Loneliness and the Lost Art of Deep Friendships

By Eugene C. Scott

What do the TV shows “Seinfeld,” “I Love Lucy,” “Cheers,” and “Friends,” all have in common? They are all listed in TV Guide’s 50 most popular shows ever. Also each could be described this way:

Seinfeld (#1) is a sitcom about a group of friends living in New York City who navigate the meaninglessness of life together (Subplot: who they do or do not have sex with).

I Love Lucy (#2) an old sitcom about two couples who are friends trying to survive Desi’s stardom and Lucy’s craziness (Subplot: nothing about sex).

Cheers (#18) is another sitcom about friends. These friends meet in a bar and deal with life from there (Subplot: who they do or do not have sex with, except Norm).

Friends (#21) is a sitcom about a group of friends (go figure) who do or do not have sex with each other.

These shows depict people in “life on life” friendships in which they depend on one another for most of life’s seen and unseen necessities.

Sadly, for many, this kind of friendship is as unreal as the TV shows portraying it. Researcher John Cacioppo estimates 60 million Americans struggle with chronic loneliness. And “Americans reporting a healthy circle of four or five friends had plunged from 33 percent to just over 15 percent” between 1985 and 2004.

But loneliness is not only a matter of how many friends one has. Harry Reis, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, claims, “Some of the most profound loneliness can happen when other people are present.” Lonely people can just as often be surrounded by others. What most of us are yearning for are what twelfth century monk Aelred of Rievaulx called “spiritual friendships.”

What is a spiritual friendship?

These deep are friendships are often born out of pain. Ruth and Naomi, that most famous of biblical friends, clung to each other after the loss of both of their husbands. I met my best friend, who also happens to be my wife, in a time when I was struggling with addiction and felt I had no future. Through the years the all too frequent pain in our lives has only driven us deeper with each other.

Yet, many of us hide our pain, even from those closest to us. This hiding only further isolates. Spiritual friends are vulnerable and that deepens our relationships.

Spiritual friendships also are non-utilitarian relationships. This is where the above TV programs promote a fallacy. Many of the friendships depicted in them are friendships with benefits: friendships that include so called casual sex.

The phrase “friends with benefits” reflects an assumption that other people often exist for what they can do for us or give us.

“Did you get any?” boys masquerading as men often ask each other after a date. Many times, if we think about it, we even speak the words, “I love you” to get the same words in return, at least in part. Interestingly, these “give me” relationships most often leave us empty.

The Apostle Paul told some of his friends, “I have no interest in what you have–only in you.” Spiritual friends aren’t in the relationship for their own gain.

Spiritual friends also value your soul. In the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” blues guitarist Tommy Johnson admits he sold his soul to the devil in trade for his guitar skills. When Everette, who values Tommy’s soul, is shocked, Tommy says, “Well, I wasn’t usin’ it.”

We talk of being soul mates but rarely develop the vulnerability to dive beneath the surface where the soul resides. But our souls are what make each of us unique. Not, as advertisers claim, our clothes or toothpaste. Souls are the God-breathed image of our Creator.

A spiritual friend will look beneath the designer jeans for your designer soul.

Spiritual friendships are also redemptive. To be redemptive in daily life means to be part of the process that helps turn pain into beauty. Recently a friend of mine honored a mutual friend, Jay, by recognizing Jay’s deceased father Jim during a military ball. He awarded Jay with a plaque displaying all of Jim’s lost Korean war medals. Suddenly Jim became more than an old man crippled with Emphysema. He became a hero. And those of us still mourning Jim’s loss, especially his son, had our grief overlaid with pride and hope and healing.

Friends who walk with us through our pain, and refuse to use us for their own gain, and care for our souls also then care about growth.

Why are shows about friendships the all-time most popular? In part because they portray something we all yearn for: life on life communities. Do they do so with complete authenticity or reality? No. But, just as any good story does, they give us hope for what could be.

Eugene C. Scott has friends who occasionally call or text him for no reason whatsoever. Several of them also show up at The Neighborhood Church and nod their heads if he ever says anything profound.


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2 responses to “Loneliness and the Lost Art of Deep Friendships

  1. Georgie-ann

    I’m willing to “bet” that Elna will have a good and cogent comment to add here!

    Great topic, true friendship. But some sad social realities connected with it as well. Trying to “make” a sad or chronically lonely person happier, can be very frustrating. And it must be worse for them! … (And that’s not even the half of it!)

