Ken Eckert Essays


No More Friends
By Ken Eckert

February 2009

Mother Teresa once remarked that she saw more unhappiness in America than she did in Calcutta. I hope that she was exaggerating for effect, but sometimes I think that my experience living in Mexico was the same. It's easy for me to resort to the cliché of the carefree Mexican peasant when I can step on an airplane and leave and they can't, but it certainly seemed to me that when I walked among the markets I saw more people chatting, laughing, and smiling than I would in Edmonton or Chicago. There just seemed to be more joy in the air in simple pleasures. At night the streets were lively, with people in the bars and restaurants drinking and families in the parks.

Again, I have to try not to color my views by observing things as a tourist. Do I want to have this, and grinding poverty too? As well, warm weather must make a difference in people's willingness to be outside. It's easier to be happy and sociable when you live next to a beach in the Philippines and can pick some fruit as opposed to a North Dakota winter. But then, I've lived in Las Vegas too, and it doesn't get much warmer. I don't see a lot of festive faces or singing when I walk down the street here in June.

The key to all this, I think, is that I don't see many faces, period—cars with tinted windows streak by in fourth gear and stereos blasting, roar up driveways, and garage doors slam up and down. Nobody walks at all unless they're grim-faced joggers on a mission or exercising their pets, and they do so alone and avoid eye contact. There are no public celebrations or festivals unless they are commercial ones which are ticketed. There are not many parks, and there are certainly extremely few casual conversations with strangers. Thirty years ago I could not imagine living in a residential complex for months and not meeting or knowing the name of a single neighbor. A great number of people have no regular interaction with anyone not their relatives unless they are at work or are shopping. I have been to church services in Vegas where I was not personally spoken to once. The experience would have been less lonely had I watched the sermon at home on television.

I'm told that much of North America is becoming like this, although Las Vegas must surely be one of the worst cases, and books such as Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone (2000) muster statistics to demonstrate convincingly that community involvement as a whole has rapidly declined in the last fifty years. America is becoming a nation of atomized families and individuals. Putnam has numerous academic explanations to show how this has happened; I do not know that my reason is a symptom or cause or neither, and it is substantially more off-the-cuff, but what I do see now that I live back in North America is how little our culture regards friendship.

When I was in university, to an extent I was already thinking like and identifying with my professors. I remember discussing the Merchant of Venice in class, and sympathizing with the instructor when his eyes drooped a little in fatigue after hearing the same ignorant comment from a student that he must have heard a hundred times in his career: Antonio keeps professing his affection for Bassanio. They must be gay. Why else would they keep rabbiting on about how much they cared for each other when they could be out scoring chicks?

In Anglo-Saxon England, the loyalty a soldier had for his lord was considered higher and purer than that between spouses. In Latin cultures it is still openly acceptable for male friends to kiss on the cheek, and some Arab males might even hold hands. In some totalitarian states, friendship was especially suspect because friends may come together under common interests, such as dissenting political or religious beliefs, whereas husbands and wives ostensibly have more practical and mundane reasons for being together. We all know the cliché about how the ancient Greeks felt on the subject, true or false.

It is difficult to talk about this aspect of ancient culture without being hit on both sides. On one side undergraduates snicker and call these men effeminate pansies. Hardly. Beowulf embraces his lord—and then he chops warriors' heads off and attacks monsters with his bare hands. On the other side I am called homophobic for objecting to the sexualization of these fictional characters. But understand that I am not making any kind of moral judgment about homosexuality here. I am simply stating that these are ordinarily not such relationships, but amicus.

This sort of relationship, that of close and loyal friendship, is very hard to portray in the western world of the 21st century. There are people, a lot of them writing conference papers, who cannot simply conceive of friends without assuming that the two people are in denial about their sexuality—or, if the friendship is between man and woman, that this sort of companionship merely papers over a suppressed sexual longing.

