I have had cause to think about friendship lately. I have been using a book, called “The Friendship of Women” by Joan Chittister as the basis for a series of sermons on women. You can find them at http://www.wduc.squarespace.com if you are interested.
She writes so beautifully about friendship, that mysterious quality of our lives that enriches us. As she says, “only friendship can really save us from our own smallness”. Yet how to define it, how to write about it, how to talk about it. Below is a blog from sometime ago, which I thought I would republish, as often literature is the best way to answer those questions.
I have been wanting to write a blog about friendship for some time. In fact since I read the book, “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara. What a book, what a story!
So here goes…..
We travel through life, if we are lucky, with a group of people who journey with us. If we are really lucky some of these people start the journey when we are young, and hang around until the end, whenever that is, 70, 80 or earlier if circumstances dictate that.
These friends, the old friends, seem to hang around regardless of the ups and downs of life, the joys and sorrows that befall us, and remind us of our younger selves, and the dreams we may have had, some fulfilled others not. As someone said to me recently, friendship is not just about the good times, but just the times, some good some not so good. But hopefully all shared.
I have been very fortunate to have had these types of friends, developed during my University days when I was known as KD, and had lots of ideas about what I was going to do, save the world, become a famous scientistic, run a marathon, or just organise a party. I had so many good ideas, of which some remained just that, an idea, that I was christened “Gunna Dutton”. Funnily enough that doesn’t seem so bad now, and when some of my close friends call me KD, it brings a smile to my face. KD, who was that, oh yes, I remember now…
I am lucky to have one friend I have known from school, when we used to eat our lunch outside and dream about going to the beach. When we get together it is like we are 20 again! And others I inherited when my husband’s good friends became mine.
Commitment and loyalty are words bandied around but require an inner strength, for when the going gets rough and it does for most people, it is the people who remain who end up being the greatest friends, regardless of when they appear in our lives. I recently caught up with my cousin, well sort of cousin in Broome, and spent a day enjoying his company. I haven’t seen much of him these past years, but we have known each other since we were kids, as his mum and my mum were best friends. Shirley, my mum, and Gwen knew each other from the age of 10 when they lived across the road from one another. Now theirs was a friendship which had its ups and downs, but when the downs got more than the ups, my cousin was clear in letting me know my mum showed loyalty and courage. When Gwen got dementia, and was very difficult to deal with, mum was the constant in her life. Even though Gwen rang mum at all hours of the day and night, and often was so confused that she though mum had suddenly got a fella, as the answering machine voice was male, mum was there for her.
So friendship is such a vital part of who we are as humans, we need friends to love us, and for us to love. To share with, cry with, laugh with, be honest with and sometimes to forgive, for forgiveness is part of the journey. And hopefully we are better, more complete people with it.
So let me return to the book for in the book we see a most beautiful friendship and how that friendship along with others can be enough for someone to form” a little life” with it, after the most horrendous of childhoods.
The story is about four young men from the same college, their relationship to one another and ultimately to one of them in particular, Jude. Jude has suffered terribly, but how and why is not known by the reader or by the other characters till quite a long way into the book. Initially the young men move to NYC, and we follow them as they work their way through life, full of career ups and downs, relationships and marriage. But the story at its heart is about the nature of friendship and how it can transmit love and forgiveness, compassion and tolerance. How it can find the very best of us if we let it, becoming a platform that allows us, all of us, to participate in the world. Even with someone like Jude, who was so damaged he was unable to conceive that he is worthy of such friendship.
But this minimises the book, which has so much depth to it. For Jude is not just racked by mental demons, cutting himself literally to survive the memories and flashbacks, but physical ones as well. He suffers, but so does his friends, who for most of the book do not understand the depth of his grief and his anguish, but love him anyway. Along the way there are standouts, people who leave their mark on him in ways that seem incredible. Willem, his best friend, Andy, his doctor, although that seems too small a title and Harold and Julia, who ultimately adopt him. Who accept the unknowns of Jude, are with him as he deals with his demons but also share with him his hard won joys.
