The gift of friendship
I wrote this column ten years ago, several months after a friend suddenly passed away (on June 13, 2008). The column ran on the Thanksgiving weekend that year.
With everyone's stocks and pensions down the equivalent of a deeply fractured oil well, the prospect of giving thanks this holiday weekend might be a tough sell.
But I'll press on and offer a suggestion for at least one entity that deserves our deep gratefulness: friends.
Friendship is rarely pondered, something C.S. Lewis observed in his 1960 book, The Four Loves. In it, Lewis wrote of how the modern age focuses on Eros (erotic love for those not familiar with the Greek) to the exclusion of other loves.
This is in contrast to the ancients who valued friendship and thought it the "happiest and most fully human of loves."
Lewis was on to something. And the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, even went so far as to describe friendship as a "soul inhabiting two bodies."
In our world, few would now describe it that way or as a love akin to the others. Lewis speculated that was because too few people, sadly, experience true friendship. It was also (or perhaps because) that they view friendship as only marginal, "not a main course in life's banquet." They see it as an occasional diversion.
But diversions are not properly called friendships, which are made of sturdier stuff.
As an undergraduate at Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton back in the late 1980s, an English professor originally from Iraq told his students (I was one) of how his friends had, many years previous, helped him escape.
Without detailing the circumstances, he noted his friends did so at a considerable risk to their own lives, this in a country then ruled by Saddam Hussein. That, my professor noted, was true friendship. It was unlike the shallow versions up for grabs and for disposal in the casual West, where an acquaintance and a friend are too often mistaken for each other.
We use the terms “friend” and "acquaintance" interchangeably much in the same way we throw around the world "love" to describe not only our deepest love affairs but our passing appetites.
But they are distinct and Ralph Waldo Emerson explained why. In his 1841 essay, Friendship, he hit upon the difference between friends and life's mere passers-by when he wrote that, "Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins." (When we have our full of such hypocrisy, it is about then we flee from inane cocktail party chatter.)
To reach authenticity, a prerequisite for actual friendship, is no easy task. In contrast to our normal social behaviour where we can be unfailingly polite but not real, Emerson recounted the story of a man he knew who, “under a religious frenzy, cast off the normal gossip, compliments and chatter”.
“This man,” wrote Emerson, man "spoke to the conscience of every person he encountered, and that with great insight and beauty." The result? Everyone thought he was mad. Except that over time, others began to appreciate the chance to speak honestly.
Emerson argued this example of sincerity was a necessary component in friendship, a rare exception to how we often cover up our thoughts.
To be sure, such coverups are at times appropriate. We choose to avoid offending someone's politics, religion or whim that they hold dear. But that “holdback” means the person opposite can never be our friend, not truly.
Happily, you know you're in the presence of a friend when you can speak openly and without artifice or pretense. Emerson compared this latter approach and experience to how two chemical atoms meet each other -- in "simplicity and wholeness."
This friendship, this love of which Lewis wrote, came to the fore again in my own life in early summer.
In June, a friend of the sort Emerson describes died unexpectedly. Darren was 40, and his sudden passing left a sudden, painful vacuum in the lives of his family, and friends.
Sincerity and character may not always lead to friendship, but the deepest and most real friendships cannot exist without them, and such qualities anyway touch those outside of one's inner circle.
My friend had both qualities and his funeral was attended by 600 family, friends and acquaintances. The latter group included colleagues from Air Canada where he only recently became a pilot and where he would have only been lightly known by the time he died.
Emerson thought that friendships were gifts and expressions of God. He was right. And they are never exactly alike or capable of duplication.
But no matter how rare, or even when lost, the experience of a friend is something for which one can give thanks.
Mark Milke, Calgary Herald, October 12, 2008, A16
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