Friendship: The Compassionate Mirror

March 13, 2005
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

from "Friendship" Ralph Waldo Emerson

We have a great deal more kindness than is ever spoken. …The whole human family is bathed with an element of love like a fine ether. How many persons we meet in houses, whom we scarcely speak to, whom yet we honor, and who honor us! How many we see in the street, or sit with in church, whom, though silently, we warmly rejoice to be with! Read the language of these wandering eye-beams. The heart knoweth.

Our intellectual and active powers increase with our affection. The scholar sits down to write, and all his years of meditation do not furnish him with one good thought or happy expression; but it is necessary to write a letter to a friend, — and, forthwith, troops of gentle thoughts invest themselves, on every hand, with chosen words.

What is so pleasant as these jets of affection which make a young world for me again? The moment we indulge our affections, the earth is metamorphosed; there is no winter, and no night; all tragedies, all ennuis, vanish, — all duties even; nothing fills the proceeding eternity but the forms all radiant of beloved persons. Let the soul be assured that somewhere in the universe it should rejoin its friend, and it would be content and cheerful alone for a thousand years.


"Friendship: The Compassionate Mirror"

Among the many gifts given our tradition by the New England Transcendentalists is the gift of putting friendship central to our sense of spiritual growth and well-being. I love to think of the generally shy and taciturn Ralph Waldo Emerson penning the wonderful phrase, "A new person is to me a great event, and hinders me from sleep." Emerson took friendship very seriously, and put great time and effort in cultivating his.

When we consider the circle of friends who gathered and encouraged each other' s work in the 1840' s and 50' s in this corner of New England -- Emerson and his intense and brilliant friend Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau, the bohemian educator and visionary Bronson Alcott and the holy-ghost crazed poet Jones Very and Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne – the head almost spins with the richness of it.

For these men and women, most of whom made extraordinary literary contributions crafted in solitude, friendship was an ecstasy, it was an event. Coming out of the Romantic tradition as they did, they brought their passion to the art of friendship, and they revealed the contents of their hearts and souls to one another not only for the balm of companionship, but as a means of better understanding themselves and their life' s calling. In our culture today, where we tend to focus on eros (erotic love) to the exclusion of almost every other form of love, the great friends of American history remind us of the central role of philia, the love between friends, in maintaining a civil society. British author and theologian C.S. Lewis gave us a clear sense of the difference between eros and philia when he wrote,

"Lovers are always talking to one another about their love; Friends hardly ever about their Friendship. Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest. Above all, Eros (while it lasts) is necessarily between two only. But two, far from being the necessary number for Friendship, is not even the best… In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets."

From this we see that generosity is the essence of the spiritual practice of friendship. Many exciting friendships begin with a spark of chemistry and affinity – a kind of "kindred spirit" experience – but they must be tended and maintained by a deeper loyalty. Just as many romantic relationships begin with terrific chemistry, but mellow with age into something more complex that requires work to nurture and maintain, so do friendships require similar forbearance and love that transcends mere attraction.

Our lives are populated with different kinds of friendship. There are friends we just like to spend time with but whose ideas are not much in sync with our own, there are confidants with whom we share our most intimate daily struggles, there are comrades we affiliate with out of common political or social justice commitments, and there are friends we accept as friends because they are friends of someone we love (I' m sure you could add your own types of friends to this list).

With such a broad definition of friendship, then, how do we know what is true friendship and what is more properly identified as something else? My old ethics professor, Ralph Potter, wrote,

"We often use the term "friendship" in a loose manner to designate any form of comfortable relationship. Aristotle, [who beautifully said that a friend is one soul in two bodies] carefully distinguished three types of friendships: those based upon utility, upon pleasure, and upon virtue. Only the third type, grounded upon mutual recognition of virtue, he considered to be worthy of the title of ‘true friendship.' It had certain marks, being:

1. Voluntariness
2. Mutuality and reciprocity
3. Esteem and goodwill
4. Common activity
5. Sharing of inner life
6. Continuing commitment
7. Positive affection
8. Equality
9. Virtue" -- (Packet introduction, The Ethics of Relationships, Harvard Divinity School, 1995)

I think most of that list is pretty obvious. Most of our friends are those with whom we share affection, a sense of equality, esteem, mutual sharing and caring, etc. --- no real surprises there. But that last item interests me very much: virtue.

