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Friendship: Chapter 2 - The Culture of Friendship

By Hugh Black

      How were Friendship possible? In mutual devotedness to the Good and True: otherwise impossible, except as Armed Neutrality, or hollow Commercial League. A man, be the Heavens ever praised, is sufficient for himself; yet were ten men, united in Love, capable of being and of doing what ten thousand singly would fail in. Infinite is the help man can yield to man.
       - CARLYLE, Sartor Resartus.

      The Culture of Friendship

      The Book of Proverbs might almost be called a treatise on Friendship, so full is it of advice about the sort of person a young man should consort with, and the sort of person he should avoid. It is full of shrewd, and prudent, and wise, sometimes almost worldly-wise, counsel. It is caustic in its satire about false friends, and about the way in which friendships are broken. "The rich hath many friends," with an easily understood implication concerning their quality. "Every man is a friend to him that giveth gifts," is its sarcastic comment on the ordinary motives of mean men. Its picture of the plausible, fickle, lip-praising, and time-serving man, who blesseth his friend with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, is a delicate piece of satire. The fragile connections among men, as easily broken as mended pottery, get illustration in the mischief-maker who loves to divide men. "A whisperer separateth chief friends." There is keen irony here over the quality of ordinary friendship, as well as condemnation of the tale-bearer and his sordid soul.

      This cynical attitude is so common that we hardly expect such a shrewd book to speak heartily of the possibilities of human friendship. Its object rather is to put youth on its guard against the dangers and pitfalls of social life. It gives sound commercial advice about avoiding becoming surety for a friend. It warms [Transcriber's note: warns?] against the tricks, and cheats, and bad faith, which swarmed in the streets of a city then, as they do still. It laughs, a little bitterly, at the thought that friendship can be as common as the eager, generous heart of youth imagines. It almost sneers at the gullibility of men in this whole matter. "He that maketh many friends doeth it to his own destruction."

      And yet there is no book, even in classical literature, which so exalts the idea of friendship, and is so anxious to have it truly valued, and carefully kept. The worldly-wise warnings are after all in the interests of true friendship. To condemn hypocrisy is not, as is so often imagined, to condemn religion. To spurn the spurious is not to reject the true. A sneer at folly may be only a covert argument for wisdom. Satire is negative truth. The unfortunate thing is that most men, who begin with the prudential worldly-wise philosophy, end there. They never get past the sneer. Not so this wise book. In spite of its insight into the weakness of man, in spite of its frank denunciation of the common masquerade of friendship, it speaks of the true kind in words of beauty that have never been surpassed in all the many appraisements of this subject. "A friend loveth at all times, and is a brother born for adversity. Faithful are the wounds of a friend. Ointment and perfume rejoice the heart, so doth the sweetness of a man's friend by hearty counsel. Thine own friend and thy father's friend forsake not." These are not the words of a cynic, who has lost faith in man.

      True, this golden friendship is not a common thing to be picked up in the street. It would not be worth much if it were. Like wisdom it must be sought for as for hid treasures, and to keep it demands care and thought. To think that every goose is a swan, that every new comrade is the man of your own heart, is to have a very shallow heart. Every casual acquaintance is not a hero. There are pearls of the heart, which cannot be thrown to swine. Till we learn what a sacred thing a true friendship is, it is futile to speak of the culture of friendship. The man who wears his heart on his sleeve cannot wonder if daws peck at it. There ought to be a sanctuary, to which few receive admittance. It is great innocence, or great folly, and in this connection the terms are almost synonymous, to open our arms to everybody to whom we are introduced. The Book of Proverbs, as a manual on friendship, gives as shrewd and caustic warnings as are needed, but it does not go to the other extreme, and say that all men are liars, that there are no truth and faithfulness to be found. To say so is to speak in haste. There is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother, says this wisest of books. There is possible such a blessed relationship, a state of love and trust and generous comradehood, where a man feels safe to be himself, because he knows that he will not easily be misunderstood.

      The word friendship has been abased by applying it to low and unworthy uses, and so there is plenty of copy still to be got from life by the cynic and the satirist. The sacred name of friend has been bandied about till it runs the risk of losing its true meaning. Rossetti's versicle finds its point in life--

       "Was it a friend or foe that spread these lies?"
       "Nay, who but infants question in such wise?
       'T was one of my most intimate enemies."

