Markets and the Good   /   Fall 2023   /    Notes & Comments

Friendship as Soulcraft

How I made friends in my thirties.

Matt Dinan

THR illustration (Shutterstock).

Nobody wants to be a type. Types stand in as substitutes for what’s there—they dull or deaden others’ perceptions of who we are. The discovery that someone transgresses type, or even plays against it—this football player does ballet!—is a delight so rare in real life as to have become commonplace in pop culture. One of my colleagues and I occasionally observe that we are “sociologically identical”: alike in age, profession, upbringing, scholarly interests, family situation, race, class, and gender. Of course, we also dress alike. But while I’m gregarious, he’s quiet; he loves tragedy, I prefer comedy; he’s imperturbable, I have a temper. The typological similarity is a false face undermined by an incommensurable interiority. We don’t want to be types because we know that every human being is more than a type.

What to do, then, when you’re confronted with the undeniable reality that, whatever your irreducible individuality, you are a type? In my case, this happened when I realized that I had become one of those men without close friends—you know, the kind of sad social case that actually inspired a New York Times op-ed writer to wonder, “Is the Cure to Male Loneliness Out on the Pickleball Court?”

I hope it doesn’t sound too defensive if I say that the empirical record shows I’m not one of the “lost” men. After all, I considered myself pretty well adapted to the new order of things. Besides, why should I need friends? I had my family, engaging work, and good colleagues. I felt connected with my community. And even if I am one of those Catholics who perversely want Mass to be anonymous, I never feel as though I do not belong in our parish. All of these factors explain why it took me a while to understand my situation.

It began to dawn on me when social life was largely curtailed during the pandemic and I realized that my social calendar remained, for the most part, unchanged. Like many members of the itinerant creative class, I had good reasons for this. My family had moved three times in ten years, from one end of North America to another and then to another. If you had asked me, I would have said that I had many friends—perhaps too many—scattered from San Antonio to Olympia to Halifax. I would have said it made sense that I might have trouble maintaining close friendships with people I saw only once or twice a year. Perhaps I would have tried to console myself with Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the “star friendship”—that my friends and I inhabited a “tremendous but invisible stellar orbit in which our very different ways and goals [might] be included as small parts of this path.” But likely failing to convince myself of that, I would have said that with my life being so replete with other forms of human connection, friendship felt superfluous.

And friendship is superfluous. That makes it no less desirable, of course—but it means that when we arrange our lives according to necessity, we often don’t know what to do about friendships. As Aristotle points out, even if one had every other good, one would still choose to have friends. This recognition is what led me to make friends in my thirties: I came to see that because you don’t need friends, and they don’t need you, you must seek them out. And an insufficient understanding of how this makes friendship different from other forms of love is one of the primary roadblocks to finding friendship in our time and place.

There is security in the messy neediness of love, the occult magnetic fields that attract and repel. Passion means to suffer, to be set upon. This is not to speak ill of love, but only to observe that since friendship is more freely chosen, it rests on unstable ground. Romantic love holds us together through mutual awareness of our neediness, but friendship does not arise from any need. Filial love is so powerful because it is, ideally without caveat, the sort of belonging one can neither earn nor lose. Some of the deepest hurts in human life consequently arise when we do lose that love, when the familiar becomes estranged. Family members, even those in a family you have some choice in forming, are the same type—“kin.” But the friend is some “other,” a stranger I have come to prefer.

Aristotle says there is no justice between friends: We owe them nothing, and true friends do not consider who owes what to whom. Friends as friends therefore do not need anything from you besides your friendship, which is one reason why friendship presupposes leisure. People fall in love in an instant, at a glance, but friendship always takes time. This is why so many of us make our closest friends during the structured indolence of college and why children seem to do it so effortlessly. My chatty, companionable daughter Ruthie will quite often appear with a new “friend” at the playground and use the introduction “Dad! This is my new friend!” before the inevitable aside to her new chum: “What’s your name again?”

Pursuing friendship for pleasure or utility (Aristotle again) does not actually yield us friends, since these attachments dissolve when the pleasure or utility does. Think of those acquaintances made through professional conferences or other “networking” events, or, for that matter, of the damage done by multilevel marketing schemes. Both seek to instrumentalize social relations for the purposes of career advancement or sales.

