Weekly Edgework #22 - Nov 29, 2004

On Friendship and Loneliness

People are joined in friendship through their foolishness. Community cannot be sustained at too high a level. It thrives in the valleys of soul rather than in heights of spirit (In Praise of Folly, by Erasmus, quoted in Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore, p. 94).

Loneliness can be the result of an attitude that community is something into which one is received. Many people wait for members of a community to invite them in, and until that happens they are lonely (Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore, p. 94).

Many of us spend our lives in the borderlands between loneliness and true friendship. While loneliness is the hallmark of modern North American society, there is nevertheless a continual quest for friendships that are deep and that will last. According to Thomas Moore, the reason such friendships are hard to come by lie both in the nature of the community in which we aspire to find true friendships and in the region of our individual souls. That is to say that we may be too busy creating communities that don’t foster true friendships and that we are neglecting the personal soul-work required for friendships to flourish.

Moore tells of a priest who realized in retrospect there had been few of his colleagues in his order who had been true friends. They had talked much about building community, had read many books on the subject and run many retreats focused on building community. Yet there had been little opportunity for intimacy. You were expected to talk about religion, or perhaps sports, but never about yourself (94). So, even while spending a lot of time with other priests he still found himself lonely.

Looking back on my own life during the years I taught in Bible College, I can relate to the experience of this priest. Since the College identified itself as being evangelical/anabaptist, the concept of community was never far from our minds. As colleagues, we talked a lot about being a true community of the Spirit, we read many books on the subject and we taught about biblical community in our classes. Yet, in retrospect, I admit that there was little opportunity for true intimacy, and consequently true friendship.

Sometimes it seemed as though we were trying too hard to create an “ideal community” to validate a biblical concept. Perhaps I expected too much of a community of academics who saw each other mostly between busy schedules from Monday to Friday. Most people were nice enough and courteous enough, all right, but few were willing to bare their souls or enter into a friendship that lasted beyond four o’clock on Friday afternoon. I am thankful for those who truly became my friends, but I grieve the loss of potential intimacies that never happened with many others. Perhaps if we could have spent more time “letting our hair down” our friendships could have deepened through our own foolishness, as Erasmus put it.

But I do not want to be too hard on our academic communities. I see a similar dynamic happening in many of our churches. We tend to think that by getting together regularly for worship, running popular programs, and talking long and enthusiastically about our ideals, we can create true friendships within true communities. But all this we hope to accomplish without baring our souls to one another – without being open, honest and vulnerable.

Too often, it seems to me, we experience loneliness while surrounded by people because, as Moore says, we wait around to be received into community and thus true friendship. But with such an orientation, even if and when we are weclomed into a community, we may still feel lonely. That is so because we have not yet learned that true friendship is always a two-way street. It is not a birthright owed you by other people. “Belonging” and “friendship” are active verbs that start their work in one’s soul.

An ancient philosopher, Ficino, once said that “…to be loved you must love.” That is to say that unless and until your soul is ready to give of itself freely and with integrity, you will always be lonely, no matter how much welcoming you receive by others. Belonging is not the work of others, it is our own work. A person oppressed by loneliness can go out into the world and simply start belonging to it, not by joining organizations, but living through feelings of relatedness -–to other people, to nature, to socety, to the world as a whole (Moore, 94).

I am saddened when I watch people flitting about from one church community to another, hoping to find true friendship and belonging. It is, for the most part, a futile frenzy, because most of these people have not yet discovered that the art of friendship and the anticipation of true community must always begin in our own souls. Sometimes it may be the right thing to search for a new community, but unless our souls are open to its responsibilities, we will remain lonely wherever we go.

I am still in the process of learning to do the soul-work required for true friendship to flourish and loneliness to disappear. There is so much work to do in this regard, but I am finding that even the smallest investment in this regard can yield an abundant return. The Apostle John understood well the dual nature of the antidote to loneliness and the recipe for true friendship when he says in I John 3:11, For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.