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Friendship: Chapter 6 - The Wreck of Friendship

By Hugh Black

            They parted--ne'er to meet again!
            But never either found another
            To free the hollow heart from paining--
            They stood aloof, the scars remaining,
            Like cliffs which had been rent asunder,
            A dreary sea now rolls between;
            But neither heat, nor frost, nor thunder,
            Shall wholly do away, I ween,
            The marks of that which once hath been.

            - COLERIDGE, Christabel.

      The Wreck of Friendship

      The eclipse of friendship through death is not nearly so sad as the many ways in which friendship may be wrecked. There are worse losses than the losses of death; and to bury a friendship is a keener grief than to bury a friend. The latter softens the heart and sweetens the life, while the former hardens and embitters. The Persian poet Hafiz says, "Thou learnest no secret until thou knowest friendship; since to the unloving no heavenly knowledge enters." But so imperfect are our human relationships, that many a man has felt that he has bought his knowledge too dearly. Few of us go through the world without some scars on the heart, which even yet throb if the finger of memory touch them. In spite of all that has been said, and may be said in praise of this golden friendship, it has been too often found how vain is the help of man. The deepest tragedies of life have been the failure of this very relationship.

      In one way or other the loss of friendship comes to all. The shores of life are strewn with wrecks. The convoy which left the harbor gaily in the sunshine cannot all expect to arrive together in the haven. There are the danger of storms and collisions, the separation of the night, and even at the best, if accidents never occur, the whole company cannot all keep up with the speed of the swiftest.

      There is a certain pathos in all loss, but there is not always pain in it, or at least it is of varied quality and extent. Some losses are natural and unavoidable, quite beyond our control, the result of resistless change. Some loss is even the necessary accompaniment of gain. The loss of youth with all its possessions is the gain of manhood and womanhood. A man must put away childish things, the speech and understanding and thought of a child. So the loss of some friendship comes as a part of the natural course of things, and is accepted without mutilating the life.

      Many of our connections with people are admittedly casual and temporary. They exist for mutual convenience through common interest at the time, or common purpose, or common business. None of the partners asks for more than the advantage each derives from the connection. When it comes to an end, we let slip the cable easily, and say good-bye with a cheery wave. With many people we meet and part in all friendliness and good feeling, and will be glad to meet again, but the parting does not tear our affections by the roots. When the business is transacted the tie is loosed, and we each go our separate ways without much regret.

      At other times there is no thought of gain, except the mutual advantage of conversation or companionship. We are pleasant to each other, and enjoy the intercourse of kindred tastes. Most of us have some pleasant recollections of happy meetings with interesting people, perhaps on holiday times, when we felt we would be glad to see them again if fortune turned round the wheel again to the same place; but, though hardly ever did it come about that an opportunity of meeting has occurred, we do not feel that our life is much the poorer for the loss.

      Also, we grow out of some of our friendships. This is to be expected, since so many of them are formed thoughtlessly, or before we really knew either ourselves or our friends. They never meant very much to us. Most boyish friendships as a rule do not last long, because they are not based on the qualities which wear well. Schoolboy comradeships are usually due to propinquity rather than to character. They are the fruit of accident rather than of affinity of soul. Boys grow out of these as they grow out of their clothes. Now and again they suffer from growing pains, but it is more discomfort than anything else.

      It is sad to look back and realize how few of one's early companionships remain, but it is not possible to blame either party for the loss. Distance, separation of interest, difference of work, all operate to divide. When athletics seemed the end of existence, friendship was based on football and baseball. But as life opens out, other standards are set up, and a new principle of selection takes its place. When the world is seen to be more than a ball-ground, when it is recognized to be a stage oh which men play many parts, a new sort of intimacy is demanded, and it does not follow that it will be with the same persons. Such loss as this is the condition which accompanies the gain of growth.

      There is more chance for the permanence of friendships formed a little later. It must not be too long after this period, however; for, when the generous time of youth has wholly passed, it becomes hard to make new connections. Men get over-burdened with cares and personal concerns, and grow cautious about making advances. In youth the heart is responsive and ready to be generous, and the hand aches for the grasp of a comrade's hand, and the mind demands fellowship in the great thoughts that are beginning to dawn upon it. The closest friendships are formed early in life, just because then we are less cautious, more open to impressions, and readier to welcome self-revelations. After middle life a man does not find it easy to give himself away, and keeps a firmer hand on his feelings. Whatever are the faults of youth, it is unworldly in its estimates as a rule, and uncalculating in its thoughts of the future.