How many depictions of friendship do we see in our contemporary culture that seem to be founded on virtue? Is this something we learn with age? I think of several good friends I had in my much younger years who most obviously did not encourage me to virtue, nor did I encourage them. We existed more to aid and abet each other' s wild nature than we did to urge each other to virtue. The fond reminiscence of these friendships causes me to wonder, shouldn' t fun be part of Aristotle' s list? Aren' t my friends supposed to provide me with hours of fun?

Well, not necessarily. According to the ancient classical tradition, there' s much more to it than that. A relationship based mostly on having fun might be counted among the relationships of mutual pleasure, but not true friendship as the philosopher sees it. So we begin to see, aha, that this business of having a friend and being one is perhaps more serious as we originally imagined. It seems, in fact, that to be a true friend is to partner with your friend in the project of becoming a better person; more whole, more honest, more good. To be a friend is to be willing to stand with someone before the mirror of his or her own expectations, and to remain compassionately with them even if they' re not making the grade. As Oscar Wilde so cleverly put it, "True friends stab you in the front."

In religious terms, we could say that the Friend, in ideal form, exists not only to incarnate the love of the universe (or of God) for us, but to hold our hand as we stumble the path of the examined life, and to yank us up when we fall down and skin our knees. If our goal is to live by that ancient commandment "Know Thyself" a real friend helps us to do so – they are invested in truth, not in mere fun. While they should be those who see our beauty and remind us of it when we have lost sight of it, true friends are also willing to help us confront our flaws. The point of having friends is not to cultivate a long list of people to accompany us on social outings, but to find those few treasured souls we can trust – a pair of eyes within which we can see ourselves reflected back tenderly and honestly, as we really are. A compassionate mirror.

In considering this more exalted type of friendship, I think of the continued extreme popularity of books on those old friends, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. By Aristotelian categories, I don' t know if we can truly call them friends – mostly because they had many years of bitter animosity between them -- but their heart-felt struggle to share leadership and mutual esteem in the early years of this country' s formation, is a thrilling illustration of friendship' s power to bring out the highest and best in a person (for that matter, John and Abigail Adams, who were husband and wife who referred to each other as "Dearest Friend" in most of their letters, engaged in the same admirable project of urging each other to heights of selflessness and civic virtue, even at the cost of their domestic tranquility and even living in the same state). Those are inspiring friends. We would do well to model our own friendship relationships on them, or on other noble friends from art and literature: Ruth and Naomi of the Bible, whose story I' d like to preach on another time. Jonathan and David. Achilles and Patroclus. Heck, if you prefer: Felix and Oscar. Lucy and Ethel. Kirk and Spock. Monica, Ross, Chandler, Phoebe and Rachel.

You can' t help but have heard about the latest "buddy picture," Alexander Payne' s "Sideways," which won all the Independent Spirit awards and was nominated for multiple Oscars. It stars Paul Giamatti and Virginia Madsen and Thomas Haden Church, and just about every critic in America cheered "Sideways" as real, and charming and lovable – two critics said it was "perfect" -- a celebration of wine and friendship and life.

I beg to differ. The basic plot of "Sideways" is that Miles, a schlubby, divorced failed writer, wants to take a road trip up to wine country with his best friend Jack, boyishly handsome third-rate actor -- a last bachelor' s outing before Jack gets married to a beautiful woman on Saturday. While Miles wants to drink wine, relax and play golf, Jack' s sole goal is to find a "hot babe" for some no-strings-attached sex. This is about middle-aged men, remember, not teenagers or college boys.