Pickleball or softball or curling might expose you to fun new people, but friendship requires more than pleasure and proximity. The goods of friendship are locked up within the friendship itself; they are no easier to determine than the meaning of the good life. And so friendship, a superfluous, uncertain form of human affection that can transform some stranger into “another self,” is itself stranger than we are likely to recognize.

Is it more embarrassing to admit that you were the friendless thirtysomething, or that you made friends on the social network formerly known as Twitter? Well, during the pandemic, suddenly and for longer than we wished, that notoriously toxic platform became an ersatz salon for everyone stuck at home. I tweeted a lot: about the trials of homeschooling, about how parental happy hour kept creeping up earlier in the day, about teaching online, about my alarming Takis addiction, about my uncertainty and anxiety and loneliness. The candor, I think, along with my awareness of the urgency to try to make friends, provided conversational openings for people feeling the same way, but I also found people who wanted to talk about all or most of these things. My direct messages—another legacy Twitter feature, if you can believe it—started filling up with all sorts of conversations.

As I continued for over a year to work at home on the computer all day, I realized that with the unsought leisure, and my own novel openness, some of these strangers had become actual friends whom I’ve subsequently met “in real life.” (“Here is my friend, whom I met in a perfectly normal way.”) Since the world more or less returned to normal, my recognition of the fragile superfluity of friendship has made me attentive to opportunities to do the same thing in real life.

There’s a reason why friendship is harder to represent poetically than romantic love—the same reason dialogue-heavy scripts make for difficult moviemaking. The poetry of friendship would need to represent conversations about daily life over a lifetime. And despite the achievements of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels or Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein, friendship makes better grist for philosophy.

One of Jacques Derrida’s better books is a survey of the philosophy of friendship from the Greeks to the present, The Politics of Friendship. Putting “the politics of” in front of something is rarely illuminating about politics, but in this case Derrida’s concern is this: When we think about a friend, we tend to follow a “logic of fraternization,” repeatedly seeing in the friend “the features of the brother.” The friend as the “other self” cancels out the difference of the other, assimilating the friend into the self. Insofar as we always begin with the self in thinking about friendship, we place an undue emphasis on the act of loving at the expense of considering what it means to be loved. Even reciprocity, Derrida suggests, is based on an “unverifiable presumption” about the thoughts and feelings of someone else. Knowing is different from being known, loving from being loved. I can love being loved, or perhaps figure out how to become lovable, but being loved is something I can’t control.

I think Derrida neglects to consider how the friend as another self might also qualify our straightforward understanding of ourselves. If the self risks imposing on the other, can’t we also allow the other to challenge our view of ourselves? Can’t friendship make us a little strange to ourselves? My friends have changed my tastes in music, forced me to reconsider issues in philosophy, exposed me to the extraordinary world of watches—that is, time pieces. But they have also sometimes helped me understand the ways my image of myself has sometimes worked deliberately against the person I really am. Friendship is an answer to the question of how we can know what we do not know about ourselves.

Friendship is a sign that we are the sort of beings who not only transcend need and necessity but are also expansive enough to include others in our attempts to live good lives. Nevertheless, the advice that everyone from disgraced professors to sitting senators to criminal influencers gives to floundering men, young or not, stresses a traditional manliness that valorizes self-assertion in the face of fear. This entails the belief, implicit or explicit, that men are uniquely self-sufficient. So conceived, the “manly” man becomes another one of those simplistic yet beguiling types that stand in for the complexities of real life. But maybe men struggle with living meaningful lives precisely because they believe themselves complete without friendship. Friendship gives us a needed break from our own autonomy, from the need to figure everything out for ourselves. Friends refract the world back to us, taking what we thought we knew and making it new and different, but still capable of being understood. In this way, friendship is about alterity, about openness in the place of assertion. Friendlessness is often adduced as one of the symptoms of the “problem” with men, but such alienation is not a symptom of the lack of flourishing—it is, rather, its cause.