      The danger to such friendship is the danger of just letting it lapse. As life spreads out before the eager feet, new interests crop up, new relations are formed, and the old tie gets worn away, from want of adding fresh strands to it. We may believe the advice about not forsaking an old friend because the new is not comparable to him, but we can neglect it by merely letting things slip past, which if used would be a new bond of union.

      As it is easier for some temperaments to make friends, it is easier for some dispositions to keep them. Little faults of manner, little occasions of thoughtlessness, or lack of the little courtesies, do more to separate people than glaring mistakes. There are some men so built that it is difficult to remain on very close terms with them, there are so many corners to knock against. Even strength of character, if unmodified by sweetness of disposition, adds to the difficulty of pulling together. Strong will can so easily develop into self-will; decision can become dogmatism; wit, the salt of conversation, loses its savor when it becomes ill-natured; a faculty for argument is in danger of being mere quarrelsomeness.

      The ordinary amenities of life must be preserved among friends. We can never feel very safe with the man whose humor tends to bitter speaking or keen sarcasm, or with the man who flares up into hasty speech at every or no provocation, or with the man who is argumentative and assertive,--

       Who 'd rather on a gibbet dangle
       Than miss his dear delight to wrangle.

      There are more breaches of the peace among friends through sins of speech, than from any other cause. We do not treat our friends with enough respect. We make the vulgar mistake of looking upon the common as if it were therefore cheap in nature. We ought rather to treat our friend with a sort of sacred familiarity, as if we appreciated the precious gift his friendship is.

      Every change in a man's life brings a risk of letting go something of the past, which it is a loss to part with. A change of work, or a change of residence, or entrance into a larger sphere, brings a certain engrossment which leads to neglect of the richest intercourse in the past life. To many a man, even marriage has had a drop of bitterness in it, because it has somehow meant the severing of old and sacred links. This may be due to the vulgar reason of wives' quarrels, the result of petty jealousy; but it may be due also to pre-occupation and a subtle form of selfishness. The fire needs to be kept alive with fuel. To preserve it, there must be forethought, and care, and love expended as before.

      Friendship may lapse through the misfortune of distance. Absence does not always make the heart grow fonder. It only does so, when the heart is securely fixed, and when it is a heart worth fixing. More often the other proverb is truer, that it is out of sight out of mind. It is so easy for a man to become self-centred, and to impoverish his affections through sheer neglect. Ties once close get frayed and strained till they break, and we discover that we have said farewell to the past. Some kind of intercourse is needed to maintain friendship. There is a pathos about this gradual drifting away of lives, borne from each other, it sometimes seems, by opposing tides, as if a resistless power separated them,

       And bade betwixt their souls to be
       The unplumbed, salt, estranging sea.

      Or friendship may lapse through the fault of silence. The misfortune of distance may be overcome by love, but the fault of silence crushes out feeling as the falling rain kills the kindling beacon. Even the estrangements and misunderstandings which will arise to all could not long remain, where there is a frank and candid interchange of thought. Hearts grow cold toward each other through neglect. There is a suggestive word from the old Scandinavian Edda, "Go often to the house of thy friend; for weeds soon choke up the unused path." It is hard to overcome again the alienation caused by neglect; for there grows up a sense of resentment and injured feeling.

      Among the petty things which wreck friendships, none is so common and so unworthy as money. It is pitiable that it should be so. Thackeray speaks of the remarkable way in which a five-pound note will break up a half-century's attachment between two brethren, and it is a common cynical remark of the world that the way to lose a friend is to lend him money. There is nothing which seems to affect the mind more, and color the very heart's blood, than money. There seems a curse in it sometimes, so potent is it for mischief. Poverty, if it be too oppressive grinding down the face, may often hurt the heart-life; but perhaps oftener still it only reveals what true treasures there are in the wealth of the affections. Whereas, we know what heartburnings, and rivalries, and envyings, are occasioned by this golden apple of discord. Most of the disputes which separate brethren are about the dividing of the inheritance, and it does seem to be the case that few friendships can survive the test of money.

       Neither a borrower, nor a lender be;
       For loan oft loses both itself and friend.

