Archives For Friends

True Friendship

July 7, 2015 — 9 Comments

charles williamsIt seems odd to describe someone you deeply respect with the words “ugly as a chimpanzee,” but that’s precisely what C.S. Lewis once did.

Yet, reading the description in full, we find that Lewis considered the physical unattractiveness of his mentor to be a positive thing. In a sense, it accented his impressive persona.

Describing Charles Williams to his childhood friend, Arthur Greeves, Lewis wrote:

As for the man: he is about 52, of humble origin (there are still traces of cockney in his voice), ugly as a chimpanzee but so radiant (he emanates more love than any man I have ever known) that as soon as he begins talking whether in private or in a lecture he is transfigured and looks like an angel. He sweeps some people quite off their feet and has many disciples. Women find him so attractive that if he were a bad man he could do what he liked either as a Don Juan or a charlatan.

I find this description evocative of the words about Jesus’ physical appearance. You can read the full passage about Jesus, the promised Messiah, here.

For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.

Lewis continues with his description of Williams, revealing a more intimate relationship than the previous words might suggest. Williams, you see, was one of the Inklings.

He works in the Oxford University Press. In spite of his “angelic” quality he is also quite an earthy person and when Warnie, Tolkien, he and I meet for our pint in a pub in Broad Street, the fun is often so fast and furious that the company probably thinks we’re talking bawdy when in fact we’re very likely talking Theology. He is married and, I think, youthfully in love with his wife still.

I find it amazing how vivid Lewis’ portrait of his colleague is. He briefly passes over his physical appearance (the least important of human traits, despite what the modern era intimates). And, even though his words are not flattering, the rest of the description reveals they are expressed with deep affection.

Lewis then quickly presses on to a poetic depiction of Williams’ oratorical skills, and concludes with a personable picture of the man among brothers. The final sentence, given Lewis’ perception that he himself would remain a lifelong bachelor, is quite perceptive.

Mutual respect—especially when tempered with affection—generates bonds that allow for honest assessments of both weaknesses and strengths.

A Personal Experience

I recall receiving a lovely engraved glass plaque as a memento of my tour at the United States Air Force Chaplain School. Most of my duties related to writing, but it was common knowledge that there were few subjects on which I did not have something to say.

When the Commandant of the Institute read the inscription during the presentation (it was the first time he had seen it), he paused in embarrassed silence thinking he must have read it wrong. It didn’t sound like the flattery that traditionally adorns such tokens.

“He says in a book what others say in a sentence.”

You can only offer such a dialectical “compliment” to a friend.

It was true, of course, and it was to much laughter that I immediately responded, “True, and it is a book well worth reading.”

When I read this description of the literary friend who made such a profound impression on Lewis, it makes me smile. It is all the more poignant, since it was written just a year before Williams’ death.

There are far, far worse things a person can experience than having someone who respects and loves them say they resemble a chimpanzee . . . or that they tend to be just a little bit verbose.

Priceless Letters

May 26, 2015 — 22 Comments

letterHow precious is a single letter?

If it is eagerly anticipated correspondence from a close friend or loved one, it may be invaluable.

Telephones and email have diminished the impact offered by the contents of an individual message, yet even now we value the touch of the written word shared by our soul mates across the miles.

Prior to the invention of the internet, and before the cost of international calls grew reasonable, I spent a year in the Republic of Korea, far from my wife and three young children. Naturally, like all military members serving far from home—even during times of peace—I missed them terribly.

While many wonderful things happened during the course of that year, and lifelong friendships were born, the highlight of each day was a visit to the installation post office. And, due to the faithfulness of my mother, sister and wife, I was greeted nearly every day by one or more handwritten messages of love and encouragement.

So important were these bonds that, prior to my departure, Delores and I covenanted to write one another every single day. A promise we both kept. In addition, I promised to write each of my three children their own letter each week. One evidence of the impact of those letters was the seamless reunion our family experienced when I returned after a year away.

In the even more distant past, this means of communication was even more vital. As little as a century ago, when individuals and families emigrated from their homelands they recognized the sad truth that they would probably never see their loved ones again.

Think about that for a moment. Saying “goodbye” usually meant “I will never see you again in this life.” How precious those missives must have been when they found their way between intimate companions!

Eighty-five years ago, C.S. Lewis was carrying on an active correspondence with the dearest friend from his youth, Arthur Greeves.