The first stop the guys make on their road trip is to the home of Miles' mother, whose birthday it is. The boys stay the night, after first promising "Mom" that they will join the extended family the next morning for brunch, and we see Miles rifling through this mother' s lingerie drawer to find her hidden canister of cash. With a self-loathing frown on his face, Miles steals a wad of his mother' s money. We can tell he' s done this before. Then, the two fellas sneak out of the house, breaking their promise to attend the birthday brunch, and take off north for Santa Barbara. (I' m supposed to find these guys lovable and endearing?)

To summarize: they meet two women, Jack has lots of sex with a feisty woman who works one of the wine tasting rooms, and Miles obsesses about the many failures of his life, while trying to connect to a beautiful waitress named Maya. As the week wears on, we learn not only has the soon-to-be-married character Jack been carrying on sexually with Stephanie, he has told her he loves her, is thinking of moving up to live near her, and – worst of all -- has befriended her young daughter. The sex is so exciting, and he is so irresponsible and immature, we think he might actually believe it all himself.

There are many ethical problems with this film, none of which would upset me so terribly if critics and audiences weren' t grinning from ear to ear and heralding this story as delightful and "warm" and a whole barrel of laughs, and if they didn' t keep celebrating it as a wonderful film about friendship. How is "Sideways" about true friendship? Yes, the Miles character registers his disapproval with his friend, but half-heartedly and mostly because his own needs for golf and relaxation are not being met. He never walks away from his friend, no matter how reprehensible Jack' s behavior. The two men scold each other, but their fighting is that of an old married couple who have no intention of really changing anything damaging about themselves or their relationship: they just like to bicker. In one of the last scenes, in a gesture that I felt symbolized the depth of emptiness of this so-called "friendship," Jack asks to drive home, and then intentionally crashes Miles' car into a tree, while Miles is in the passenger seat next to him. "Why' d ya do that?" yells Miles, and Jack sheepishly confesses that he has to have some explanation for his broken nose to give to his fiancée! The truth is, he was attacked and beaten by the woman he' d been sleeping with all week (in a very upsetting scene), and he assumes that his friend will help him keep his secret, and to perpetuate his lies.

Not only does Miles accept the explanation, he get out of the car and helps Jack set the car in motion so they can smash it up even more convincingly. And this, so the critics and the movie-going public seem to agree, is a depiction of a great friendship.
If you' re ever in a jam, here I am.
If you' re ever up a tree, call on me!
If you ever get so happy you land in jail,
I' m your bail! It' s Friendship, Friendship, just the perfect blendship…!"

Aristotle said that "Friends enhance our capacity to think and to act." In our endeavor to become more moral beings, and more virtuous people –whether our sphere of influence is the world, the neighborhood or the family – we ought to assess our friendships to see if they are comfortable relationships of convenience which never challenge us, to reflect honestly whether they might be disruptive or detrimental to our spiritual development, to ask ourselves whether our friendship relationships are mutually delusional or mutually inspiring, and whether the love we both give and receive with our friends is actually healthy. Are we building bridges with friends, or are we smashing up cars?

Did you bring a friend to church today? Are you a friend who was brought to church today? I' m so glad. Even if there' s just one, I' m so glad, and I commend you. It is one thing to invite a friend to a football game, or to spend the afternoon at the mall. It is another thing to get into that place of the soul and to say, "I' d like to have you join me at church on Sunday. My church is a community of friends, bound by covenant, with whom I am trying to do the serious work of ethical and spiritual development, to ask the burning questions with, and to listen carefully for the truth with, and to celebrate life' s passage with them too. You are welcome to join with us, because aside from being a whole lot of fun and a great person, you are someone who might benefit from this, who might be fed by it."

We hope that you will be, in some small measure, and that you will return to be fed again. Mr. Emerson said, "I awoke this morning with devout thanksgiving for my friends, the old and the new. Shall I not call God the Beautiful, who daily showeth himself so to me in his gifts?"

We say, why not? Life is beautiful, the giver of life is beautiful, and all of these friends – you' re beautiful too. Many happy years of true and courageous friendship to us all, and amen.