Introduction on Friendship
As iron sharpens iron, a friend sharpens a friend.
~Proverbs 27.17 NLT
On a cool summer evening in July some years back, our small wooden ferry chugged for several hours along the Gulf of Nicoya in Costa Rica. Next to me sat one of my lifelong friends, Juan Edgar Picado, then a promising young attorney from the capital city of San Jose. Two young men longing for God more fully to capture our restless hearts, we spoke comfortably and expansively of our hopes, fears, and the various challenges that awaited our attention. Our conversation was punctuated by bursts of hearty laughter that at points became almost uncontrollable.
Watching intently from a bench some fifteen feet away was a middle-aged Costa Rican gentleman. Curious, the onlooker hesitantly approached, declaring with carefully chosen words: “I don’t know what religion or philosophy you two subscribe to, but whatever it is, I’d like to join.” Unsure whether to celebrate or be concerned, Juan Edgar and I looked at one another as if to say, Yes, life is good. We had not realized how powerful a magnet mere friendship can be.
Perhaps he glimpsed in us an almost mystical moment between fellow travelers in pursuit of the Divine, but I suspect that what drew this man to us was not our piety or some religious aura. It was, rather, his own longing for a deep and authentic relationship in an increasingly impersonal world.
Indeed, genuine friendship today is as attractive as it is elusive. A central theme of literature from antiquity to the end of the nineteenth century, friendship is now largely relegated to the domain of pop psychology and self-help manuals. The Industrial Revolution and its aftermath unleashed social changes that unsettled communities and distorted friendship. The technologies that promised us freedom and time to relate in deep and important ways have had unintended consequences and actually contribute to the distance most feel from what truly matters. When in the early seventies Alvin Toffler wrote Future Shock and Vance Packard authored A Nation of Strangers, who could have anticipated that unprecedented affluence and myriad technologies of convenience would have further separated us from one another? Now we use the trendy term networking, which takes this most human of experiences and diminishes it to a mere sharing of rolodexes and mechanical (or electronic) exchange of business cards.
I do, however, see a resurgence of interest in true friendship. The general isolation felt throughout society is an even more pronounced occupational hazard for leaders—ironically, often increasing with success. A growing number of otherwise accomplished people still live, in Thoreau’s observation, lives of “quiet desperation.” Loneliness has led many to search, like the man in Costa Rica, for a deeper connection. They want to be part of relationships that are real and enduring, honest friendships that address the full scope of their humanity.
As a young diplomat at the Department of State, I had the opportunity to work with one of the finest leaders and human beings of our times, John C. Whitehead, former Senior Partner and Chairman of Goldman, Sachs & Company, the prestigious New York investment banking firm. On one of our forays to Capitol Hill late one muggy summer morning, Secretary Whitehead lamented the differences between Washington and Wall Street. “At least on Wall Street, you see the daggers coming. Here in Washington, politicians are cordial enough, yet they transform once the cameras roll. This creates a poisonous atmosphere where few trust anyone.” The magnitude of this problem, he noted, posed a serious threat to progress. Hearing this, I hesitantly mentioned to Whitehead that at least some leaders were finding through their faith an ability to transcend partisan rancor to become true friends.
Secretary Whitehead expressed real interest in such an approach, so I hastily arranged a private breakfast on Capitol Hill among several Senators, including Senator Pete Domenici, the Republican Chairman of the Budget Committee, and his Democratic counterpart, the late Florida Senator Lawton Chiles, among others. During our time together, these men discussed the depth of the friendship and the practical support each drew from such an association. These leaders had found a way to connect through the bridge of faith, and in friendships found both encouragement and candor. The atmosphere at the gathering stood in striking contrast to the bitter partisanship and rancor endemic in our capital city. Although they frequently found themselves differing on a variety of national and policy matters, their close relationship was an unbreakable bond.
We all long for such rich companionship, consciously or not. Friendship is a form of love, and to be known and loved for who we are brings not only deep satisfaction and lasting joy, it makes for a profound, life-changing, and even world-changing experience. And if friendship is risky by its very nature because close companionship can expose us to the core, such rewards are worth both its risks and the effort we need to invest.
No medicine is more valuable, none more efficacious, none better
suited to the cry of all our temporal ills than a friend, to whom
we may turn for consolation in time of trouble, and with whom
we may share our happiness in time of joy.
