It's Hard to Find a Friend
Mondays are for movie reviews and male friendship.
My early-week rituals involve forsaking everything else in my podcast feed, and lending my ears to Tim Grierson and Will Leitch. The pair of august cultural writers deliberate on the latest films and decades-old fare. But the show resonates with me for a reason other than their thoughtful criticism.
Grierson and Leitch came of age together in small-town Illinois, and their conversations reflect the comfort and nuance that attend decades-long familiarity. Our Monday appointment (the show typically posts Sunday night) feels like eavesdropping on two friends who care enough to avoid the cheap grace of trading on old memories.
The show’s closing song, performed by My Friend Mary, hinges on the lyric “This shouldn’t work ... but it does / It only works because of us.” Bittersweet pangs follow; the previous hour’s conversation proves the worth of those words—and the rarity of what they describe. It feels nearly impossible to find and keep a friend long enough to watch chemistry and history dissolve into one, sealing any cracks or chances for division.
Comedian John Mulaney observes that Jesus’ greatest miracle is counting “12 best friends in his 30s—and they weren’t his wife’s best friends’ husbands.” As I round the bend toward 40, that punchline lands hard enough to make me see cartoon stars.
Friendship at any age resembles a crucible, but adulthood presents distinct challenges. Companions who see each other through the particular perils of high school and college scatter to different corners of the country. Beliefs change, as do priorities. Experience, once the great equalizer, now creates hairline fractures.
C.S. Lewis comes close to defining what makes friendship pop. “Friendship is born,” he wrote, “at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.’ ” At the risk of interrogating one of our greatest souls, I wonder—with increasing skepticism and grief—about what comes next.
Lewis stretches his thoughts past the usual, describing two people who “stand together in an immense solitude.” But the message warps and bends. Men particularly absorb the conventional wisdom that shared affinity pours the concrete of friendship. But affection for sports or records cannot possibly bear the weight of years marked by miscarriages, professional disappointments, common rejoicing and changing minds. Early sparks might fan into eternal flame, but too many fires of friendship die out for the sake of confidence.
Some friendships last years, even weather their share of storms, and you settle into a sense of safety. Then another shoe—some you saw coming, other arriving from a mile outside nowhere—drops to ruin the whole thing.
Some friends intently listen, then decide to stop their ears seemingly at random; others drain hours from your life before you recognize the disparity between give and take. Others still take off at a sprinter’s pace, barely outrunning the fire they set between you.
Remaining tethered to certain institutions—the church, perhaps most of all—heightens the sting of personal rending. More than once, as an old friend chases a new life, they clarify love for me while underlining their contempt for people, principles, and practices I hold dear.
While friendship often presents itself more like a chore than a comfort, I count myself more fortunate than many. I know men who stick as close as brothers. Sitting back to survey the anchors which hold today, I try to unlock the secrets which make some friendships last and others fade.
Forget walking a mile in my shoes: my friends Kevin and Ben have logged thousands of miles by my side, culminating in a marathon through Minneapolis and St. Paul. Each of us acting as a captive audience for the other, we traded cosmic questions and observations in miniature. As much as sweat and gravel-worn soles, those stories and confessions bind us together.
Bobby the piano man and I sit in each other’s living rooms; we laugh at jokes that took years to set up, and recall the moments we’ve shared in suffering, losing count before the night ends.
And yet the heart of friendship cannot be expressed through proximity or longevity alone. Closeness irritates just beneath the skin; it troubles the soul as we feel our fear of knowing and being known. Long friendships sometimes atrophy like unused muscles; Lord knows I bear more than my share of blame for letting relationships waste away.
Luke, the best friend I know, meets me at the intersection of closeness and continuity. If God reveals himself as immanent yet outside the dictates of time, I recognize something of his image in our bond. And yet even that friendship cannot be expressed in a simple one plus one. If friendship isn’t math, maybe it’s mystery.
Real, lasting solidarity resides at the level of morning mist and savory flavors and the pleasure of certain chords. We see its nature in part; we might even be able to break it down into pieces. But something closer to the core defies the language we possess. Like the mysteries of time and space and God and sex, friendship dares us to go deeper, to realize that the more we know, the less we understand.
The reconciliation of any two beings—whether souls in marriage, God and man, or two friends who cross the finish line together—qualifies as a miracle. In this one instance, perhaps Grierson and Leitch get closer than C.S. Lewis. Friendship might begin with “You too?” But if it works for very long at all, some part of you knows maybe it shouldn't. Not empirically. Looking across the table and the years, you shrug and say a prayer of thanksgiving: “It only works because of us.”