My husband and I were barely more than newlyweds when we moved to Minnesota, where we had precisely zero friends. That took a while to change. My seminary classes didn’t begin immediately, and we both worked from home, so there were no coworkers or classmates to take pity on us. It was a lonely few months. I’m naturally reserved, and “Minnesota Nice” should not be mistaken for “Minnesota Actually Wants to Form a Close Friendship with You.”
Then we found our church and, through it, more good friends than we knew what to do with. These friends have shoveled our sidewalks, knitted sweaters for our children, and thrown us feasts.
They’re also friends with whom we have big disagreements on theology and politics alike, disagreements we have aired at length, sometimes in anger, sometimes in tears. “On paper, we’re far apart,” as one friend observed during our litany of going-away events. Yet we bought homes in the same neighborhood so we could be near each other all the time.
I don’t mention these friendships to boast. After all, I was only on one side of them. But there is something to celebrate here. Relationships in our era too often live or die according to what the paper says. Friendship is always voluntary, but we Americans increasingly tend to treat our friendships like ideological alliances, bonds that are very much contingent, spaces of mutual affirmation of choices and thinking alike, and opportunities for self-benefit.
A controversial New York Timesarticle last month, for example, provided an approving explainer of how to “shed unsatisfying and unfulfilling relationships” and spend the most effort on friends who “make you feel better about the world and about yourself.”
More starkly, anticluttering guru Marie Kondo offers a guide on her website for “tidying” relationships. If, after introspection, “you determine that [another] person’s values are fundamentally different or in conflict with your own, you should consider letting the relationship go,” it advises.
American individualism is nothing new, yet for decades our circles have become ever smaller. Households are shrinking; local organizations are on a long decline. Social life is contracting to just me and those few with whom I choose, for now, to spend my time. And it may only be “for now” if the alliance ceases to be mutually beneficial.
Friendship in this model is a thin thing, a thing that might be jettisoned if it becomes more trouble than it’s worth, tossed overboard like Jonah to calm the storm. If your friend does or professes the wrong thing, something you think is wrong or rude or harmful or frustrating—particularly if anything of real moral weight, anything theological or political, is involved—you should probably chuck ’em, maybe even denounce their ignorance or malfeasance or mistake in some public space so everyone else knows you aren’t like that and don’t condone that behavior. Not coincidentally, more than a quarter of Americans report estrangement from a close family member.
I understand this mindset. Relationships that contain serious differences about weighty matters are often strained, while it can be a wonderful thing to have a friend who agrees with you on big questions of what the world is like and what should be done about it. The simplicity of agreeable pairs—where you needn’t wonder if you’ve left unfulfilled some duty to be your friend’s keeper—is restful and needful.
But having a friend who doesn’t agree with you on big things can be wonderful too, as you help each other mature (Prov. 27:17). Sometimes it may also be difficult and morally messy. But if we preclude that type of friendship in our rush for political allies, where do we end up?
Probably about where we are now. Our society’s loneliness epidemic is widely recognized, and we struggle to have meaningful conversations about important topics. Around four in five Americans report they have had few to no conversations about faith in the past year, and many cite a desire to avoid “tension or arguments” and/or fears around giving offense as a reason not to engage.
We’re similarly guarded with other conversations of substance, like politics: “The average American has just four close social contacts,” write Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler in their 2011 book, Connected. “Sadly, 12 percent of Americans report no one with whom they could discuss important matters or spend free time. At the other extreme, five percent of Americans report eight such people.” (By that standard, I guess I’m extreme.)
This reticence makes sense if your aim is to avoid being rejected, but it isn’t how friendship—particularly Christian friendship—should be. The bond should be more durable (Ecc. 4:9–12), able to withstand the strain of disagreement, even argument or offense (1 Pet. 4:8–10).
I recently revisited C. S. Lewis’s famous reflections on friendship in The Four Loves. Friendship, he acknowledges, is indeed voluntary and unbound by the obligation other close relationships entail. “I have no duty to be anyone’s Friend and no man in the world has a duty to be mine,” Lewis writes. “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”
But then I turned to what he writes about another type of love, which Lewis dubs “affection.” This love, he says, is about familiarity. It is not particularly chosen and tends to be taken for granted. Yet it “can enter into the other loves and color them all through and become the very medium in which from day to day they operate. They would not perhaps wear very well without it,” he writes. “To make a friend is not the same as to become affectionate. But when your friend has become an old friend, all those things about him which had originally nothing to do with the friendship become familiar and dear with familiarity.”
Affection, I’ve begun to suspect, is what too many of our relationships are missing. Its absence is why they aren’t wearing very well, why they struggle to bear up under the pressure of political polarization, theological divide, or other ideological difference. Perhaps we’re missing affection in this transient, testy, isolating age because we won’t hold still long enough for it to accumulate. There’s always another person, place, or post vying for our attention.
That context is what has me so thankful for the affection we’ve been able to build in Minnesota as we now prepare to leave. I think it is built solid enough that when we talk of our “old friends,” we won’t mean “former” but “familiar.”