~ Aelred of Rievaulx
I once asked a dear friend, Dr. Armand Nicholi, Harvard professor and psychiatrist, if there was a secret to raising emotionally healthy children. His answer was swift and, to me, surprising: “Love your wife.” Children, he said, need to observe healthy relationships lived out before them—parents who are real, not perfect, who struggle daily to forgive and to go on loving. In a world that inundates us with cheap words and superficial slogans, such authentic relationships speak volumes. Similarly for friendship, good models become the best instructors, far more effective than any formal training.
Looking to history, we find many models worth considering and emulating. One of the most enduring is the friendship between Jonathan and David told in the Bible in the books of 1 and 2 Samuel. Their loyalty to one another was repeatedly tested and refined over the course of the intense association. The hallmarks of their companionship were truth, sacrifice, kindness, and loyalty.
We have accounts of friendship in Frederick Douglass’ meditation on friendship and slavery and in Elie Wiesel’s writings on the Holocaust. The long and deep friendship between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison helped establish the character of the United States. The friendship of Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth inspired poetry that neither would have achieved alone. The intellectual and spiritual friendship of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien is justly celebrated for its effects on both men and their writings, not to mention their other friends, starting with the Inklings.
The nineteenth-century parliamentarians William Wilberforce and William Pitt were the closest of friends despite deep differences over matters large and small—including their views of faith. The many reforms credited to Wilberforce would be unthinkable without reference to Pitt and his other friends.
Because of the power of models like these, the wonders of friendship have been a perennial theme of human thought and art. Friendship drives plots and inspires characters in the greatest texts from Homer and the Bible to Shakespeare, and in the short stories of James Joyce, Anton Chekhov, and Nadine Gordimer. Friendship occupied the minds of philosophers and essayists from Aristotle and Cicero to Montaigne and Emerson. Friendship fired the correspondence of Wolfgang Mozart, John Keats, Gustave Flaubert, Oscar Wilde, T.S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bowen, and Virginia Woolf—even Groucho Marx. From autobiographies like Augustine’s to biographies like Boswell’s Johnson, from the poems of William Blake and Walt Whitman to the comic vignettes of Colette, a great stream of literature points to this mysterious, powerful, and now endangered tradition of genuine friendship.
Friendship is given by nature, not as a companion of the vices, but
as a helper of the virtues, that, as solitary virtue might not be able
to attain the summit of excellence, united and associated with another
it might reach that eminence.
~Cicero, On Friendship
All of us fear that if anyone really knew us, they would want nothing to do with us. This is because we are altogether too aware of what we have done and what we have the potential of doing. It is also the real reason why being loved in spite of our failings and awfulness is so transformative. Thus Augustine of Hippo distinguishes true friendship from inferior forms in terms of unconditional acceptance, an esteem that is unaffected by any evil in his life.
God is our model in this regard. He loves us deeply while knowing us intimately. He sees it all: the good, but mostly the bad and the ugly. He loves us in spite of our usual disregard for him and his purposes. He also helps us as we work toward emulating his character with our own friends, which is fortunate because such unconditional love is supernatural and possibly only through God.
Some years back while starting a national mentoring program, I met a retired DC policeman whose son had been killed in gang-related violence. While that got my attention, the rest of his story was far more stunning: “After my son’s killer was released from juvenile prison, I adopted him and brought him into my family. I couldn’t bring my son back, but I might be able to help one troubled young man.” Unconditional love indeed.
They are my true brothers, because whether they see good in me or
evil, they love me still.
Two are better than one, for they have a good reward for their toil.
For if one falls, the other will lift him up. But woe to the one who is
alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up.
~ Ecclesiastes 4:9-11
The Bible is clear that we humans are intended for community and companionship. “It is not good for a man to be alone,” declares the writer of the first book of the Pentateuch. We are not intended to experience the joys of life in isolation. Neither are we expected to stand alone in the face of its many trials.
We are strengthened to persevere in the hard times when we know that someone cares if we stumble or are in need. Friends serve as both protection against discouragement and as practical support. True companions put success and failure, those Kipling-like “imposters,” in their proper perspective. They come to understand the full context of our lives and do not over-react to any one incident. While most relate to us on the basis of what we can do for them, real friends join on a different plane.