In the 1930s, the two men were corresponding on a weekly basis. Lewis opened one of his letters with the following paragraph to gently reprimand Greeves for allowing other responsibilities to delay his writing.

July 8th 1930

My dear Arthur,

Your letters get later and later every week. If you write on Monday the first week, on Tuesday the second week, and so on, then in seven weeks you will be writing on Monday again: but you will have written one letter less than you should.

In a year you will have written eight letters less, that is thirty six pages. Assuming that we both live thirty years more you will in that time have cheated me out of one thousand and eighty pages. Why, oh why, do you do these things?

As I said, the “reprimand” is gentle, even humorous, but it is sincere. It reveals just how meaningful each piece of his friend’s correspondence was to Lewis.

Many of us can relate to Lewis’ experience. We know firsthand how a smile comes to our lips and our pulse quickens when we find a message from a close companion.

I wanted to share this thought with each of you today for two reasons. First, I thought it might remind you of those whose words have encouraged and supported you in the past.

My second motivation is more important. I would like to suggest that you pause to consider just how important your letters are to others.

There are thousands of reasons for not scheduling (and guarding) time to write letters. Life is busy. The distractions vying for our attention are certainly more numerous, and loud, than they were in decades past.

Still, reminded of the value of the gift we offer when we write, perhaps it is time to shuffle our priorities.

Facebook the Discourager

October 7, 2013 — 18 Comments

facebookIt turns out networking on the dominant digital community, Facebook, may have a gloomy downside. A recent study of young adults found that the more time they spent on Facebook, the sadder they became. (A link to the peer-reviewed study appears below.)

The researchers ominously warn, “On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection. Rather than enhancing well-being, however, these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it.”

Most readers of Mere Inkling possess social networking accounts. In light of that fact, we will have a gut reaction to this allegation, invariably based upon our own experience.

Some will assume, I don’t get depressed reading posts on Facebook, so that study must be wrong.

Others may think, I can see how everyone’s reports on their achievements could discourage a friend whose life isn’t progressing nearly as well. In fact, some of us may have read about the accomplishments of our peers and felt a nagging pang that we don’t quite measure up.

To be fair, the problem doesn’t lie with Facebook per se, it’s a consequence of the human condition. No matter how self-confident a person appears, there is a seed of insecurity within each of us. Christians would trace it back to humanity’s fall, but whatever its source, we innately recognize that we are not the true masters of our own destiny.

Even if we make every choice afforded us correctly, there are accidents, diseases, whims of genetic imperfection and assorted other things that remind us of our vulnerabilities.

It is not actually our insecurity that creates the dynamic where Facebook can become a great discourager. The cause is more insidious than a mere awareness of our own dependency.

The reason we are saddened by the success and happiness of others—even those we love—is due to envy. That’s an ugly word, and it’s not something we want to foster in our lives. In fact, whenever it rears its head, we strive to crush it with our heel.

The truth is that most of us subconsciously experience this feeling far more often than we are aware. It could, for example, be as simple as longing for a sporty new car or muscular new truck like the one that just passed us on the road . . . or wishing that our makeup accented our features or our clothes flattered our bodies as nicely as someone we passed on the sidewalk.

Envy can be especially evident at events like high school class reunions. As the decades pass, it becomes simpler to contrast the (external) accomplishments of classmates who once shared seemingly equal opportunities.

You can find envy everywhere, even (God forbid) in churches. That’s why James included the following in his letter to the Church.

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. (James 2:1-7, ESV).

In an essay entitled “Democratic Education,” C.S. Lewis noted, “Envy is insatiable. The more you concede to it the more it will demand.” Lewis also included it in his description of the damned.

We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment. (The Screwtape Letters).

Facebook doesn’t cause us to envy, it merely offers us the frequent opportunity to hear about the joys of others and wish we experienced the same. (Far be it from us to ponder the fact that our acquaintances seldom write about their own disappointments, insecurities, or worries.)

There’s really only one way to reduce the influence of envy in our lives. It comes from understanding how truly precious—how intensely loved—we are, by our Creator. When we understand that he loved each of us so deeply that he was willing to allow his only begotten Son to die in our place . . . only then can we comprehend that we need envy nothing.

Confident in that merciful love, the murderer Paul of Tarsus was able to rest in God’s forgiveness and write:

I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11b-13).

