We have yet to find a satisfactory name for that period of life, now typically a decade but often a great deal longer, between the end of adolescence and the making of definitive life choices. But the one thing we know is that friendship is absolutely central to it.
At the start of this period of my own life, I find myself reflecting on the quality and nature of my own relationships. Deresiewicz first looks at how far we’ve erred from Classical ideals of friendship.
Between the rise of Freudianism and the contemporaneous emergence of homosexuality to social visibility, we’ve taught ourselves to shun expressions of intense affection between friends—male friends in particular, though even Oprah was forced to defend her relationship with her closest friend—and have rewritten historical friendships, like Achilles’ with Patroclus, as sexual. For all the talk of “bromance” lately (or “man dates”), the term is yet another device to manage the sexual anxiety kicked up by straight-male friendships—whether in the friends themselves or in the people around them—and the typical bromance plot instructs the callow bonds of youth to give way to mature heterosexual relationships. At best, intense friendships are something we’re expected to grow out of.
We have ceased to believe that a friend’s highest purpose is to summon us to the good by offering moral advice and correction. We practice, instead, the nonjudgmental friendship of unconditional acceptance and support—“therapeutic” friendship […] We seem to be terribly fragile now. A friend fulfills her duty, we suppose, by taking our side—validating our feelings, supporting our decisions, helping us to feel good about ourselves. We tell white lies, make excuses when a friend does something wrong, do what we can to keep the boat steady. We’re busy people; we want our friendships fun and friction-free.
He goes on to expand again on the changing value of solitude in this ever-connected present:
We have always shared our little private observations and moments of feeling—it’s part of what friendship’s about, part of the way we remain present in one another’s lives—but things are different now. Until a few years ago, you could share your thoughts with only one friend at a time (on the phone, say), or maybe with a small group, later, in person. And when you did, you were talking to specific people, and you tailored what you said, and how you said it, to who they were—their interests, their personalities, most of all, your degree of mutual intimacy. “Reach out and touch someone” meant someone in particular, someone you were actually thinking about. It meant having a conversation. Now we’re just broadcasting our stream of consciousness […] to all 500 of our friends at once, hoping that someone, anyone, will confirm our existence by answering back. We haven’t just stopped talking to our friends as individuals, at such moments, we have stopped thinking of them as individuals. We have turned them into an indiscriminate mass, a kind of audience or faceless public. We address ourselves not to a circle, but to a cloud.
Friendship […] has been smoothly integrated into our new electronic lifestyles. We’re too busy to spare our friends more time than it takes to send a text. We’re too busy, sending texts. And what happens when we do find the time to get together? I asked a woman I know whether her teenage daughters and their friends still have the kind of intense friendships that kids once did. Yes, she said, but they go about them differently. They still stay up talking in their rooms, but they’re also online with three other friends, and texting with another three. Video chatting is more intimate, in theory, than speaking on the phone, but not if you’re doing it with four people at once. And teenagers are just an early version of the rest of us. A study found that one American in four reported having no close confidants, up from one in 10 in 1985. The figures date from 2004, and there’s little doubt that Facebook and texting and all the rest of it have already exacerbated the situation. The more people we know, the lonelier we get.
Now I don’t fully buy that we’ve moved wholesale from private intimate relationships to the bulk-scale friend networking that Deresiewicz describes. But Facebook and Twitter have brought us economies of social scale, and it’s a landscape we’ll have to navigate carefully to avoid losing ourselves in the stream.
He ends the piece on this depressing note:
A recent book on the sociology of modern science describes a networking event at a West Coast university: “There do not seem to be any singletons—disconsolately lurking at the margins—nor do dyads appear, except fleetingly.” No solitude, no friendship, no space for refusal—the exact contemporary paradigm. At the same time, the author assures us, “face time” is valued in this “community” as a “high-bandwidth interaction,” offering “unusual capacity for interruption, repair, feedback and learning.” Actual human contact, rendered “unusual” and weighed by the values of a systems engineer. We have given our hearts to machines, and now we are turning into machines. The face of friendship in the new century.
I don’t agree with a lot of the black and white false dichotomies presented in this essay, but these passages certainly resonate and bring pause to thought.
Let’s take better care of our friends. They keep us sane.