      It is useless to speak of cultivating the great gift of friendship unless we make clear to ourselves what we mean by a friend. We make connections and acquaintances, and call them friends. We have few friendships, because we are not willing to pay the price of friendship.

      If we think it is not worth the price, that is another matter, and is quite an intelligible position, but we must not use the word in different senses, and then rail at fate because there is no miracle of beauty and joy about our sort of friendship. Like all other spiritual blessings it comes to all of us at some time or other, and like them is often let slip. We have the opportunities, but we do not make use of them. Most men make friends easily enough: few keep them. They do not give the subject the care, and thought, and trouble, it requires and deserves. We want the pleasure of society, without the duty. We would like to get the good of our friends, without burdening ourselves with any responsibility about keeping them friends. The commonest mistake we make is that we spread our intercourse over a mass, and have no depth of heart left. We lament that we have no stanch and faithful friend, when we have really not expended the love which produces such. We want to reap where we have not sown, the fatuousness of which we should see as soon as it is mentioned. "She that asks her dear five hundred friends" (as Cowper satirically describes a well-known type) cannot expect the exclusive affection, which she has not given.

      The secret of friendship is just the secret of all spiritual blessing. The way to get is to give. The selfish in the end can never get anything but selfishness. The hard find hardness everywhere. As you mete, it is meted out to you.

      Some men have a genius for friendship. That is because they are open and responsive, and unselfish. They truly make the most of life; for apart from their special joys, even intellect is sharpened by the development of the affections. No material success in life is comparable to success in friendship. We really do ourselves harm by our selfish standards. There is an old Latin proverb,[1] expressing the worldly view, which says that it is not possible for a man to love and at the same time to be wise. This is only true when wisdom is made equal to prudence and selfishness, and when love is made the same. Rather it is never given to a man to be wise in the true and noble sense, until he is carried out of himself in the purifying passion of love, or the generosity of friendship. The self-centred being cannot keep friends, even when he makes them; his selfish sensitiveness is always in the way, like a diseased nerve ready to be irritated.

      The culture of friendship is a duty, as every gift represents a responsibility. It is also a necessity; for without watchful care it can no more remain with us than can any other gift. Without culture it is at best only a potentiality. We may let it slip, or we can use it to bless our lives. The miracle of friendship, which came at first with its infinite wonder and beauty, wears off, and the glory fades into the light of common day. The early charm passes, and the soul forgets the first exaltation. We are always in danger of mistaking the common for the commonplace. We must not look upon it merely as the great luxury of life, or it will cease to be even that. It begins with emotion, but if it is to remain it must become a habit. Habit is fixed when an accustomed thing is organized into life; and, whatever be the genesis of friendship, it must become a habit, or it is in danger of passing away as other impressions have done before.

      Friendship needs delicate handling. We can ruin it by stupid blundering at the very birth, and we can kill it by neglect. It is not every flower that has vitality enough to grow in stony ground. Lack of reticence, which is only the outward sign of lack of reverence, is responsible for the death of many a fair friendship. Worse still, it is often blighted at the very beginning by the insatiable desire for piquancy in talk, which can forget the sacredness of confidence. "An acquaintance grilled, scored, devilled, and served with mustard and cayenne pepper, excites the appetite; whereas a slice of old friend with currant jelly is but a sickly, unrelishing meat." [2] Nothing is given to the man who is not worthy to possess it, and the shallow heart can never know the joy of a friendship, for the keeping of which he is not able to fulfil the essential conditions. Here also it is true that from the man that hath not, is taken away even that which he hath.

      The method for the culture of friendship finds its best and briefest summary in the Golden Rule. To do to, and for, your friend what you would have him do to, and for, you, is a simple compendium of the whole duty of friendship. The very first principle of friendship is that it is a mutual thing, as among spiritual equals, and therefore it claims reciprocity, mutual confidence and faithfulness. There must be sympathy to keep in touch with each other, but sympathy needs to be constantly exercised. It is a channel of communication, which has to be kept open, or it will soon be clogged and closed.

