We tell ourselves that we more connected today than we have ever been before. After all, technologies like Facebook and Skype allow us to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, when less than a century ago we would have had to wait for letters or spend days traveling great distances. So why is it that so many of us feel lonely?
Friendship in the modern era seems to face a host of challenges. Friendships are difficult to begin, and often fleeting when they happen at all. The thought of “a friend who sticks closer than a brother” can sometimes seem like nothing more than an idealized notion from an age long past.
Somehow, in my younger years, making friends seemed a lot simpler. Thrown into classes, sports teams, or youth group together, it was natural to find kindred spirits to pass the time with. Now, with a career and a family, it is tempting for me to keep to a small circle of people, and not put my limited time and energy into developing new friendships.
This seems to be the case with many of my peers as well. Relationships with family members may remain strong, but as career, education, marriage, or kids become a priority, spending time with friends seems an easy thing to let drop to the wayside. Over time, those other things can come at the exclusion of developing a wider range of relationships.
Such insular living is common even among neighbors. We drive home from work or school, pull into our garage, and can easily spend the rest of the day secluded from the outside world while we watch Netflix or refresh our Twitter feed. I have certainly been guilty of that. After five years in my last house, living on a quiet suburban street, I only knew the three families closest to me, and only one of them well. My social life occurred somewhere else, and was quite disconnected from the place where I happened to live.
As a man, I also find that certain stereotypes make friendship more difficult. Many of us feel a pressure as men to not show emotion, to withdraw from relational intimacy, and to avoid the supposed weakness of admitting we need others. This seems, thankfully, to be a stereotype that is slowly breaking down, but it is prevalent in many communities and creates another set of barriers to making deep friendships that go beyond watching the game together.
Of course even when we do establish a deeper friendship with someone, that is only half the challenge. Those friendships we do have can be fleeting. Painful as that may be, this should hardly be surprising since our culture views friendship as inherently impermanent, not involving the same commitment of other relationships.
A perfect example is the ease with which we leave behind friends when presented with the chance to pursue career or educational goals. We tell ourselves, or our kids, that after the move new friends will be made; as if friends were an easily replaceable and largely interchangeable commodity. Pursuing such opportunities could of course be the right choice, but how often do you hear of someone turning down a job because after some serious contemplation they decided it was more important to stay close to their friends?
Friends are nice to have, but not often relationships that reshape the way we live. And so we don’t know what to do when we encounter something like Tolkien’s portrayal of the friendship of Frodo and Sam, or David and Jonathan in 1 Samuel. We have, in many ways, lost the categories that would allow us to even begin to speak of friendship as life long commitment to be there for another person no matter what comes.
Friendship in the modern era is often fleeting, fragmented, distracted, too difficult to begin, and too easy to end. And yet, despite all these obstacles, we continue to long for deeper connections with others. We know that it is not good to be alone, and our emersion in “social” media has not come through on its promise to ease our loneliness.
It seems this is exactly where the church has an opportunity to share a different vision of community. To show that there can be a community in which relationships involve commitment, openness, and faithfulness, not only in the context of marriage and family but throughout the body of Christ. Not that these friendships will be free of the fallings that plague all human relationships, but they are grounded on a different foundation. Knowing that we are made in God’s image, and that part of that image involves deep relational connection with other image-bearers, might just give us a new way to envision how friends really could be “closer than a brother.”