Monday, December 04, 2017

Samuel D James at Mere Orthodoxy on "something better than friends"


But then again, Westerners are indeed lonelier than ever before, despite how easy and unobtrusive to daily life the cultivation of “friendships” has become. This is where I think Lewis can help us. Lewis’s argument is not that friendship shouldn’t exist without an objective commonality; his argument is that it cannot exist. It is the nature of friendship to bring two people out of themselves, and out of each other, into something on which their bonded-ness can grow. Without that outside something, the relationship that forms between people is bent back inwardly for each of them. The relationship’s value becomes about how valued each person feels. The friendship exists for the sake of “having friends,” which really means it exists for the satisfaction of being liked.

This is important, because our age of social media is a curated age. Networking technology empowers individual control of the social experience; you can add, delete, mute, or hide at will. Curation is the power to feel like one is among friends even when one isn’t. “Friendship technology” is not about bringing people who both, to use Lewis’s term, see the same truth. If it were, social media would not have any long term appeal over phone calls, book clubs, and church. The reason it does have such appeal is that it offers individuals the psychological experiences of friendship (“My posts are being liked, therefore I am being liked”) without the often difficult work of cultivating one’s own inner life (which is, according to Lewis’s, what is shared by friends).

I suspect that part of the epidemic loneliness in our culture stems from the fact that many of us have very little of our own inner life to truly share with another person. Our hobbies don’t even mean much to us, because if we’re honest, we do them mostly because they’re what the “liked” people on social media do. In many of our hearts, there just isn’t much for friendship to feed on. Because there’s no effort to see truth, or to really love beauty, or to accomplish something meaningful, there’s consequently nothing that another person can come alongside us for. As we age, the stresses and demands of family, and especially work, choke out our inner lives. Life is reduced to doing, and only those who happen to be doing with us in a particular season of life can become our “friends,” even though we know the friendship will dissipate when the doing ceases, as doing always does.

Yes, there's stuff about friends share in something and friends are looking together at a common truth outside them and not at each other the way lovers do, etc, etc.

One of the potential ingredients for any "epidemic of loneliness" could be noted in what Lewis wrote about that other love, eros, that eros has been elevated to levels that earlier societies would have found patently absurd while phileo has been sidelined in literature and education.  His point then seems even more pertinent now, how many couples in stories can you think of who are lovers rather than friends?  What's more striking is to consider how many paired characters that can be considered friends in various stories have been transformed into lovers (and sometimes gay lovers at that) through what's colloquially known as slash fiction?  Shipper fiction is a folk practice by now of making pairs of characters that aren't or weren't romantically paired in the canon of the fictional narrative.  Thus Kirk and Spock aren't "just friends" they're also lovers in slash fiction.  Slash fic could be a sideways reflection of a cultural impulse to put all the relational eggs in one basket. 

Of course not all slash fic and associated memes are proposing erotic attachment seriously.  For those familiar with G1 Transformers the jokes about Megatron and Starscream being toxically codependent gay lovers are more legion than anyone should waste any time looking up if they didn't just spring up in conversation amongst people who used to have Transformers toys and watched the cartoons.  For that matter Frank Miller making the Joker gay and obsessed with Batman was a novel move because there wasn't a very consistent thread of proposing such a thing about the Joker prior, if memory serves.  Other more comprehensively immersed Bat-fans can correct me if I'm (very likely) wrong on that issue.  And, of course, reading Batman and Robin as gay lovers is so widely recognized it's probably something that only needs to be mentioned once on the subject of fan fic and "readings".

"Readings" of pop culture artifacts and texts open up possibilities for subtextual elements that are perceived to be made text in fan fic, including slash fic, but I wonder if that says more about the scripts we work with in our culture than it does about what characters the scripts are imposed upon.  Why is there such a temptation to take characters that are close friends in American pop culture and transform them into lovers?  Simply being friends seems to be not enough. Scholars, for want of a  better term, insisting that Jonathan and David had to be gay lovers might seem plausible to contemporary scholarship but that, too, might say more about what the fixations and obsessions of our era are than about interpretations of biblical texts.  Whether from a theological/doctrinal "left" or "right" a kind of genital fixation can kick in.

