Finding words for the challenge and wonder of friendship

An old Polaroid.
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What is friendship? How come sustaining this distinctive kind of relationship over the course of a life can be so difficult, perhaps especially so in our time of mobility and individualistic striving? And why is making the effort nevertheless so essential to human fulfillment?

Jennifer Senior's beautiful and thoughtful new essay in The Atlantic, "It's Your Friends Who Break Your Heart," raises all of these questions and many more. It suggests tentative answers as well, though the essay's wisdom is contained more in the unearthing of what might be called the complex interpersonal dynamics (or phenomenology) of friendship — the tenuous threads that entangle us as we pull each other near while also pushing each other away, seeking and finding emotional closeness for a time while also riding waves of corrosive envy and complacency.

We expect a lot from friendships in our otherwise atomized lives, hoping they'll play the role once filled by "parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, fellow parishioners, fellow union members, fellow Rotarians." Yet, precisely because many of us spend much of our lives running from one task, ambition, and duty to the next, those relationships can end up strained. The result is a sharp increase in the number of friendless people and a steep decline in the number of friends many of the rest of us have. The isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic has likely made this even worse. (Senior points to a recent Pew survey showing that 38 percent of Americans feel more distant from their closest friends than they did in the past.)

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That's a terrible shame, because as Senior shows in myriad ways, friendship is incredibly important to a life well lived, despite how little social scientists have focused on studying it. Aristotle was closer to the mark in devoting no less than one-fifth (two books out of 10) of his Nicomachean Ethics to reflecting on its place in a good life.

The closest we get in Senior's essay to a synoptic description of friendship at its peak is found in something author Benjamin Taylor says when Senior asks him about his close friendship with the late novelist Philip Roth. After a long pause, Taylor offers the following: "Philip made me feel that my best self was my real self…. I think that's what happens when friendships succeed. The person is giving back to you the feelings you wish you could give to yourself. And seeing the person you wish to be in the world."

Finding that kind of mirrored intimacy — a mutual confirmation, affirmation, and sharing of what is best in us — is a precious and wonderful thing. But maintaining it is hard, for a range of sociological and psychological reasons. I can't think of a better guide to this essential, fraught, and neglected terrain than Jennifer Senior's latest essay.

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