Friendships in my life--real friendships--have been rare. Many of the people I call my friends are social friends who know, like, and respect me and would help me if I asked for assistance. But most of them are not really friends who know me inside out, who see the real me, the way my wife does.
Every man must have a male friend to share his fears and worries with, the kind of man who knows the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the other and whose love--though they may not use that word--is unbreakable. In fact, I believe that the unconsummated love between heterosexual men can be as powerful as that between a man and woman--and maybe more so.
Clearly I am talking about a deep bond, the kind women also need with at least one other person and are generally better able to negotiate since men tend to shy away from expressing feelings.
The Greeks distinguished several different kinds of love, with different words for the bond between friends, the affection between two lovers, the love of God or humankind, etc. English, despite its usually rich treasury of synonyms, has to make to with the overused single word, love: "I love my new Volvo, I love pizza, I love my wife, I love my dog," etc.....
My loving friendship with John began when we were part of a small men's group about 15 years ago, sharing our fears and concerns about relationships and careers. Since then, John and I have grown even closer than we were in those days. Despite the differences in our backgrounds and vocations, we have much in common at a deep level, at the level where some friends do not go. The problem is that he, as a construction supervisor, is often miles away on projects that consume months of his time so that he is virtually inaccessible by phone, even to most of his family.
When these projects end, and he has time off, we meet fairly regularly to catch up and in between try to communicate via email. But I am rarely satisfied with the time we have together, and during his work periods, I can feel John's absence keenly. At times I grow resentful of the type of all-absorbing job that demands that a man work seven days a week, with no breaks; I find it unhealthy for him and for his relationships.
In one recent email, I wrote to John something I had seen quoted from the philosopher Maurice Blanchot. I paraphrase:
Great friendships, he wrote, are grounded only superficially in proximity; their real element is distance, a kind of separation that becomes relation. This distance foreshadows death. In this way, true friendship encompasses and anticipates loss.
Being a perceptive reader and intelligent writer, John, despite the pressures of having no time for himself, wrote back a brief message:
Why do you doubt that distance is opposed to closeness? My conversations with you abound when you are not near, almost as if you hear me and respond. I find that absence or distance does not diminish my attention but multiplies it. Is not God both absent and fully present at the same time?
Wow, I thought: he's right. He has captured an element of true friendship that does not depend on physical presence. And he has managed, in that final question, to touch on a key element of Christian mysticism: that God, who is everywhere present, can also be perceived as absent and unknowable.
Theological considerations aside, I was glad that I brought up the topic of absence and friendship since his response was reassuring. I don't know if I really share the same ability to converse with him and feel that he is with me when he is miles away. I think of him often and pray for his well being, as I await the possibility of a message, brief and sometimes hurried. But I think my friendship needs the sound of our voices together talking and laughing. I cannot give attention to someone who is not physically present with me, here and now.
Of course, if I apply what I just said to my prayer life, do I not sometimes feel close to God in my isolation? Perhaps my Catholic background demands some physical presence--the sacramental presence of Christ in the Eucharist or in the faces of other people. The presence of God in silence is a spiritual facsimile of this presence, a yearning or longing based mainly on a feeling of absence and separation.
I don't know anything about M. Blanchot, or if he is right that the separation between two people who love each other is ultimately foreshadowing loss and death. But the idea is intriguing. I know that, as Maslow once stated, love and death are always related and that we could not truly love if we knew we would never die.
In any case, instead of bemoaning the long absences of my friend, I should be grateful for him and for the verbal bonds that keep us together.