      The practice of sympathy may mean the cultivation of similar tastes, though that will almost naturally follow from the fellowship. But to cultivate similar tastes does not imply either absorption of one of the partners, or the identity of both. Rather, part of the charm of the intercourse lies in the difference, which exists in the midst of agreement. What is essential is that there should be a real desire and a genuine effort to understand each other. It is well worth while taking pains to preserve a relationship so full of blessing to both.

      Here, as in all connections among men, there is also ample scope for patience. When we think of our own need for the constant exercise of this virtue, we will admit its necessity for others. After the first flush of communion has passed, we must see in a friend things which detract from his worth, and perhaps things which irritate us. This is only to say that no man is perfect. With tact, and tenderness and patience, it may be given us to help to remove what may be flaws in a fine character, and in any case it is foolish to forget the great virtues of our friend in fretful irritation at a few blemishes. We can keep the first ideal in our memory, even if we know that it is not yet an actual fact. We must not let our intercourse be coarsened, but must keep it sweet and delicate, that it may remain a refuge from the coarse world, a sanctuary where we leave criticism outside, and can breathe freely.

      Trust is the first requisite for making a friend. How can we be anything but alone, if our attitude to men is one of armed neutrality, if we are suspicious, and assertive, and querulous, and over-cautious in our advances? Suspicion kills friendship. There must be some magnanimity and openness of mind, before a friendship can be formed. We must be willing to give ourselves freely and unreservedly.

      Some find it easier than others to make advances, because they are naturally more trustful. A beginning has to be made somehow, and if we are moved to enter into personal association with another, we must not be too cautious in displaying our feeling. If we stand off in cold reserve, the ice, which trembled to thawing, is gripped again by the black hand of frost. There may be a golden moment which has been lost through a foolish reserve. We are so afraid of giving ourselves away cheaply--and it is a proper enough feeling, the value of which we learn through sad experience--but on the whole perhaps the warm nature, which acts on impulse, is of a higher type, than the over-cautious nature, ever on the watch lest it commit itself. We can do nothing with each other, we cannot even do business with each other, without a certain amount of trust. Much more necessary is it in the beginning of a deeper intercourse.

      And if trust is the first requisite for making a friend, faithfulness is the first requisite for keeping him. The way to have a friend is to be a friend. Faithfulness is the fruit of trust. We must be ready to lay hold of every opportunity which occurs of serving our friend. Life is made up to most of us of little things, and many a friendship withers through sheer neglect. Hearts are alienated, because each is waiting for some great occasion for displaying affection. The great spiritual value of friendship lies in the opportunities it affords for service, and if these are neglected it is only to be expected that the gift should be taken from us. Friendship, which begins with sentiment, will not live and thrive on sentiment. There must be loyalty, which finds expression in service. It is not the greatness of the help, or the intrinsic value of the gift, which gives it its worth, but the evidence it is of love and thoughtfulness.

      Attention to detail is the secret of success in every sphere of life, and little kindnesses, little acts of considerateness, little appreciations, little confidences, are all that most of us are called on to perform, but they are all that are needed to keep a friendship sweet. Such thoughtfulness keeps our sentiment in evidence to both parties. If we never show our kind feeling, what guarantee has our friend, or even ourself, that it exists? Faithfulness in deed is the outward result of constancy of soul, which is the rarest, and the greatest, of virtues. If there has come to us the miracle of friendship, if there is a soul to which our soul has been drawn, it is surely worth while being loyal and true. Through the little occasions for helpfulness, we are training for the great trial, if it should ever come, when the fabric of friendship will be tested to the very foundation. The culture of friendship, and its abiding worth, never found nobler expression than in the beautiful proverb,[3] "A friend loveth at all times, and is a brother born for adversity."

      Most men do not deserve such a gift from heaven. They look upon it as a convenience, and accept the privilege of love without the responsibility of it. They even use their friends for their own selfish purposes, and so never have true friends. Some men shed friends at every step they rise in the social scale. It is mean and contemptible to merely use men, so long as they further one's personal interests. But there is a nemesis on such heartlessness. To such can never come the ecstasy and comfort of mutual trust. This worldly policy can never truly succeed. It stands to reason that they cannot have brothers born for adversity, and cannot count on the joy of the love that loveth at all times; for they do not possess the quality which secures it. To act on the worldly policy, to treat a friend as if he might become an enemy, is of course to be friendless. To sacrifice a tried and trusted friend for any personal advantage of gain or position, is to deprive our own heart of the capacity for friendship.