There are so many sections of the book which are so beautifully written, which speak to us about our lives together. In the end Jude can be seen as both a tortured soul but also the light by which the others are better people by having known and loved him. We are the better for those we travel with. As Willem discovered “The person he loved was sick, and would always be sick, and his responsibility was not to make him better, but to make him less sick.”
Or when Willem realised his was not a rescue mission, but an extension of their friendship, in which he had saved Jude and just as often Jude had saved him.
I remember one passage that will always stick in my mind.
All the boys were visiting Harold and Julia’s place in the country for the first time. They were to have the first of many Thanksgiving dinners with one another. The evening had begun and there were drinks and talking and laughing. Jude was quietly sitting in the corner. Not feeling isolated and alone, but instead peaceful and happy. He can see all the people he loved in one room getting to know one another. Starting a relationship with each other that would strengthen them all in the coming years. Friendship was not a competition to Jude, he was unable to complete on so many levels. Rather it was the love shared between them that counted the most. “He experienced the singular pleasure of watching people he loved fall in love with other people he loved.”
The book is not for the faint hearted. Jude is a very damaged, although brilliant person, and the hidden secrets when revealed are confronting. Yet when he does reveal them it is to the person who in the end loved him the most. But that’s the other thing about friendship, it should not require both parties to somehow to be on equal terms. I know that seems strange, but love can also be accepting that the other person cannot give all of themselves to the relationship, and what is offered is offered in love. Jude would know everything about his friends, but they knew very little about him. And that seemed okay. Maybe we ask too much of the people we travel with, that we should behave the same way, share our stories in the same way, look the same way, think the same way, and even deal with our friendships in the same way. I often complain that one of my friends doesn’t ring me enough, or ask me enough questions!!!
We are linked by time spent, shared experiences, both good and bad, a life lived with one another. This should be enough. Is enough.
So as I enter my 57th year (how is that possible!), I am grateful for those that have hung around, who still laugh at my pathetic jokes, and who I know will be there through the continuing joys and sorrows of life. As Willem reflects in the book, “Wasn’t friendship its own miracle, the finding of another person who made the entire lonely world seem somehow less lonely?”
In a world in which anxiety rules, when the dreams of riches, and prestige and an adventure filled life is reduced to the normalcy of day to day living, and where our social media gives us thousands of online friends, but no connections, true friendship, lasting friendship is the light of love which saves us.
While I don’t want to give the ending away, it is clear that Jude’s life has been a struggle, and the struggle to continue to live with the pain is incredibly challenging. Yet in this struggle, with friends, he discovers his own meaning in life, even if he can’t really believe he deserves it.
Lets’ hear him…..
“And although he hadn’t fretted over whether his life was worthwhile he had always wondered why he, why so many others went on living at all. …
He had known ever since the hospital that it was impossible to convince someone to live for his own sake. But he often thought it would be more effective treatment to make people feel more urgently the necessity of living for others. That rare selflessness had been something he could be proud of after all. He hadn’t understood why they wanted him to stay alive, only that they had, and so he had done it. Eventually he had learned how to rediscover contentment, joy even.”
“I know my life’s meaningful because” – and here he stopped, and looked shy, and was silent for a moment before he continued – ” because I’m a good friend. I love my friends, and I care about them, and I think I make them happy.”
The ending is just as beautiful as the beginning. A life of friendship, a life of love, that could overcome the most terrible of starts. A little life. Maybe that’s what we all will be blessed to have, a little life, travelling with those who love and know us. If we are lucky.
Let me end with a passage that has Willem talking to Jude late at night. Theirs was a relationship for the ages.
“Sometimes he wakes so far from himself that he can’t even remember who he is. “Where am I?” he asks, desperate, and then, “Who am I? Who am I?
And then he hears, so close to his ear that it is as if the voice is originating inside his own head, Willem’s whispered incantation. “You’re Jude St. Francis. You are my oldest, dearest friend. You’re the son of Harold Stein and Julia Altman. You’re the friend of Malcolm Irvine, of Jean-Baptiste Marion, of Richard Goldfarb, of Andy Contractor, of Lucien Voigt, of Citizen van Straaten, of Rhodes Arrowsmith, of Elijah Kozma, of Phaedra de los Santos, of the Henry Youngs.”