_____

The study, “Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults,” is available through the Public Library of Science here.

In our last conversation, we considered the importance of friendship. It is truly a precious treasure. And it soothes the loneliness that scars our souls as a result of humanity’s fall.

Choosing to live our own lives, apart from our heavenly Father, has damaged every other relationship we experience. Our bonds with other human beings, even our own families, are twisted and stretched . . . sometimes beyond the breaking point. Even our relationship with nature has suffered, but that’s a subject for consideration some other day.

One of the temptations that arises from our desire for companionship, is that we settle for having it on the wrong terms, with the wrong people. As C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity, “vices may sometimes bring people together: you may find good fellowship and jokes and friendliness among drunken people or unchaste people.”

In such circumstances, it seems to me you experience the trappings of “friendship,” without touching its essence. It’s hollow. For the moment, it may appear and sound similar to the real thing, but when the alcohol wears off and the consequences of our poor choices cascade upon us, it becomes evident this version of friendship was merely a façade.

Simply put, we are wise to avoid bad “friendships.”

It dawned on me when I was teaching at the USAF Chaplain School just how much other people influence my behavior. No one who knows me would call me weak or pliable. And anyone attempting to manipulate me would likely fail. (Aside from my grandchildren, of course.)

Yet, when I spend lots of time around people with worldly values and behaviors, it very subtlety influences my own actions. I recognize it most clearly when it comes to language. As a military veteran who used to work in construction, my tongue knows how to utter a worldly phrase or two. Normally, it’s reined in fairly well in that regard, but if I’m immersed for very long in an “earthy” environment, some of those words unconsciously slip back into my own conversation.

I realize that “cussing” or cursing may seem a small sin to some, but let’s consider a more substantial example. When someone is delivered from addiction to drugs—a process that frequently requires lengthy treatment—one of the critical ways to protect them from returning to the slavery of addiction, is by keeping them away from their so-called friends who remain captive to drugs.

If they restore those destructive bonds, they are like apostates, who have known the truth but later denied their Savior. As the Apostle Peter says, “it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. What the true proverb says has happened to them: “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.” (2 Peter 2:21-22, ESV).

When I realized how susceptible I was to the behavior of others, I determined to seek out people who were better than me. Men and women who would bring out the best in me. People, especially, who excelled in virtues and traits in which I was conscious of my own shortcomings.

This is a principle I wholeheartedly recommend to everyone. Choose as friends those who are noble, virtuous, selfless, loving, and godly. You will never regret it.

Lewis provides for us an insightful description of how our friendships or overall community of relationships influence us. He is discussing here our universal tendency to justify bad behavior because “everyone is doing it.”

We must guard against the feeling that there is “safety in numbers.” It is natural to feel that if all men are as bad as the Christians say, then badness must be very excusable. If all the boys plough [fail] in the examination, surely the papers must have been too hard? And so the masters at that school feel till they learn that there are other schools where ninety per cent of the boys passed on the same papers. Then they begin to suspect that the fault did not lie with the examiners. Again, many of us have had the experience of living in some local pocket of human society—some particular school, college, regiment or profession where the tone was bad. And inside that pocket certain actions were regarded as merely normal (“Everyone does it”) and certain others as impracticably virtuous and Quixotic [chivalrous].

But when we emerged from that bad society we made the horrible discovery that in the outer world our “normal” was the kind of thing that no decent person ever dreamed of doing, and our “Quixotic” was taken for granted as the minimum standard of decency. What had seemed to us morbid and fantastic scruples so long as we were in the “pocket” now turned out to be the only moments of sanity we there enjoyed. It is wise to face the possibility that the whole human race (being a small thing in the universe) is, in fact, just such a local pocket of evil—an isolated bad school or regiment inside which minimum decency passes for heroic virtue and utter corruption for pardonable imperfection. (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain).

Here is an interesting and valuable exercise: pause and conduct a mental and spiritual survey of the influences your individual friends exert on you. If you find they help you grow in ways that are positive, you are fortunate. If they influence you in ways that are unhealthy, maybe it’s time for some relationship pruning.

All of this discussion leaves unconsidered the role we play in bringing out the best (or worst) in our friends. Then again, if they truly are our friends, there is nothing else we could ever wish for them than the very, very best.

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.