Life With Few Friends

Human beings were not created to live solitary lives. From the very outset, God recognized “it is not good that [Adam] is alone,” and he created for him the perfect companion, Eve. She was, of course, his bride, but more than that, she was his intimate friend.

The power and joy derived from true friendship are awe inspiring. And, the absence of friendship strips life of those same blessings. We are weaker, when we stand alone—the strength of our friends empowers us to live courageously. We know more sorrow when we are alone—the pleasant company of friends dispels many discouragements and we all know the comfort that comes from a warm shoulder to cry on.

As a “military brat,” moving every year or two, I experienced the challenge of constantly needing to make new friends. When I raised my own children in that same context, I was acutely aware of the hardship this presents to kids (especially during their teens).

C.S. Lewis, in describing just how precious friendship is, emphasizes the value of proximity to those who support and encourage you. In a 1935 letter to Arthur Greeves he writes:

Friendship is the greatest of worldly goods. Certainly to me it is the chief happiness of life. If I had to give a piece of advice to a young man about a place to live, I think I should say, “sacrifice almost everything to live where you can be near your friends.” I know I am very fortunate in that respect.

Over the years I talked with many other military parents about the price paid by our family members as we serve. Certainly there are benefits as well. After all, most military families see parts of the world that their peers can only dream of. But, they do make great sacrifices. The careers of military spouses, for example, are often severely disrupted by family moves. There are other costs, but the one we’re considering here is the price paid in friendships.

Some of my friends have argued that frequent moves taught their children to quickly make many new friends. I disagree with that. This contention is frequently voiced, it seems to me, as a subconscious means of expiating the veteran for the hardships their children suffered. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, I prefer to attribute the statement to a very shallow understanding of what friendship truly is. This definition is terribly distant from Lewis’ “greatest of worldly goods.”

My response to these claims is that frequent military moves have a detrimental effect on friendships but they do indeed train our children to be adaptable. The lesson most of them learn is how to quickly establish interpersonal relationships. These “friendships,” I argue, are more accurately described as acquaintances.

Their lack of depth is seldom a conscious choice. Imminent moves mean the relationships lack the time necessary to mature. Sort of like a vintner pulling the cork out of a bottle of grape juice that was pressed only a week before, and expecting it to already be wine. If the vintage of a relationship is a mere three months, it’s rare for it to have “fermented” into a profound friendship.

There are certainly exceptions, of course, as in the case of my sister. She and one of her girlfriends from junior high school still visit each other each year, as they have for four decades. But such bonds are as rare as they are precious.

While I’m sharply attuned to the circumstances of military families, I’ve been thinking recently about the lack of roots experienced by many people living in contemporary Western society. Modern families move much more frequently than their parents did. So it dawns on me that this instability has probably exerted a detrimental effect on many more individuals than I had previously considered.

All it takes is the pain from the abrupt termination of a few budding friendships, to teach many children it’s not worth the effort to make real friends. We long for friendship, we truly do, but most relationships don’t survive geographic separations for very long. And the natural grace of God, friendship, becomes distorted as we begin to withhold ourselves, because we know that we’ll be moving away soon anyway.

Friendships deceased. Friendships aborted. Friendships deferred. Deceased as we move apart and they wither. Aborted as we bid farewell before they’ve been fully born. And deferred as we consciously wait until we imagine we’ll be somewhere long enough to make the effort worth it.

It strikes me that the itinerancy of this age is fostering an explosion of acquaintances (for example, the hordes of Facebook “friends” it’s so easy to accumulate) . . . with a corresponding decrease in the number of people we genuinely trust to care about our wellbeing.

Lewis described this shift in an academic context. In The Weight of Glory he described the exchange of numbers for depth.

When I first went to Oxford the typical undergraduate society consisted of a dozen men, who knew one another intimately, hearing a paper by one of their own number in a small sitting-room and hammering out their problem till one or two in the morning. Before the war the typical undergraduate society had come to be a mixed audience of one or two hundred students assembled in a public hall to hear a lecture from some visiting celebrity. Even on those rare occasions when a modern undergraduate is not attending some such society he is seldom engaged in those solitary walks, or walks with a single companion, which built the minds of the previous generations. He lives in a crowd; caucus has replaced friendship.

The benefits of having numerous acquaintances is real. We rightly appreciate them. But we cannot forego our innate need for friends and still maintain our humanity. We need others who know the true “us,” as contrasted with our public masks, and still care about us.

I’ve read that we only know several truly intimate friends during the course of our entire life. And many of those who marry are blessed to genuinely know their spouse is the best friend (even though it usually sounds trite when they say it). Still, I doubt that there’s a living human being who would not benefit from having another genuine friend. And that, my “friends,” is my hope and prayer for each of you—that even though we all live within a crowd, you may be able to single out those wonderful few who can become and remain your lifelong friends.

