(In this essay, I mention my sister and her depression. She has written very candidly about her condition on Facebook, wanting to bring depression out from behind the veil of secrecy and shame. She has read my essay and has encouraged me to publish it with her name in tact).
When her husband died ten years ago, my sister suffered a terrible depression. Since then, she has tried almost every therapeutic approach—to no avail. I just spent three days with her at the Mayo Clinic, where she is undergoing Electro Convulsive Treatment—Shock Therapy—as a kind of last resort—and that, at last, seems promising.
When she’s not depressed, and even when she is, Jackie is an extraordinary person. She created, owns, and manages the major art gallery in Alaska, gives hundreds of thousands of dollars of its pretty modest proceeds to charity, plays a significant role in the civic life of Anchorage, and has many good and devoted friends.
During hours and hours of conversation, as we sat in Mayo’s Med-Psych unit, I asked Jackie why her friendships had not been able to nourish her, to provide enough affection and companionship to finally let the loss of her husband fade into the distance. “They don’t fill the void,” she said. “And Mark did?,” I asked. “He adored me,” she responded, as though that clarified matters to me. “It’s not the same.”
Friendship is enough for some. Our mother, for instance, also had many close friends. She always wanted to have a man but, late in life, she settled for friendship. It’s like having what the British psychiatrist, Winnicott, famously called a “good enough” mother. The sufficiency of friends also seems beautifully lived by Ronni Bennett, the wonderful author of the blog, Time Goes By. Just three weeks ago, she had surgery for a raging pancreatic cancer. While she regrets the absence of family (link), Ronni seems almost entirely able to depend on friends.
Why isn’t friendship enough for some, or most, of us? Why is friendship so undervalued? We live in a society that has greatly diminished the hold of extended families and larger clans. Sociologists continually worry about the growing social isolation that comes as a result. Why doesn’t friendship save us from that fate? In fact, the opposite may be true. Friendship may even be in decline in American society.
Most of us would agree that friendship is immensely satisfying. It provides companionship, warmth, and reassurance without the restrictive bonds of families. We choose our friends because they charm or intrigue or touch us. We choose them to match our needs. Friendship is even healthy. People with more and better social relationships, including family and friends, live longer and healthier lives. The opposite is also true: social isolation is as much a health risk as smoking.
And yet, all of our surveys show that friends lag far behind romantic partners, children, parents in our hierarchy of relationships. Take a look at your local bookstore and you’ll find the shelves bursting with advice about couples and families but almost nothing about friendship. Go to a professional conference and you’ll find very few panels or seminars on friendship.
Friendship seems to have a clear developmental trajectory. It is strong in adolescence and youth, often close to romance in its intensity. With marriage, children, and work, it tails offs considerably, reassuring in its presence and possibility but too rare in daily experience. Retirement and old age bring renewed energy, time, and interest in friendship. What’s more, our friends are also available. And not just those you have kept up with but also friends from all stages of life, some of whom you had lost touch with for decades. With retirement, it feels wonderful when a friend asks when you’re free and you can say “Any day next week works for me.” What a relief that I have friends. What a joy. What a key to late life, or so it seems to me.
Joyous as it is, however, it does not have the weight of family, certainly not the importance of husbands, wives, and children. Given the availability and renewed pleasure, I thought it worthwhile to speculate about the limited value we accord to friendship, even when it serves as our daily bread.
First, and most obviously, the cultural imagery that we grow up with lends much more weight to family. “Blood is thicker than….. “ … you name it. We are trained to be deeply loyal to family and only modestly so to friends. This isn’t just internalized imagery. It is enforced day after day by people around us. How could you not visit your mother in the assisted living facility, loan money to your brother, and, most of all, take care of your children.
Family is bound by ritual in ways that friendship isn’t. Weddings, christenings, bar mitzvahs. Birthday and Christmas parties, Passover seders and Easter hunts. Year after year, they signal a bond. Friends may create ritualistic events—annual Fourth of July parties and the like, but, like everything else, those ‘rituals’ primarily populated by friends feel voluntary, less weighty. That may be why we love them but they’re not as important.
Second, there is something paradoxical about friendship. It is freely chosen but it is also freely departed. It’s as though the freedom reduces its emotional hold on us. Similarly, the informality of friendship—“Just call when you want to get together”—is a balm and somehow minimizes its weight.
Talk about paradoxical. I keep using words like “weight” and “bound by,” indicateing a strong valence, and using it in a mostly positive way. But I wonder if the comparative “lightness” and unbounded quality of friendship robs it of its importance.
In families, the issue of control is ever present. Parents and children struggle over control throughout their relationships. Couples regularly struggle for control. These struggles begin at marriage and birth—finding names; determining rituals; deciding whether to buy a house—and last beyond death—what should our will should say; how shall we should be buried and by whom.
Friendship is virtually defined by its lack of control, its informality. Strange that this may be why we value it less? Control issues enter friendship, as they do any relationships, but are managed much more simply, much more lightly. “Where should we meet for coffee? I guess we met near my place last time. I’ll come to you.” At the hint of struggle, a friend might back off for a while, then ease back. It works so well.
Third, I think we “invest” less of ourselves in our friendships, less of our self confidence and identity. They don’t define us the way family does. Again, we come to the idea that the freedom of friendship somehow lessens its value.
Finally, there’s the question of stress. We bond with far greater intensity with people with whom we’ve shared intense, often stressful experience. Families are like army units who, when facing enemy fire, depend absolutely on one another. The connection becomes profound. Families become like Spielberg’s and Hank’s “Band of Brothers,” whose characters touched us so deeply. The usually peaceful culture of friendship, however relaxing and reassuring, doesn’t seem to measure up.
Ultimately, I am raising this question because I would like to find a way to bring the nourishment of friendship more deeply into my heart, into our hearts. Friends matter to me. Day by day, they give my life much of its color and flavor. Every time, I look forward to coffee at 11:00 and drinks at 5:00. I am particularly candid with some and they are with me. We know each other. We learn and hold the stories of each other’s lives.
I don’t know if friends would be enough if I lost my wife and dread even the possibility of finding out. What about you?