“You’re a New Yorker. You live in SoHo. You volunteer for an arts organization; you volunteer for a food kitchen.”
“You’re a swimmer. You’re a baker. You’re a cook. You’re a reader. You have a beautiful voice, though you never sing anymore.” “You’re an excellent pianist. You’re an art collector. You write me lovely messages when I’m away. You’re patient. You’re generous. You’re the best listener I know. You’re the smartest person I know, in every way. You’re the bravest person I know, in every way.”
“You’re a lawyer. You’re the chair of the litigation department at Rosen Pritchard and Klein. You love your job; you work hard at it.”
“You’re a mathematician. You’re a logician. You’ve tried to teach me, again and again.”
“You were treated horribly. You came out on the other end. You were always you.”
A love between friends, in some ways the greatest love, according to CS Lewis.
I leave you with a song by Simon and Garfunkel, called “old Friends”.
I have been reading a book lately, called “Phosphorescence”, by Julia Baird. I have loved it and she writes quite beautifully about the things that give us light, particularly awe and wonder, but also our internal light, and particularly when things go a little pear shaped!
But she is speaking to a contemporary audience that may not of heard of people who have been writing in this area over many years. People like Carl Sagan, a famous cosmologist and thinker, who quotes Albert Einstein and Thomas Carlyle in his book “The Varieties of Scientific Experience”
“By far the best way I know to engage the religious sensibility, the sense of awe, is to look up on a clear night. I believe that it is very difficult to know who we are until we understand where and when we are. I think everyone in every culture has felt a sense of awe and wonder looking at the sky. This is reflected throughout the world in both science and literature. Thomas Carlyle said that wonder is the basis of worship. And Albert Einstein said, `I maintain that the cosmic religion feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.` So if both Carlyle and Einstein could agree on something, it has a modest possibility of even being right.”.
What about Rabi Abraham Heschel, who coined the term Radical Amazement. Who said that wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of a religious life and the proper response to our experience of the divine. Much like Carl Sagan.
As Herschel says, the insights that connect us to the holy one come not on the level of discursive thinking, but on the level of wonder and radical amazement, in the depth of awe, in our sensitivity to the mystery, in our awareness of the ineffable.
Living in radical amazement brings us into a space in which great things happen to the soul. I love that.
Without radical amazement we cannot grasp what a marvel of creation we are, in a sea of marvels. Even with all the death and destruction that goes with it.
I personally have always had this sensibility, teaching anatomy has left me with awe at how complex and intricate our bodies are, how incredible is the process by which we live and move and have our being. But not just us, creation in general, both big, ,and really, really small, amazes me.
Recently I have become fascinated with the brain, the mind, consciousness and the philosophers guide to all of this. Some of it seems totally crazy but so incredible.
Without doubt, this feeling of wonder, has lead me to believe there is a greater mystery to life that can be measured or examined with a microscope. That a divine layer lies beneath, a creative energy seeping into every living thing that holds the whole thing together. That leads us out of our self-absorbed world into the wider one, embracing life for all. As Heschel says, “living in radical amazement brings us into a space in which great things happen to the soul”.
One of the great things about working for a church, is I get time to ponder some of this stuff, and in that pondering many years ago I discovered Mary Oliver. She writes her poetry with eyes wide open to the natural world, but in her later years to the something more stirring within it and us.
Most of my congregation hear from Mary regularly, and I even use her poems when conducting funerals and weddings, when sometimes only a poem can truly express our emotions.
Julia Baird ends her book with a famous Mary Oliver poem, “The Summer Day”, where the last line says,
“Tell me, what it is you plan to do,
With you one wild and precious life”?
I do love that one.
But this is another one of my favourites –
“When Death Comes.”
She ends it with these lines…
“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world in my arms.
When its over, I don’t want to wonder
If I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself signing and frightened,
Or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world”.
I recommend both the book, and of course Mary Oliver. Or perhaps, if you aren’t feeling like reading, just go out and take a walk.
And look around you a bit more intentionally. It does help!