The duties of friendship

Kate Shellnutt’s account of the difficulty of maintaining friends after thirty has occasioned some discussion on my social media feeds. The following passages struck me:

I’m not sure who I’m destined to become in the years ahead. Turning 30 doesn’t signal what it used to. As psychologist Meg Jay notes in a popular TED talk, the traditional milestones have been pushed back: “Work happened later, marriage happened later, kids happened later, even death happened later.” It’s easy for this generation to assume that 30s are the new 20s and move on without giving the new decade a second thought….

….For all the things happening later in our lives, our close friendships are still happening earlier. As we age, we often overlook the drop-off in our social lives or accept it as inevitable. And yet we know more than ever about how our friends can help ease stress, lift our moods, endure trauma, give us a sense of purpose, and live longer.

The essay wasn’t written for me: I don’t have children, nor do I have the distraction of a companion. Lacking both allows me to practice friendship like others do the Spanish guitar.

This week I wrote at length at my reveling in aloneness (Keith Harris wrote a terrific heterosexual response). But aloneness is not to be confused for friendless. As a gay single man in a constant state of intellectual ferment, I need the replenishment that only friends can provide. I enjoy phone conversations, long ones. I’ve a good friend in Brooklyn with whom I exchange letters — handwritten letters — a couple times a year. Lunches, happy hour, unexpected dinners — it hurts to turn them down. Often I double book.

Friendships need nourishment. In the loveliest writing of his career, an essay published in the mid nineties called “If Love Were All,” Andrew Sullivan writes, “A friendship is thus ultimately defined by the desire of each person to be in it. And it is successful insofar as that desire is equal between the two parties.” Even more true are these conclusions: “Someone is not a true friend because it is useful for him he is a friend in order that he might be useful for someone else.” Beyond contributions to popular culture like skinny T-shirts, exfolliants, and singing to Roxy Music in the car, queer men and women have the time to offer and the warmth to give our friends. We remind of their better selves, often encrusted with a week’s worth of received gestures made at work or home; in rare cases, we help them discover their better selves. Friendship is a duty, no less onerous and an occasional bother.

Finally, I’ve never understood the locution “I love X like a sister,” said with the best of intentions. We should not be in the business of validating a friendship’s depth with familiar metaphors. “I love X like a friend” is compliment enough. A friend is as important as a sister. Often more.

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