Wim Kooyker, a successful New York commodities trader, appeared unannounced at my office one day. To my shock and horror, a supposed friend had just badly betrayed me and many others. Wim knew instinctively that he was needed. He allowed me to babble on about my heartache over this confusing matter. I wept while Wim embraced me and welcomed his idealistic friend to the “real world.” Because my friend was there for me, my sense of being utterly alone gave way to an awareness of being cared for that restored the hope I needed to soldier on.
Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
~ Jesus (John 15:13 NIV)
In a truly supernatural sense, deep friendship drives us at times to do the unimaginable. When Al Quie, my friend and former Governor of Minnesota, told me that he had been seeking the means to take the place, in prison, of Chuck Colson, the former Nixon White House hatchet-man, I was speechless. Al had apparently discovered a legal avenue whereby he could serve the remaining prison term for his friend and brother in faith, who was needed at home to deal with challenging family problems. My surprise was expressed in my own reaction: This is a bit much. Yes, pray for him, accept him, support his family, visit him—but take his place in that cold cell? No way. But Al had discovered the satisfaction and liberation of laying down one’s life for a friend. And he sought to do it for Chuck.
On a smaller scale, but a gift for which I shall nonetheless always be grateful, is the case of my lifelong friend, Skip Ryan. Skip took a leave of absence from his successful and busy pastorate in Charlottesville, Virginia, to labor alongside me at the State Department during the challenging days prior to Nelson Mandela’s dramatic release from Robben Island in South Africa. Skip literally put aside his own agenda to support a friend who felt so ill-equipped to fulfill the daunting responsibilities that awaited.
[F]ew things could go nearer to my heart than to find myself differing from
you…it is impossible that it should shake the sentiments of affection and
friendship, sentiments engraved on my heart, and will never be effaced
~ William Pitt to William Wilberforce, 1785
While many claim closeness, the true test of a relationship is whether it can sustain honest disagreement. We tend to gravitate to those “like us.” I most appreciate the honesty of my friends…when they agree with me. Learning to embrace those who challenge our set views is never comfortable. Yet true friendship is shaped partly by the hammer of dissimilarity. Healthy friendships are deepened by accepting differences of opinion. If we have a life goal of growing in character, humility, and love, truth-telling friends and “conscience partners” are useful to that objective. Otherwise, why bother? The truth hurts too much!
When my friend Tom told me of his intention to resign as CEO of a major corporation to pursue full-time ministry, I was dismayed. “Tom,” I said, “If God has gifted you to run a Fortune 500 company, why not do that to the glory of God?” Fortunately for me, Tom didn’t toss me out. He paused for a moment, then responded, “That’s right, I do feel God’s pleasure when I build businesses.” This was one of many such exchanges having a common purpose with a teachable friend.
The friendship between Dr. Josef Hoechtel, an Austrian Member of Parliament, and his foreign minister is another powerful illustration of this theme. Several years back, Josef, also a longtime friend of mine, explained how he confronted his mentor about his physical decline due to Parkinson’s disease. Many Austrians were aware of the condition and deeply concerned. The stakes for the nation were enormous, but what to do? Josef enlisted the head of the largest television station to compile excerpts sampling press conferences over fifteen years demonstrating the Minister’s progressive decline. He then arranged a private dinner for the two of them during which they reviewed the clips. The desired result was achieved. Josef not only lovingly confronted his friend with the sad truth, he had also put a specific medical plan in place to address the underlying problem.
Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself
(for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather it is one
of those things which give value to survival.
~ C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
Friendship does offer us a window into the love and unity of God. Jesus himself valued friendship greatly. His band of friends was chosen primarily with one end in mind—“to be with him.” He understood that a broken world needed more than mere words to understand his message; it required a concrete illustration. Jesus elevated the importance of true friendship when he explained that the world would know of their faith in God by the way his followers loved one another. What a stark contrast to the divisions of our times over race, politics, economics, culture, and tragically, religion.
Life is brief and punctuated with pain and heartache. Yet true friendships are among God’s most valuable antidotes to despair and hopelessness. Such companionship comes at a cost. It requires and investment of time and heart. But as Cicero’s Laelius demonstrates, friendship infuses the sometimes painful circumstances of out life’s journey with moments of profound joy. I am grateful for a small band of friends who have been true companions on my journey.
Even after all our attempts to analyze it, friendship remains a profound mystery. It both delights and unsettles. Being known in such a way does that. Yet by probing the heart and mind of another and breaking out of our cocoon of fear, we realize that we are more alike that we are different. That alone makes friendship worth the risk.