18 thoughts on “Life With Few Friends

  1. Andy Shenk

    I was a missionary kid; since the age of eight (I’m twenty-four now) I haven’t lived in one place for more than two years at a time. You captured very well how difficult and traumatizing it is for children to be constantly uprooted. It took me until my junior year of college to feel comfortable with people because I had always used the safety net of my large family to escape the uncertainty of constantly having to make new friends. It is something I wish my parents had consciously helped me and my siblings work through at a young age, because it’s wonderful now to have a couple of very close friends. I’d been missing it all my life.

    1. Missionary kids… yes, another group who make great sacrifices as their parents answer God’s call. I sincerely believe that the Lord has a special reward for you and your peers. I’m glad that you’re now experiencing true friendships. Perhaps you could write an article (or book) on the subject of growing up in a missionary home, so that parents today can be more proactive in addressing this sort of concern?

  2. Another disappointment of modern friendship in a mobile, not to mention, virtual, world, is that many treat friendship as a disposable commodity. Rare and precious, indeed. Like honor and moral courage, true loyal friendship is an endangered species. Always enjoy your thoughtful blog posts.

    1. Sad but true. We treat as trivial the things that are truly important. We dispose of people, especially if they disappoint us even a single time. Restoration and reconciliation are simply too much work. The subject of “virtual” relationships begs the question of honesty and transparency as well.

  3. It’s kind of nice to know I’m not the only one experiencing life like this (only “kind of” because I wouldn’t wish this discomfort on others). Six months ago, when my dh took a pastorate, was the first time in my life I expected to stay in one place for more than a few years. I’m already starting to realize I’d better work through misunderstandings and other hinderances to form friendships that can last the years.
    The only bad thing I know of about having deep roots in other societies is that it makes changing, specifically choosing Christ, much more difficult. Other than that, I rather envy people who live in a small area their whole lives!

    1. That’s a great point about needing to work through problems when we’re going to be somewhere indefinitely. Otherwise, if we think we’re just going to leave soon anyway, we would be tempted to simply cut our ties with that person and discard them, as another commenter here mentioned.

  4. I’ve always been one who has very few but very close friends. Now, most of those close friends live in other parts of the country. Fortunately, my wife IS my best friend, though I still miss the others greatly. What a wonderful topic.

  5. Thank you, Rob.

    Yes, of course. Ours is a society which years ago cheapened and commodified friendship. Facebook friends are the logical conclusion of that process.

    I am very close to my wife but we are very different people and we do not always understand each other well at all. I love her with all my heart but she cannot be my friend in the sense you mean.

    My family moved quite a lot when I was a child: “Quo vadis, IBM?” And, as an INFJ (MBTI) I have always been deeply internal and only “friendly” in a (sometimes) “likeable” but surface way. I have had a very few friends in my life and only one with whom I maintain regular contact (Hurray for Skype!). He lives in N.E. Ontario, Canada and I in Minnesota (U.S.).

    Lewis knew what he was talking about, didn’t he? It was on those long walks with J. R. R. Tolkien that he finally let go his atheism and came to imagine there might actually be a god. One wonders whether, without the love of true friendship, Lewis would have ever come to know the love of God? Perhaps that is what all of today’s hurry is for… So that those who rush-rush will never slow down long enough to be deeply loved and being so loved, discover Love.

    Lewis also dedicated The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to Lucy Barfield, his Goddaughter and the child of Owen Barfield, another Inkling member. What a gold mine Lewis had during those years; poor in funds and status in his college, but utterly wealthy most all of what truly counts!

    Given how he poured himself into his friends and students (as a tutor) it is easier to see why he married so late and only after the move to Cambridge. We each have only so much emotional energy and time is zero-sum, even if love is not.

    Thank you again for this great post. I am sending it on to my brother-in-law, another rare friend who is now living far away. He loves everything you write about as much as I do.

  6. One more thing—was it the depth of those few friendships that sparked two of the most creative minds of the last century? Make note that both are still very relevant today.

    1. I think that’s true. Our minds, or actually our specific thoughts, are refined and improved as we share them with friends we trust. Their scrutiny and constructive criticism are gifts true friends can offer. Those of us who belong to healthy writing communities get to experience a slice of this when we gather. Friends, of course, spend more time talking . . . and grow to know us as we truly are. Their insights and suggestions are invariably deeper and more useful.

  7. Thanks for reminding me about the rare and precious nature of friendships, and the need to nurture them. I’m not a big fan of Facebook (I view it as a necessary evil in my line of work), and I love that you distinguish so well between true friendships and acquaintances.

  8. What a lovely post – especially for this week’s Facebook mania on Wall Street.
    I agree with Lewis that “friendship is the greatest of worldly goods.”
    You always hope you kids will find a friend/friends that will last a lifetime. And that they will make an effort to keep friendships strong – even across distances. Definitely worth the effort.
    Once again terrific post.

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