only those who make us feel comfortable with who we are now? Do we seek out friends of different backgrounds and ethnicities from our own?
After sharing this reflection I talked about some of the following friends who have been important to me during the second half of my life.
- · Ed Miller, the Friend who introduced me to the Religious Society of Friends in Princeton, NJ.
- · Janet Riley, a Friend with whom I worked on a Soviet/American joint book project in the 1980s and who has become a deep and lifelong friend.
- · John Ishvardas Abdullah, my Sufi friend who wrote the book One World Under God. I got to know John through the South Coast Interfaith Council. He is one of several wonderful Muslim friends that I made after 9/11 who have expanded my spiritual horizons.
- · Jeff Utter, a UCC pastor, and Joseph Prabhu, a professor of philosophy and religion, have become my spiritual “amigos” and we meet regularly to walk and talk. We met through the Parliament of the World’s Religion, where I have many wonderful friends of different faiths.
- · Robert Cornell, a therapist/gardener friend who started Brothers on a Journey. We meet once a month at the Huntington Gardens to have heart-to-heart talks and enjoy the beautiful gardens (we are both avid gardeners).
- · Mark Schmidt, a formerly homeless man who is a guest in our home and has become a good friend over the years, with a passion of justice and a great sense of humor.
- My wife Jill, who has become my best friend and spiritual companion, opening me up in so many ways through her deep love of Jesus and justice, as well as of honesty and caring for others.
Our group then responded to the following questions about friendship and there was a rich time of sharing.
Queries on friendship for reflection:
- What happened in your life that helped you to understand the meaning of friendship?
- What do you do to cultivate friends?
- What has stood in the way of your friendships