In my limited experience in this life I have noticed that there is a tendency to push against true intimacy with other people. In the realm of relationships and marriage a higher divorce rate and increasing break-up related suicide are symptoms of a deeper problem concerning a lack of real intimacy. While fear of the unknown vulnerability needed for intimacy deeply impacts relationships, I want to talk about its impact on friendships as well.
Today is a time of easy friendships. Our ability to be connected on social media has made it incredibly easy to begin and renew friendships again and again. Combined with a lack of community among neighbors, the idea of being friends with the same people in the same neighborhood for your whole life simply doesn’t exist for most young Americans. The combined ease with which we form friendships and the increasing difficulty with which they are maintained has led to diminishing numbers of long term friends for many people as they age.
While we will always have friends that we move past, having some long-term friendships is a blessing that is not available to all people.
The benefits that come with deep and meaningful friendships do not undergird the costs of forming them. Forming meaningful relationships changes who we are, impacts our identity, and require a high degree of trust between persons. Trust, in turn, grows and survives through vulnerability — openness to criticism and being honest about one’s faults. To be vulnerable with someone whom we haven’t been vulnerable with before requires a leap of faith, one that may very well backfire. Yet it is only when we let go of feelings of embarrassment or fear that we make this leap which is the first step in meaningful friendship.
It is significantly easier to be vulnerable with family as we have known these people our whole life. With friends it is much more difficult, but to do so significantly opens up our ability to love others, which we are called to do by God. Perhaps this is one of the reasons John 15:13 says, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” To love family is natural, but to love a friend is supernatural.
So we inevitably end up with a variety of acquaintances but struggle forming more intimate friendships because of the commitment involved. Whether it is marriage that pulls us away from old friends, or a career, the seemingly inevitable loss of friendship occurs with most of us as life moves onward. Some push against the idea of close friendship altogether, maintaining a variety of acquaintances while having no close friends. For others this leads to an attempt to make all friends close, but this becomes unmanageable past a certain number of friends. Neither case is ideal and a balance ought to be struck between being completely vulnerable to people you just met or having large boundaries with a friend of twenty years.
This task is getting more difficult, especially for those in the prime of their life. Young adults, from ages 20-24, live in the golden period for forming friendships. After this point, life begins to test the strength of such relationships and without any formal structure of commitment, like marriage, many of those relationships waver and die. The friendships that survive this period to older ages usually begin with an intention to commit long term, according to Andrew Ledbetter’s longitudinal study on the topic. Otherwise the forces of life destroy what was never constructed in the friendship.
Commitment and loyalty are aspects of our culture that are not encouraged. We are often told to not care what others think and go our own way, make our own path. We are told to ignore the thoughts of others and dismiss negativity in order to realize our dreams. The focus is completely on the self, my dreams, my path, my life. In a cultural of radical independence, how can commitment to another arise?
Through education, culture, and other mechanisms of socialization, we are raised to put our primary focus on our aspirations and dreams. The story of young immigrants making sacrifices that go unnoticed in order to support those whom they love goes somewhat ignored. That sort of loyalty, the ability to give up your dreams for those of another, is a vestige of a past world. While we pay lip service to those who came before and sacrificed to give us the country we enjoy today, few would see themselves in the same fold of sacrificing their life goals to prepare a better world for others. Without the desire to rid yourself of ego, the deepest friendships will always remain elusive.
Friendship is not easy if you mean for it to last, but long-lasting friendship is one of the most fulfilling goals we can have. To finish with a quote from Aquinas: “Every person has experiences of sorrow, joys, hopes, etc. with which to share with another. In sharing one’s inner life with another one comes to live not just one life but two.”