Of course, the lion's share of people in the west probably don't worry about such things or don't find anything wrong with friendship. But scratch underneath and there tends to be the view that friendship is a sort of harmless— naïve—childish pastime. Some readers likely thought this essay was about the television show "Friends" with its cutesy schmaltz, and that friendship is a sort of sentimental luxury young people have up until college, when the serious work of adults begins. Erotic love is the serious province of poems, songs, and respectable married life; friendship is the territory of teen movies and purple dinosaurs. Spouses and children are important. Co-workers and neighbors are there for the off days or to help smooth our professional lives, and are otherwise expendable. Love makes the world go around. Just friends is the speech we get when we're turned down.

I am not arguing for some binary solution, that we can only have affection for friends or for husbands or wives. Romantic love for one's spouse is still the foundation of the family unit. Nevertheless, it's ironic that our cultural obsession with romance has made marriage harder. If we watch romantic movies, the message is that our soulmate is out there, and he or she will be our lover, confidant, and best friend. That is an awful lot of expectations to load on one person, and when we find that our significant other cannot be expert in all those roles we are disappointed and cynical. These standards we set for others are not conducive to forming or maintaining marital relationships.

Thus the advice a pastor once gave my congregation for marriage: lower your expectations. It sounds at best comical and at worst cynical. It does not mean people should have no standards at all, but that they might be realistic about what one person can do for them. Otherwise, who could meet your checklist? We would all become like little Seinfelds, rejecting potential mates because they don't like music at the same volume we do or they hold their fork the wrong way. And, true to life, as we lionize perfect marriages in our media fewer and fewer people, statistically, are married at all. When we find that no soulmate is going to descend from the clouds—we buy a cat.

The Asian attitude toward marriage and the medieval European assumption was similar: love comes after the wedding and not necessarily before. It doesn't always work for the best, as love also might not come at all; I sometimes saw people in arranged marriages in the third world who lived like roommates and had open affairs on each other. I also noticed that people in developing countries were more suspicious of opposite-gender friendships than North Americans usually are. But I do think that seeing marriage as an important but not all-encompassing part of our lives will make us happier people. If we accept that we need husbands and wives but we also need confidants with other interests to do 'guy' or 'girl' things with, and that this isn't indicative of a failure in our marriages or spouses, we will be better-balanced people.

How to achieve this is difficult. Third-world societies often seem to have deeper friendships between people because, with limited economic prospects, people tend to stay where they were born and there is less mobility. Friendships aren't totally calculating transactions, but there is more likelihood that we will invest the effort in making friends when we know that we'll be in one place for a long time, like it or not, and our parents and children will be as well.

When we're hired for a two-month contract in this town and then we fly to Munich for another, that investment is less likely. I do not think this has been studied much yet, but it surely is not good environmentally or culturally to have the sort of economy which encourages or forces people to move every year to a different city to keep or find a job. Not everyone of course does this. Many of the people you went to high school with in your hometown are still there. But when you return to your hometown your alumni are probably greatly outnumbered by the transients, and the level of community trust is likely diminished. There are just too many strangers.

But along with some economic shift in how we live, there will have to be a cultural shift. The social relaxing of moral codes regarding sex in the west in the last thirty years—the increasing acceptance of alternative sexual lifestyles and the openness of what used to be private—is either a sign of moral collapse or liberation, depending on your viewpoint. But that openness has also caused us to sexualize friendships with a sort of wink-nudge innuendo, to assume that they all have an erotic component at some deeper level. And even if we see it as innocent, we dismiss socializing for its own sake as a luxury appropriate to children or the aged, but dispensable when we're trying to make a living.

That's too bad. Here we can, for a change, learn something from the third world. I feel sorry for people who roll their eyes at the word friend, explaining that kids have friends and adults have co-workers or business contacts—or that a man who has a female friend and doesn't try to sleep with her is a loser. As C.S. Lewis says in The Four Loves, these people "betray the fact that they have never had a friend."

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