After seven years in the same place, my dream job had come at last. It meant better pay, as well as an opportunity to leap a decade ahead in my career. I would have a chance to extend my influence through writing and speaking. Even my wife’s career prospects would broaden in ways she had thought out of reach.
All we had to do was move 700 miles away.
I wrote the hiring committee chair to arrange travel. Then I stared at the send button. I rewrote the email, and immediately deleted every word but the greeting. When I was able to write a final version and finally hit send, I withdrew my name. I had said no to the perfect job.
In my email, I cited one of my heroes, C. S. Lewis, who wrote the following to his childhood friend Arthur Greeves: “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.’” Lewis’s quote summed up our choice perfectly.
This is not to say that we couldn’t have developed good friends at the new location or seen fruit from our labors. What put our options into stark relief was the realization that we had to choose between an amazing professional opportunity and strong, deep friendships we had spent years cultivating. With no small amount of trepidation, we chose the latter.
Our world has so devalued friendship and community—turning friend into a verb and applying community to any group.
Some might say we sacrificed too much for too little. In our day, the temptation is strong to pursue some version of the American dream (more opportunity, more money) wherever that might lead and whatever it might cost in terms of relationships. It’s no help that our world has so devalued friendship and community—turning friend into a verb and applying community to any group. But friendship can still be a great happiness; community can still be a deep joy, a solid one.
Sadly, we enjoy both too seldom, especially in our transient culture. Lewis saw one reason in friendship’s absence from modern novels and stories. The literature of previous generations was full of examples, but modern stories seemed to value alienation or mere acquaintance above true bonds.
The truth is, they require work. Almost everyone I know speaks to dozens of “friends” nearly every day. They share photos of their kids, meals, events, and even themselves. They open their lives to one another, sometimes in startling ways. Best of all, the circle can grow with a simple click. Despite what some have said, friendship hasn’t been killed by social media but in fact has even benefited. Yet few would argue that it has not fallen on hard times. Lewis observed in the 1950s that it was becoming “quite marginal; not a main course in life’s banquet; a diversion; something that fills up the chinks of one’s time.” Today, our hectic lives push these relationships further to the fringe. In order to return friendship to the center, to see its benefits to us as human beings made in God’s image, we need to be prepared to work and to make some sacrifices.
While we approach our relationships more casually, the friendship Lewis called “the greatest of worldly goods” requires a different posture. We talk about making friends, but it is closer to the work of farming than making. Ask a farmer how he prepares a field for planting, and he’ll tell you about felling trees and blasting stumps, uncovering and hauling away boulders, plowing the dirt into rows. The harvest is a distant hope!
The same is true for friendship. We may need to begin the work of friendship by removing obstacles, and some are surprisingly easy to address. I developed a relationship some years ago, and as it deepened, I hoped our families might spend time together. The only problem was, the friend’s wife and mine didn’t “click” right away. One day, they met (somewhat reluctantly) for lunch, found they actually enjoyed one another’s company, and soon began spending more time together. They got to know one another slowly, and now their acquaintance is growing into genuine friendship.
Often, what we need most is patience. Consequently, time is one of friendship’s dearest costs because it is in such short supply in our world. This shortage isn’t because we really have less time, but because we spend it profligately. Without trying very hard, we can crowd our lives with events and things, leaving little time for sitting and relaxing with friends. Lingering is a nearly impossible task these days, but it can produce the strongest friendships.
Once a month, I join five friends for a long evening. We meet, share a good meal, tell stories, and talk about matters small and great. In previous generations, our gathering—even with its light fare—would have been called a feast. It is still a feast, but one of friendship, where it can become the “main course in life’s banquet.”
Not all the work is easy, however. As a bond is growing, some disagreement or conflict is inevitable. When it comes, maintaining the friendship requires us to navigate somewhere between two equally terrible but easy routes. On the one hand, we can end the friendship. On the other, we can bury the conflict, where it will fester. Both lead to destruction. Only the difficult path between these choices makes a stronger friendship possible.
Some time ago, I told a friend about frustrations and hurts between us that I had attempted to bury. He was angry, and I became defensive. The conversation we had was tense, and it didn’t end well. I did not sleep much that night. The next day, we talked again, stepping gingerly through the minefield we’d made the day before. It took several more of these conversations, but our friendship survived and was strengthened as a result. We discovered we could tell the truth, and we began to keep short accounts rather than avoid conflict.
Aristotle said, “In poverty and other misfortunes of life, true friends are a sure refuge. The young they keep out of mischief; to the old they are a comfort and aid in their weakness, and those in the prime of life they incite to noble deeds.” We might disagree with the philosopher about friendship and the young, but we can only say yes to the rest. At its best, companionship enriches us as human beings. It supports and strengthens communities. And it provides a firm place to stand as we love and serve others to God’s glory. If we put our hands and hearts to work, then even when the ground seemed fallow, we can see friendships grow.