Monday, August 1, 2016

Friends Of My Youth

On Friendships

This post is the outcome of getting in contact with an old friend (Chris F.) from my university days. I was put in contact with him by another mutual friend (Mark O.) from this period in my life (more than 30 years ago in Montreal) and with whom I also reconnected recently. We three used to spend a great amount of time trying to figure things out, including ruminations on the Big Questions of Life. This got me thinking about friends of my youth and why friends in general are important. While I might not write frequently on this topic, it is part of my regular thought life. I have written about friendship before, including on “The Virtue of Friendship (2010).


I shot an arrow into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For so swiftly it flew, the sight
Could not follow it in its flight.

I breathed a song into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For, who has sight so keen and strong
That it can follow the flight of song?

Long, long afterward, in an oak
I found the arrow, still unbroke;
And the song, from beginning to end,
I found again in the heart of a friend.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,
“The Arrow and the Song” (1845)

“The Friend of Your Youth is the only friend you will ever have, for he hasn’t the slightest concern with calculating his interest or your virtue. He doesn’t give a damn, for the moment, about Getting Ahead or Needs Must Admiring the Best, the two official criteria in adult friendships, and when the boring stranger appears, he puts out his hand and smiles (not really seeing your face) and speaks your name (which doesn’t really belong to your face), saying, “Well, Jack, damned glad you came, come on in, boy!”

Robert Penn Warren,
All the King's Men (1946)

A few persons are fortunate—and I truly and sincerely mean what I say— to have friends for many years, for decades. A few people can boast of having maintained the friendships of their youth, where youth is typically defined as between the ages of 15 and 24. Why is it so captivating, so desirable, appealing to have such old friends, notably as you enter the later years of life? Is it mere nostalgia? A remembrance of times of youthful vigor and hope? A time of endless opportunities?

There is some truth in all of these answers, but I don’t think they answer the question sufficiently or completely; I sense that, yes, it has to do of remembrances of the better, if not the best, times of our youth. And, yes, that such friends were part of this history, of our personal narrative during the stages when such narratives were not yet fully formed, fully developed and cast in stone. Yes, this period is filled with opportunity.

Some men, and I speak about the male because it is true that men are far worse than women in maintaining and keeping friendship, have no friends in adulthood. Sure, they might have work relationships, colleagues, acquaintances and associations of various sorts, but they have no friends. No one with whom they can be themselves. This is not an enviable position, and I am not here moralizing but stating a genuine fact. Not having at least one friend to share to unwind and be yourself can be bad for your health. It can also make you the type of person who is self-centered, forever seeking something and forever looking at people as objects to be utilized, rather than as human beings worthy in their own right.

But there’s a warning, as there are in most important areas of life worth pursuing. You have to carefully pick your friends. If you do it with understanding and sensitivity, and with some self-awareness, you can have a friend for life. This becomes important in the days and years ahead when you will have problems—and everyone has problems, whether in business or marriage—and an old friend can make a huge difference in how you work out these problems toward some important resolution or reconciliation.

He can, for example, remind you about the good that you have done and can continue to, things that you have likely forgotten or not considered as important. He can make you laugh like no one else. He can make you believe in yourself and, possibly, in the human race—again. He can bring generosity of spirit and kindness into your life. He can speak into your life as no other can.

Some will say that this nonsense, pure Romanticism. I say that friendship has a long and noble history, and those that deride or minimize friendship probably never had a good friend. More's the pity. Aristotle talks much about friendship and gives it great value in the pantheon of human relationships, which he discusses at length in the Nicomachean Ethics (Book VIII):
But it is not only necessary but also noble; for we praise those who love their friends, and it is thought to be a fine thing to have many friends; and again we think it is the same people that are good men and are friends. 
That ancient book, the Bible, says in the book of Proverbs (18:24): “A man who has friends must himself be friendly, But there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” There is also the famous verse in the book of Ecclesiastes (4:9-10), which speaks about the practical understanding of not being alone:
Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falls, for he has not another to help him up.
Quite true on so many levels. Such is a special kind of friend, perhaps the kind of friend that Robert Penn Warren describes in the novel above, and which the American poet Longfellow alludes to in his well-known poem. Such is what a friendship can do. It can not only alleviate loneliness and societal alienation, but it can also help make you whole again. Friendship can turn the damaged soul into a functioning and generous one; such is the power of kindness and love.