Friendship begins when one person, gazing upon something he or she loves, turns to the person next to him or her and finds that person loving it as well. “What? You too?” are the words announcing the birth of a new friendship.
It is significant that friendship has this “side-by-side” quality because that is what marks it off from the only form of love our media culture seems capable of acknowledging: eros.
The difference is that the posture of eros is not side-by-side, but face-to-face. Eros properly wants to look upon the face of the beloved. “She has the most beautiful face in the world!” are the words of eros. The typical words of friendship are: “Look at that! Isn’t that beautiful?” — and are spoken not about your friend, but about the thing you and your friend(s) love.
That “(s)” is also vital. Because eros is properly a closed set. I don’t want another man to love my wife the way I love her, and she doesn’t want another woman to love me as she does. But with friendship it’s the more the merrier. When one close friend comes to the house, it’s a fine visit. When five close friends come to the house, it’s an intimate gathering of laughter, shared jokes, old songs, wine and memories that glow like gold.
Sadly, our culture is now radically crippled in its ability to distinguish friendship from eros. The tedious routine in our culture is to reduce every form of love — including friendship — to eros. So, as we were instructed in When Harry Met Sally, “men and women cannot be friends” because the “sex thing” gets in the way. Here is a particularly brutal reductionism that forces all friendship to be eros and all eros to be simply and solely sex.
Does erotic attraction frequently complicate male/female relationships, including friendships? Of course. But it is simply not the case that “men and women can’t be friends.” History (and very likely our own personal experience) demonstrates plainly that they can be. Indeed, we have probably even known men and women who were in an erotic married relationship yet who were also friends — who loved, not only each other, but something else for which they shared a passion. Such “married friends” are one of the great joys in life, and joining their circle of friendship (though not, obviously, their marriage) can be one of the loveliest experiences of love in the world.
Our culture’s hostility to friendship and our ugly tendency to reduce it to eros or mere animal sexual desire is even more acute and destructive when it comes to friendships between people of the same sex. It is now routine to declare that any close friendship between two persons of the same sex is “really” homoerotic. This blind insistence on casting all friendships in the mold of eros is soul-crushing, because it short-circuits the truly vital and nourishing role that true friendship plays in a healthy human life.
Precisely the joy of friendship is that friends are, if you will, not thinking about each other, nor seeing themselves reflected in the eyes of the other. Eros, properly, has the other as the object, and (as a sort of side benefit) we discover that we can be precious because we are precious to the one we love. In friendship, all this sort of thing is out of place.
Friendship is emphatically about something other than our friend. Friends come together because they share a common love for stamp collecting or Civil War re-enactment or politics or literature or God. Friends can become lovers and sometimes do. But friends, as friends, dwell in an entirely different kind of love from eros and, very often, would be appalled at the thought of their friendship ever being eros.
Next time, let’s look at some great friendships.
Mark Shea blogs at