relationship

31

I turn 31 next week. It’s fine. It wasn’t fine last year. 30 was a milestone I felt completely unprepared to reach, one which pitted me against my self-doubt and unsteady outlook on the future. I was in the midst of a divorce, which didn’t help matters much. I was already struggling with the idea that I’d accomplished very little, while others my age were set in careers or thriving in their hobbies or starting families. Meanwhile, my life was being rearranged and I didn’t feel like I had tangible things to offer the world in exchange for a safety line. I, in my mind, had very little to show for the 30 years I’d been walking around, taking up air and space on sidewalks.

Turning 30 was hard.

31 isn’t shaping up to be troublesome. Rather, it feels insignificant but also exciting. And what’s odd, it feels exciting in the face of its obscurity. I read an article today giving more details about how exactly the six-mile-wide asteroid crashing into the earth killed the dinosaurs. The intricacies of the ripple-effect were fascinating, but they gave me pause. “Wow,” I remembered, “I am quite small.” I am one among seven billion, all of whom would have likely never evolved had a big rock not hit a bigger rock floating in a vacuum filled with trillions upon trillions of rocks and gases and wondrous pockets of absolute emptiness. I am less than a grain of sand upon the biggest beach I can imagine.

And I’m happy.

I’m surrounded by goodness in the midst of my life which hasn’t, for the majority of it, felt all that meaningful. And maybe it’s not. But I’m meaningful to a small group of lovely people—a partner and friends and family and the best dog, yes, better than your dog, I know I know, you don’t believe me but this really isn’t a competition so don’t take it personally—and that makes a life. We are wonderfully made in our relationships.

So while I’m not making the difference I imagined I would be in the world, and I’m not where I thought I’d be had you asked me a decade ago, I’m exactly where, and who, I should be: a flawed person, important to some, dedicated to making the most out of the short time I’ve been given. With my few gifts and talents, I can make my relatively insignificant mark on the world around me, drawing a small doodle that may not last beyond my lifetime. But it will be significant to those I so dearly wish would see it that way. They love me, and I love them. It took 31 years, but I finally learned something worth knowing.

All Real Living is a Meeting

Check out the rest of Logan's series on friendship.

Through conversation over the past week, I've been led to continue reflecting on the concept of encounter that I touched on in my previous post, Encountering Poverty. Specifically, I will look into the concept of friendship and how it functions practically, philosophically, and theologically as a relationship. This will be a multi-post exploration, and I thank you for humoring me.


The word friendship shares etymologies with the word "freedom" in English, "freude" (joy) in German, and "philia" (affectionate love) in Romance languages and Greek.

For the sake of illumination, let's take a longer look at "philia." Philia is defined by Aristotle as, "wanting for someone what one thinks good, for his sake and not for one's own, and being inclined, so far as one can, to do such things for him."[^1] Discussing the same, John M. Cooper writes, “the central idea of philia is that of doing well by someone for his own sake, out of concern for him (and not, or not merely, out of concern for oneself).”[^2] It is important to note, in both of these examples philia is directed toward and concerned with the other over the self.

With this etymological understanding in mind, friendship is not merely affection, but a relationship which contains freedom, joy, and affection within mutual responsibility and solidarity.

Becoming

The edges of friendship are fuzzy and imprecise. Friendship is fundamentally a relationship of becoming. Svetlana Boym writes that friendship is not an object of analysis but a process. It is a process of coming to know the self, another person, and the boundaries of a relationship. Roland Barthes calls it a “miraculous crystallization of presence." Friendship is a site of action where need an desire are joined.

The process of friendship is always imprecise and non-prescriptive. It opens into the universal and cannot be wedged into preconceived models or easily understood tactics of marketing, mission, or outreach. Rather than a relationship of increasing closeness and a fusion of individuals, friendship defies symbols of fulfillment. Instead, friendship has no measureable object but friendship itself—the continuous development of two people into a life where friendship is more and more possible. The only goal of friendship is its own continuous becoming and the becoming of its constituents as selves.

When this process ends, we say people have "fallen out" of friendship.[^3]

Thou

Martin Buber traced the full weight of friendship in his formation of the relationship between I (one, as an individual person) and Thou (another person). For Buber, to relate to another person is to become a person, a self, an "I." And as a person becomes more and more a self, she likewise increasingly understands that another person is himself an "I." But Buber goes beyond the impoverished, individualistic understanding of "I" we commonly hold.

Buber reveals that to relate to another person is to relate to the divinity of that person—her total otherness and transcendent quality as a human being. Another person is not "you," or "they." She is "Thou."[^4] Only this formulation of friendship can contain the fullness of freedom, joy, and affection within the bounds of mutuality, responsibility, and solidarity.

Truly and freely encountering another as a friend rules out coercion, violence, utility, and possession.

It is with this understanding that we will continue our investigation of friendship. And throughout the series, we shall keep in mind Buber's poetic wisdom: "All real living is a meeting."[^5]

  • [^1]: Nicomachean Ethics, 1380b36–1381a2
  • [^2]: "Friendship and the Good." The Philosophical Review
  • [^3]: Svetlana Boym's reflections on friendship play heavily into the previous two paragraphs. I found out today that she died on the 5th of this month after a year of living with cancer. I am thankful for her and her work: “Scenography of Friendship,” Cabinet Magazine
  • [^4]: The Christian theological tradition formulates this as the Image of God (or Imago Dei) in every person.
  • [^5]: I and Thou