    I’ve often found that “feeding people” — (especially “spontaneous, homemade, and for free”) — will bring a smile to their faces & perhaps open a few other doors of communication. In freely giving, we just might be blessed with some happily receiving benefits, but if we cripple ourselves with considerations like “performance anxiety” and what “others” are thinking about us (or what we cooked), or that now somebody “owes” us something in return, we can miss the simple flow of sincere give and take, gratitude, generosity and simple friendliness. These are social graces that improve the quality of our lives together, and they don’t have to be overdone. Less can be more, like gentle but consistent rain that one begins to trust will always be there for us, nourishing and encouraging us at just the right intervals.

    Friendship is a warmth, a human acceptance that sees and feels us, and is willing to touch our lives, but will also show “respect for our space.” A quiet, but radiating, connection of concern and support, a special form and testimony of love’s presence.

    An electronic device may be able to simulate the impressions of friendship, a show may portray engaging, entertaining and cleverly contrived interactions — (with no actual serious “life consequences” for the actors for their purported “behaviors,” except their big paychecks), — but the re-runs will eventually become canned experiences in repetitive soul-numbing dullness. And if we tend to lose contact with actual life interactions via our faithfulness to “the tube,” we will find ourselves ultimately to be the ones drained and seriously lacking in the end, having been “living on” the voyeuristic-ally experienced imaginary concoctions of others.

    A great place to experience nascent human “friend” connections is around animals,…they are SO real and alive and unselfconscious and uninhibited, but also so “needy,” that they can bring out these same potentials in ourselves. Volunteering at animal shelters, or on small farms, can be lots of fun and great ways to “practice” reaching out and touching something that is “not electronic” and has living dynamics and challenges and rewards of its own to offer us. Life and living things are good, and good for us!

    Luke 6:38 “Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you.”

    There is so much that is “ours” that we can freely give to others, and it won’t hurt a bit (!): time, attention, respect, kindness, a listening ear, comfort, love, encouragement, a compliment, a smile, helpful actions when needed, interest, sympathy, sharing, faith and so much more,…

    Matthew 10:8 ” … Freely you have received, freely give.”

    Proverbs 19:6 “Many entreat the favor of the nobility, And every man is a friend to one who gives gifts.”

    Proverbs 18:24 “A man who has friends must himself be friendly, But there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”

    Proverbs 17:17 “A friend loves at all times, … ”

    Proverbs 22:11 “He who loves purity of heart And has grace on his lips, The king will be his friend.”

    Song of Solomon 5:16 “His mouth is most sweet, Yes, he is altogether lovely. This is my beloved, And this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem!”

    Proverbs 27:9 “Ointment and perfume delight the heart, And the sweetness of a man’s friend gives delight by hearty counsel.”

    Proverbs 27:17 “As iron sharpens iron, So a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.”

    Ecclesiastes 4:9 [ The Value of a Friend ] “Two are better than one, Because they have a good reward for their labor.”

    Proverbs 27:10 “Do not forsake your own friend or your father’s friend, Nor go to your brother’s house in the day of your calamity; Better is a neighbor nearby than a brother far away.”

    John 15:13 “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.”

    John 15:14 “You are My friends if you do whatever I command you.”

    John 15:15 “No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.”

    James 2:23 “And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ And he was called the friend of God.”

    “No longer do I call you servants, … but I have called you friends,” (John 15:15), is one of my favorite verses, because it explains the great difference between the “faces of God” that are often confusing and “problematic” for human understanding. WE are called His “friends,” and are treated so, when we love God and desire to willingly “fulfill His commands,” to live according to His Will, to reflect His nature and character in our lives. (And as such, healthy respect for God, even awe, is highly appropriate, but a confusing and hindering form of worrisome fear, hiding and withdrawal from God, is a sign of something poorly formed or understood in the relationship.)

    On the other hand, God promises that He will show His “fierce” oppositional face to the ungodly (most especially satan), who are in steadfast rebellion to His Will.

    James 4:4 “Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”

    He is the potter,…we are the clay. Trust in the one who made us and has planned and desired, from the beginning, to treat us as His “friends” is the best way to go.

    Isaiah 64:8 “But now, O LORD, You are our Father; We are the clay, and You our potter; And all we are the work of Your hand.”

  2. Pingback: The Lost Art of Friendship

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