“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” (John Donne)
Is there anything more romantic than an island? Pat and I spent our honeymoon on Monhegan Island, a small rocky oasis some twelve miles off the coast of Maine. It was the perfect island retreat for a young couple in love. Completely cut off from the mainland save for one undersea cable, and before the days of satellite Internet coverage, there was nothing from the outside world to distract us. Of course, we were not self-sufficiently alone. We stayed at the Island Inn, an old-fashioned hotel perched high above the tiny harbor where, weather permitting, visitors and supplies disembarked. Over the years we have visited other islands, and always the romance of that first island stay is rekindled. Even now, landlocked on a great continent, I sometimes hear the call of an island – a far land where I retreat whenever the stress of living threatens to overwhelm my soul. It is an imaginary place to escape the reality of life when I am feeling overwhelmed by people and events.
To a large degree the American experience is that of self-sufficiency. From the earliest days, we were a land of immigrants who were willing to forsake friends and family to sail to the new world. We eventually fought a war for independence, which we proudly proclaimed in a great Declaration to that effect. Later on, we were pioneers who pushed steadily westward, and then homesteaders who built our lives on vast, lonely plains. At the start of the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover (a self-made millionaire) coined the phrase “rugged individualism” to describe a belief that people can make it on their own and government help should be minimal. And today, those of us fortunate enough to live in great communities amid unbelievable affluence often as not pull into a garage, closing the overhead door behind us before exiting the car – alone again in our little island of a home. Although it is a fiction that we can make it on our own, we have elevated independence and self-sufficiency to national virtues.
But while these may be cultural virtues, nothing could be further from our calling as Christians. For we know that we are not islands unconnected to others, but we are created and called to be inextricably tied one to the other. The Apostle Paul used the human body as a metaphor to show our interconnectedness. “God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:24-27) Indeed, no Christian can dispute that the call to interdependence is an essential feature of our faith, as we are commanded repeatedly in Scripture to be in close relationship to one another. For example, “Love one another” (John 13:34); “Serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13); “Be kind and compassionate to one another…” (Ephesians 4:32); “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21); and “Forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another” (Colossians 3:13).
In his poem, No Man Is An Island, priest and poet John Donne affirms this Biblical truth by rejecting the idea that we are islands, isolated from others; rather, there is a certain inescapable interdependence that we all have with one another. And yet, there seems to be no lack of lonely people around us, living in tiny self-created worlds with few or no friends. I see it at a local rehabilitation center in the faces of certain people who have no one to visit them. I sense it in our neighborhood where some people keep their window shades perpetually drawn and they themselves seldom emerge. And I sometimes feel it in my soul when wanting to avoid others and draw into myself.
The antidote for isolation and loneliness is a community of friends – those who mutually share the fears, challenges, and joys of their lives, who listen without judgment, who occasionally challenge with truth spoken in love, and who always encourage one another. There are many types of relationships, even friendships we can have with others. But a real and true friend is someone who really knows me and is known by me.
For years I had no friends outside my immediate family. It wasn’t until I was almost fifty, when one Sunday morning a pastor pointed out that there were many men who had no friends. His words struck home, and I trace my own pursuit of friends from that day – a pursuit that at times has been a stumbling, bumbling, and often faltering affair. It has taken me time, a lot of time. Most of what I have learned has been by trial and error. Ironically, it has been more of an inner journey than an outer one – more of learning about myself than learning about others. Over time, I have developed a circle of friends with whom I associate regularly. Reflecting on my journey, I have several observations about the development of friends. These are neither prescriptive nor exhaustive, but are offered simply as a personal reflection.
A first observation is that relationships at work are not a substitute for having friends. For many years I believed that workplace relationships were the only personal contacts I needed outside of my family. I interacted with many people at work on a daily basis, even occasionally socialized with them. But while workplace relationships can occasionally develop into real friendships, I believe that the things that mostly bind people together at work – forced interactions and a common employer do not in the long run support intimate friendships. This fact was revealed when I retired and all contacts with people at work were instantly severed. I know other men who have suffered after retiring because they never developed friends beyond work.
A second observation is that being an introvert does not excuse one from having friends. As an introvert, I really enjoy times when I am alone to read, write, and listen to music. These are all good things, but just because they are good and that I like doing them does not excuse me from developing friendships. It may be that psychologists are correct when they claim that introversion is invariant. But it seems to me that this can be used as an excuse for not engaging with others, in the same way that virtually any vice can be excused by thinking “that’s just the way I’m wired.” We introverts don’t have to abandon our times of solitude, but we also should not allow it to dominate our lives. In this regard it is worth contemplating a scene from The Great Divorce, in which C.S. Lewis envisions the essence of hell as increasing separation from one another. The illustration he uses is a person setting up home on a street (in hell), fighting with a neighbor, and moving farther and farther away. “As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbor. Before the week is over he’s quarreled so badly that he decides to move. Very likely he finds the next street empty because all the people there have quarreled with their neighbors – and moved. So he settles in. … He’s sure to have another quarrel pretty soon and then he’ll move on again. Finally … getting further apart. … Millions of miles from us and from one another. Every now and then they move further still.”
A third observation is that hurts caused by other people can be an impediment to making friends. I have found that when I am hurt by other people, I tend to pull away – not just from them but from everyone else as well. It is a defense mechanism I have used to avoid being hurt again. Like many people, I have the scars of being deeply hurt by others over the years. Many of these hurts go back to childhood when the soul was so very tender. These hurts can set in motion defensive patterns of behavior that can be very hard to overcome, and I have no easy answers for doing so. I know some people who have been helped by programs such as Celebrate Recovery. I received direct healing from the Lord, as I prayed one day over a conflict I was having with an acquaintance. The Lord showed me that I did not need to fear rejection by others. Although I am still hurt from time to time, I am better able to forgive and avoid retreating.
A fourth observation is that my pride is the biggest impediment I have to developing friends. I can’t even begin to explain how deep the roots of pride are in my life because honestly I don’t see all of them. This is pretty much what C.S. Lewis writes when he refers to pride as “The Great Sin” in his book Mere Christianity. “There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which every one in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves. … The vice I am talking about is Pride.” I tend to pull away from others when my ego is not stroked enough or my ego is offended. When I first joined a men’s small group, I measured the success of a meeting by how much I was affirmed by the others. What a burden it became to always have to focus on myself – always thinking about what I would say and how I could be praised. There is much I could write about the scourge of pride in my life, because pride is always lurking, always waiting to raise its ugly head. Fortunately, becoming aware of the destructiveness of my ego, and with considerable healing from the Lord, I have reached a point where my pride has lost a bit of its power – at least enough that it no longer destroys my friendships.
My final observation is that true friends are formed out of sincere interest in others. I don’t know why it took me so long to figure this out, because the thing that I value most in other people is their interest in me. I am attracted to people who ask about me, and who seem genuinely interested in my life. Similarly, there is nothing that I find more off-putting than someone who is so wrapped up in their own life that they never think to ask about me. And so, it is amazing that it took me so long to realize that if I am not interested in others and asking questions about them, that they will be put off by me. Sincere interest in others is a powerful driver of friendships. True friends are mutuality interested in one another. Just as it is hard for me to build a relationship with someone who is so wrapped up in his or her self that there are few if any inquiries into my life, so too I cannot expect others to want a relationship with me if I show no sincere interest in them. C.S. Lewis again puts a fine point on this with his observation in the essay, The Weight of Glory. “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” To truly see others as God sees them – what an amazing opportunity we can easily let slip through our hands.
“There is nothing on earth more to be prized than true friendship.” (Thomas Aquinas)
“Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.” (Helen Keller)