Is Friendship Enough

(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?

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Carving out common ground with blue collar White guys

There seems to be a virtual consensus among the journalistic punditry about the heart of the Tea Party: white men who are frightened and angry.  They lash out against any insult or imagined insult.  And, this portrait gets worse as we look down the economic ladder.  Once again, the poorly educated guys have the worst cases of White man’s disease.

But this portrait is drawn from a great distance.  It tells the story about the “other,” who is objectified and diminished in the telling.  There must be exceptions, but virtually every writer I can think of excludes himself or herself from this picture.  I can’t entirely do that.  I don’t share Tea Party opinions and I don’t vote Conservatively.   But I can identify with some of the feelings that drive these men.

We had no money when I was growing up in the Bronx and Levittown.  Later, as a teenager, when I delivered flowers in Manhattan, I would be directed to the ‘service’ entrance—I thought of it as the ‘servants’ entrance—and told to take ours shoes off in order to carry the heavy pots into the Park Avenue apartments.  I felt humiliated and angry.  I felt the same when I was caddying at a fancy golf club.

I  must have been forty years old, and very much a successful professional with a house of my own, before I could walk into a clothing store without worrying that the salesmen would look at me and say “what are you doing here.”  When we were teenagers, friends would borrow their parent’s cars and drive up to Great Neck to gawk like tourists at the “mansions.”  What I felt was not envy but anger.  I wanted to throw rocks.  I didn’t but that desire to get even—for what exactly, I don’t know—was palpable, and it’s not so hard to feel it to this day.

I imagine that many of the people who analyze the White guys come from backgrounds like mine, but they don’t write that way.  They hide whatever identification they might feel.  Maybe identifying ‘down’ would be humiliating.  Maybe it would put them in touch with uncomfortable feelings like raw anger and shame.  So, with some trepidation, I would like to offer my not-so-distant understanding of why the White guys are so angry.

To begin, it they are filled with a feeling of having lost something and entirely unclear whether they will be able to regain a stable and secure place in American society.  The loss of blue collar jobs to Asian factories and the decline in blue collar wages have become the iconic image of the declining White man in America.  But, however important it is to earn a descent living and to support your family, there is more to the economic situation than money.  There is knowing that you can help lift your children out of this depressed life.  There is the stability, emotional as well as economic, that a steady, long-lasting job brings—and takes away when it is gone.

There is also the sense of protection and belonging that came with union membership.  That, too has eroded.  And with it the ability to fight for one’s rights and livelihood.  Everyone can be angry, but if you have a union that “has your back,” as the returning veterans currently say, that focuses your anger through campaigns and gives you a chance to win against all those rich snobs, then the anger isn’t so bad. It can yield positive results.  Organized anger, even though it upsets people in suits, is superior for an individual White men, who now must hold it himself, knowing that he, alone, can’t fight and win the battle for dignity and security.

His declining standing in the family seems equally important and less understood.  With the flight of stable and sufficient income, men can’t easily claim their traditional place at the head of the table.  When women earn almost as much, as much, or more, then the challenge to family leadership is legitimized.  When fifty years of women’s rights activity has entered every marriage, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically, then it’s a new game that men have not yet figured out how to win or even how to fight.  Among other things, it’s not clear who the judge or the sheriff is.  Who will resolve the fights?  By what rules?  By all accounts, the women are more adept in this court.  Men are humiliated by their incompetence.  When they are humiliated, they may turn to violence.  But that victory is always horrible to the women, sickening to all, including the children, and at best a pyrrhic victory for the men.

They may retreat to bars, to drugs, to binging on sports, to a kind of despair.  They can’t see a way out of their dilemma.  It’s a dead end.  It looks endless.  They feel defeated.  The more they fall to these despairing activities, the less standing and nurturance they have at home.  The less nurturance, the more they retreat, the more they are alone.  No family to have their back then piles onto the loss of unions and solidarity with other workers.

Family loss may (or may not) be most intense among the poor and working class men, but it is surely not limited to them.  There is a similar sense of displacement among middle class and often enough among well-to-do men.  How many doctors and lawyers, for example, spend long days at work, commanding respect from nurses and administrators, then go home to their families who, after years of the long work hours, feel more neglected than eager to have them.  These professional warriors are not welcomed home, not given their proper place.  So they stay longer at work and become more alienated from families, and so the cycle builds.  This is why they often vacillate  between feelings of alliance and distancing themselves from their working class brethren.

While these immediate losses at work and at home are the most devastating, the cultural changes that surround their personal lives confirm and compound their sense of being left behind.  Take sports, not participatory but couch-based sports.  The players, the heroes, no longer look like them, at least not enough of them do.  They are often Black and Latino.  That’s certainly true in basketball and football.  Not so much true in baseball and hockey, whose popularity has seen a resurgence these days.  Take entertainment.  More and more singers and actors are people of color; and even the White entertainers are too often liberals, who really don’t understand the White guys.  More snobs, like the Wall Street crowd.  Too damn many successful people look and act different.  The class divide has been exacerbated.

The very idea of success is passing the White guys by.  Success is for somebody else.  It looks and talks and dresses like somebody else.  Not even the army offers a redemptive image—not like the heroes of World War II.  The army guys return, often beaten, traumatized, without sufficient support for work and health.  They may be publically lauded as heroes but, if you listen to their stories, that’s not their experience.  Nor can the veterans point the way towards a successful life.  They’re not the road out of the White guys dilemma.  They represent another way that the road out is closed.  Success remains hidden.

I’m no different than the analysts in my dislike for the road taken by these White guys, the votes for Trump, the nativism and racism, the fascination with guns, the domestic violence, the disdain for education.  But I do appreciate what has brought them to this place.  I do understand their attachment to the Trumps and the Tea Party as symptoms, not causes of disaffection in America.  We have to find a way to join forces—with them—to attack the real problems that have disenfranchised them.  It is up to us, too.  If we don’t, if we keep our distance, then we are very much a part of the real problem.