And even with James' concern about what binds and bonds friends, there's a potential for pondering, because if friends become friends by looking at a shared truth there's a sense in which friends are friends based on proximity, affinity and utility.  Back when Mark Driscoll was shilling Real Marriage he claimed there were not a whole lot of Christian meditations on friendship.  This would seem so idiotic on its face that reviews from 2012 should have pointed out that, for instance, more verses in Proverbs address friendship than "how to find your spouse". 

Throw in an evangelical assumption that men and women can't be friends because basically When Harry Met Sally must be right even if the average socially or doctrinally conservative evangelical might abominate Nora Ephron and that's another level at which "the friend zone" is considered a bad thing.  I had never heard of the dread with which some males regarded "the friend zone" until I was at Mars Hill.  Depending on who defines it it means that a male is regarded as "just a friend" or, also, it may mean that said male is in that designated role for romantic interest while being relied upon for all other potentially available means of emotional or social support.  It could be, in this latter definition, be a male equivalent evaluation of women who talk about the "nice guys" who aren't really nice at all but imagine themselves to be nice guys and therefore entitled to some kind of romantic/erotic victory or reward for good behavior even if, truth be told, good behavior isn't necessarily what these sorts of men and women are all that interested in. 

It can be presented as a kind of relational realism that can, if you stop and think about it, seem kind of mercenary.  Years ago when I was at Mars Hill someone mentioned that I had managed to become friends with a variety of beautiful women.  Sure, and none of them were really what I would have described as "prospects".  Particularly in Anglo-American evangelical contexts it can seem as though if you're interested in cultivating friendships to have friendships rather than to hunt down God's spouse for you that that's sometimes frowned upon.

So within evangelical contexts part of the reason people may be lonely is they've been inculcated with a regard for the quest for erotic attachment at the expense of taking other kinds of relationships seriously. 

For the unmarried in church settings few things are more obvious than those people who, once they have paired off, basically no longer have any real use for the friendships they had during their singleness.  Sure, leave and cleave and all that, but it's easy to remember people who were easy to hang out with from the old Mars Hill days who sorta just vanished once they married.  Another threshold is parenting.  There are a lot of friends from a decade ago I just don't get to see because they're out of the city because the city is getting prohibitively expensive and parenting isn't cheap.  It won't get cheaper and Seattle hasn't exactly been particularly game to cultivate domesticity as such.  Sometimes it even seems that the bluer the city loyalty the rougher it is for people to afford to stay living within city limits but that's some other topic for some other time.  The main idea here is that the trouble with friendships being cultivated along "looking at the same thing" is how readily and easily that stops depending on "life stage" moments. 

Which is why in a way it's funny that my lifelong affection for animation has been what it is, because despite inevitable generational divides and different paths, I've found that it can be ever so slightly easier to stay connected to friends who are parenting kids if I haven't lost some familiarity with stuff like My Little Pony or Transformers or The Last Airbender or Batman: the animated series or even The Last Unicorn.  Knowing age and child appropriate gateway anime for parents who are tired of watching the same old same olds from Mouse House has its time and place.  Animation is one of those cultural touchstones in which you can learn and discuss a lot about what a culture values at a level that is often taken for granted because grown ups can't be bothered since they stopped watching the stuff, but I've touched on this before.  When it turns out that as many or more adults may be reading young adult fiction that young adults that might be a sign of never-ending adolescence but that seems like the pat, lazy prejudicial answer.  I think another possibility is that we obsess with adolescence with cause because it is in precisely that stage of our lives that we begin to discover, many of us to our horror, that the script and role we're stuck with for the rest of our lives has been assigned to us.

Many of our formative friendships in our adolescent and early college years are memorable because it was with (or is with) those friends we struggle to come to an understanding, let alone to try to embrace or reject, whatever role or script we seem to get handed by the society we live in.  Rather than only view pulp and genre stories as modes of escapism we could try to register those genres as protests of a sort, by dint of consumption, from people who object to the script or role they have felt stuck with.  People only choose escapism, in some sense, because there's something they want to escape.  There's reasons to put down people who bath themselves in escapist power fantasies and yet that could be an instructive moment for those who medicate themselves with stories about having power and choice on the one hand and for those who would dismiss those consumption patterns as a sign of immaturity and not also possibly a form of protest.