      The passion for novelty will sometimes lead a man to act like this. Some shallow minds are ever afflicted by a craving for new experiences. They sit very loosely to the past. They are the easy victims of the untried, and yearn perpetually for novel sensations. In this matter of friendship they are ready to forsake the old for the new. They are always finding a swan in every goose they meet. They have their reward in a widowed heart. Says Shakespeare in his great manner,--

       The friends thou hast and their adoption tried
       Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel,
       But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
       Of each new-hatched, unfledged comrade.

      The culture of friendship must pass into the consecration of friendship, if it is to reach its goal. It is a natural evolution. Friendship cannot be permanent unless it becomes spiritual. There must be fellowship in the deepest things of the soul, community in the highest thoughts, sympathy with the best endeavors. We are bartering the priceless boon, if we are looking on friendship merely as a luxury, and not as a spiritual opportunity. It is, or can be, an occasion for growing in grace, for learning love, for training the heart to patience and faith, for knowing the joy of humble service. We are throwing away our chance, if we are not striving to be an inspiring and healthful environment to our friend. We are called to be our best to our friend, that he may be his best to us, bringing out what is highest and deepest in the nature of both.

      The culture of friendship is one of the approved instruments of culture of the heart, without which a man has not truly come into his kingdom. It is often only the beginning, but through tender and careful culture it may be an education for the larger life of love. It broadens out in ever-widening circles, from the particular to the general, and from the general to the universal--from the individual to the social, and from the social to God. The test of religion is ultimately a very simple one. If we do not love those whom we have seen, we cannot love those whom we have not seen. All our sentiment about people at a distance, and our heart-stirrings for the distressed and oppressed, and our prayers for the heathen, are pointless and fraudulent, if we are neglecting the occasions for service lying to our hand. If we do not love our brethren here, how can we love our brethren elsewhere, except as a pious sentimentality? And if we do not love those we have seen, how can we love God whom we have not seen?

      This is the highest function of friendship, and is the reason why it needs thoughtful culture. We should be led to God by the joy of our lives as well as by the sorrow, by the light as well as by the darkness, by human intercourse as well as by human loneliness. He is the Giver of every good gift. We wound His heart of love, when we sin against love. The more we know of Christ's spirit, and the more we think of the meaning of God's fathomless grace, the more will we be convinced that the way to please the Father and to follow the Son is to cultivate the graces of kindliness and gentleness and tenderness, to give ourselves to the culture of the heart. Not in the ecclesiastical arena, not in polemic for a creed, not in self-assertion and disputings, do we please our Master best, but in the simple service of love. To seek the good of men is to seek the glory of God. They are not two things, but one and the same. To be a strong hand in the dark to another in the time of need, to be a cup of strength to a human soul in a crisis of weakness, is to know the glory of life. To be a true friend, saving his faith in man, and making him believe in the existence of love, is to save his faith in God. And such service is possible for all. We need not wait for the great occasion and for the exceptional opportunity. We can never be without our chance, if we are ready to keep the miracle of love green in our hearts by humble service.

       The primal duties shine aloft like stars.
       The charities that soothe and heal and bless,
       Are scattered at the feet of man like flowers.

      [1] Non simul cuiquam conceditur, amare et sapere.

      [2] Thackeray, Roundabout Papers.

      [3] Proverbs xvii. 17, R. V. margin.

Back to Hugh Black index.

See Also:
   Chapter 1 - The Miracle of Friendship
   Chapter 2 - The Culture of Friendship
   Chapter 3 - The Fruits of Friendship
   Chapter 4 - The Choice of Friendship
   Chapter 5 - The Eclipse of Friendship
   Chapter 6 - The Wreck of Friendship
   Chapter 7 - The Renewing of Friendship
   Chapter 8 - The Limits of Friendship
   Chapter 9 - The Higher Friendship


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