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We are lonelier than ever in an increasingly well-connected world. Loneliness is perhaps one of those rare burdens truly borne by everyone regardless of creed, where we come from, whether we are rich or poor, young or old, etc. We all crave deep, meaningful, and intimate friendships.
We are unsatisfied with mundanities and surface-level pleasantries. We cringe at the awkwardness of first encounters, where we come to know a person but do not yet know them. Often, we choose to forego this awkward experience altogether and retreat. Nevertheless, we yearn to be pursued. We yearn to be pursued by a true friend, not merely a companion or acquaintance.
The cultivation of deep friendships is completely within our power to pursue. C.S. Lewis writes that friendship is “the least instinctive, organic, biological, gregarious and necessary” of human loves. The human race does not need friendships to reproduce, and we aren’t hunter-gatherer nomads who must rely on companions in a collective for our most basic survival needs.
True friendship surpasses the threshold of mere companionship when it asks, “Do you see the same truth?” — a question whose biological or social necessity is far from obvious. So, to Lewis and the ancient thinkers he draws from, this kind of friendship is a love that is truly and freely chosen. It is absolutely our choice to cultivate. But what stops us from choosing and cultivating this kind of friendship? Simply put — we have no idea what it would even look like.
Social media is not the primary problem. It does not necessarily help us find those same truths at the core of friendship, but its cardinal sin of fostering superficial connection is not so much a function of the medium as it is a reflection of the poor quality of friendships we generally have. We can barely envision a close, affectionate, and intimate bond with another person, the hallmark of the friendship we truly want, that doesn’t have a sexual or romantic end.
Our hyper-sexualized culture is apt to take bonds of friendship and recast them as principally erotic urges, romanticize a star-crossed love story, or lament a missed connection. Writing with relevant timelessness, Lewis mourns how we often view intimate friendship as a mere cover for eros and eroticism. We are absolutely obsessed with dating, “shipping” people who we think would be good together, weddings, hook-up culture, most anything related to sex and sexuality.
Everyone across the social issues spectrum is guilty, from conservative evangelicals to BuzzFeed liberals who make “List the Random Things You Hate and We’ll Tell You When You’ll Get Married” quizzes. This obsession is hardly contained within this millenium, but 21st century social media has exponentially exacerbated the problem.
We don’t often watch movies or listen to music about friendship completely removed from romance or sex. We have a better chance with books — but for every book about an adventure shared among friends, there are at least 50 trash romance novels, by my very scientific count. We are starved for models of meaningful friendship, and we starve ourselves further by stubborn insistence on coupling everyone up.
A society that is hyper-conscious about sex is hyper-selfish at its core. Rarely do we think about sexuality in terms of what we might give. It is mostly about what we want from others, when and how we want that attention, and condemnation of anyone who might deny us. It is this same attitude we often extend towards friendship.
What is to be done? We must acknowledge challenging truths about the friendships we really want. Building friendship takes intentional time, requires initial awkwardness, and grows in vulnerability and authenticity. These kinds of friendships won’t occur frequently. They will be exclusive and held with very few of our companions, a challenge to a world also obsessed with inclusivity.
Our deep-seated cultural corruption of friendship can only be undone by a radical and countercultural change of our hearts and minds. We want to be pursued and sought after, but we must try much harder to pursue and seek others. This is not passively waiting for others to offer themselves to us. Rather, we must offer others our time, our ears, and our hearts. Friendship is solely a function of our own choice because it is solely under our own power that we offer up our very selves.
Rejection is a real possibility in this model. What if we aren’t enough for our friends? What if we fail them? Goodness knows I’ve failed my friends many times, and I will again. But the societal status quo is a wearisome, isolating alternative. It is high time we embraced a countercultural attitude to remove the rot in our friendships.
Grace M. Chao ’19 is an Economics concentrator in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.
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