But on the whole, I'm not sure that we're going to see evangelicals in America writing novels about friendships.  There's probably going to be no shortages of Christian romance novels, though. 


Cal of Chelcice said...

Someone I know is writing a dissertation on female friendships in the antebellum South, and reading through one of the chapters, it wasn't interesting to see how friendship and eroticism blended together "back then". Female friendships were encouraged as part of the pathway to maturing into a woman, and it was preparatory emotional building for when she got married. But then, there was also a fear (and actual occurrence) of homosexual trysts as well.

It's on a point like that where I wonder if Evangelical focus on friendship is, at its root, a perverse error. The conversation seems to be shaped by friendship as alternative to marriage, or friendship within marriage, but its still too far joined at the hip to marriage and post-Victorian notions of marriage as romantic friendship. As you note, phileo and eros are two different things, and they need to be categorically separated. They are not interchangeable and they refer to two different forms of social affection. If there is to be a robust doctrine of celibacy, a chaste and single life should be considered as a vocational marriage to the Kingdom of God, not supplemented through emotional connections to friends. Not everyone should marry, but, and especially for men, it's a call to maturity and not a consignment to everlasting boyhood.

I don't know. I'm disgusted with the gushing overflow of eros into all parts of life, even by well-meaning evangelicals. Christians should embrace that, in social terms, that the decision not to marry will feel, at times, like an open wound. But St. Paul was not any less of a man because of it. But sadly, and I end with this digression, for as much as evangelicals focus on the cross, they very little consider that salvation is, in fact, bearing a cross and following Jesus on His path.

chris e said...

"But then again, Westerners are indeed lonelier than ever before, despite how easy and unobtrusive to daily life the cultivation of “friendships” has become"

The big thing that this misses of course is that absent a kind of halcyon version of the 50s, it was 'ever thus' at least when it gets down to "our own inner life to truly share with another person."

That in itself is a very recent pre-occupation. For the most part people were thrust into communities that they didn't chose, that were often inimical to any wider notion than pure survival of the community especially when it came to any kind of novelty or difference, and where friendship was rare, or best seen in large rather shallow groupings (for men at least) or as something that would eventually be abandoned when one came of age (for most women). A more intense version of this was present inside each extended family. There were various bonds of obligation that tied people together in a social contract within these circles. I doubt if a large percentage of people would have had the time and energy to reflect at length on their loneliness.

Which doesn't really do much to change my opinion of mereorthodoxy as a movement of young fogeys muttering 'whyohwhyohwhy'

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

chris e, yeah, I would think that if Samuel D James had simply read Ecclesiastes and given it some thought he might spot that feeling lonely and isolated and being more miserable the more you learn has been observed since a long time ago.

Being the sort of dour Calvinist that I am, I think a lot of what's reported as an increase in reported loneliness is just that, an increase in reports of loneliness. When it's a trend to poll for that kind of subjective experience and we get better at rendering those reports anonymous for the sake of good methodology the recurrence of lives of quiet desperation makes it seem like private misery at the nature of the human condition is easier to report and gets mistaken for an increase in what Ecclesiastes might suggest was always around if people read that book and took it more to mind.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Cal, I have often gotten the impression that evangelical focus on friendship is really just to ensure that it exists in marriage so marriage is stronger, not as a topic that could be taken seriously in any way whatever on its own terms. Mark and Grace Driscoll's Real Marriage was a probably too-typical case study. The only reason friendship came up in their shtick was as part of talking about married life. Friendship as something independent of an erotic/matrimonial bond didn't even rate. In that sense Mere O may be little different itself. How many pieces are at Mere O on the topic of friendship vs the topic of marriage and who should and shouldn't be able to reap the benefits of that contracted relationship?

I've wondered lately whether liberals and conservatives in the US put the cart before the horse on sexuality and social maturation but do so using different sets of shibboleths, shibboleths that don't necessarily hide the reality that the base level of conduct isn't so different across the board.