      There must be something wrong with the friendship which so breaks down. It ought to be able to stand a severer strain than that. But the inner reason of the failure is often that there has been a moral degeneracy going on, and a weakening of the fibre of character on one side, or on both sides. The particular dispute, whether it be about money or about anything else, is only the occasion which reveals the slackening of the morale. The innate delicacy and self-respect of the friend who asks the favor may have been damaged through a series of similar importunities, or there may have been a growing hardness of heart and selfishness in the friend who refuses the request. Otherwise, if two are on terms of communion, it is hard to see why the giving or receiving of this service should be any more unworthy than any other help, which friends can grant to each other. True commerce of the heart should make all other needful commerce possible. Communion includes communism. To have things in common does not seem difficult, when there is love in common.

      Friendship has also been wrecked by outside means, by the evil of others, through the evil speaking, or the envy, or the whispering tongues that delight in scandal. Some mean natures rejoice in sowing discord, carrying tales with just the slightest turn of a phrase, or even a tone of the voice, which gives a sinister reading to an innocent word or act. Frankness can always prevent such from permanently wrecking friendship. Besides, we should judge no man, still less a trusted friend, by a report of an incident or a hasty word. We should judge our friend by his record, by what we know of his character. When anything inconsistent with that character comes before our notice, it is only justice to him to at least suspend judgment, and it would be wisdom to refuse to credit it at all.

      We sometimes wonder to find a friend cold and distant to us, and perhaps we moralize on the fickleness and inconstancy of men, but the reason may be to seek in ourselves. We cannot expect the pleasure of friendship without the duty, the privilege without the responsibility. We cannot break off the threads of the web, and then, when the mood is on us, continue it as though nothing had happened. If such a breakage has occurred, we must go back and patiently join the threads together again. Thoughtlessness has done more harm in this respect than ill-will. If we have lost a friend through selfish neglect, the loss is ours, and we cannot expect to take up the story where we left off years ago. There is a serene impudence about the treatment some mete out to their friends, dropping them whenever it suits, and thinking to take them up when it happens once more to suit. We cannot expect to walk with another, when we have gone for miles along another way. We will have to go back, and catch him up again. If the fault has been ours, desire and shame will give our feet wings.

      The real source of separation is ultimately a spiritual one. We cannot walk with another unless we are agreed. The lapse of friendship is often due to this, that one has let the other travel on alone. If one has sought pleasure, and the other has sought truth; if one has cumbered his life with the trivial and the petty, and the other has filled his with high thoughts and noble aspirations; if their hearts are on different levels, it is natural that they should now be apart. We cannot stay behind with the camp-followers, and at the same time fight in the van with the heroes. If we would keep our best friends, we must go with them in sympathy, and be able to share their thoughts. In the letters of Dean Stanley, there is one from Jowett to Stanley, which brings out this necessity. "I earnestly hope that the friendship, which commenced between us many years ago, may be a blessing to last us through life. I feel that if it is to be so we must both go onward, otherwise the tear and wear of life, and the 'having travelled over each other's minds,' and a thousand accidents will be sufficient to break it off. I have often felt the inability to converse with you, but never for an instant the least alienation. There is no one who would not think me happy in having such a friend."

      It is not, however, so much the equal pace of the mind which is necessary, as the equal pace of the spirit. We may think about a very brilliant friend that he will outstrip us, and outgrow us. The fear is natural, but if there be spiritual oneness it is an unfounded fear.

       Yet oft, when sundown skirts the moor,
       An inner trouble I behold,
       A spectral doubt which makes me cold,
       That I should be thy mate no more.

      But love is not dependent on intellect. The great bond of union is not that both parties are alike in mind, but that they are akin in soul. Mere intellect only divides men further than the ordinary natural and artificial distinctions that already exist. There are endless instances of this disuniting influence to be seen, in the contempt of learning for ignorance, the derisive attitude which knowledge assumes toward simplicity, the metropolitan disdain for provincial Galilee, the rabies theologica which is ever ready to declare that this people that knoweth not the law is accursed. It is love, not logic, which can unite men. Love is the one solvent to break down all barriers, and love has other grounds for its existence than merely intellectual ones. So that although similarity of taste is another bond and is perhaps necessary for the perfect friendship, it is not its foundation; and if the foundation be not undermined, there is no reason why difference of mental power should wreck the structure.

      However it happen that friends are separated, it is always sad; for the loss of a friendship is the loss of an ideal. Sadder than the pathos of unmated hearts is the pathos of severed souls. It is always a pain to find a friend look on us with cold stranger's eyes, and to know ourselves dead of hopes of future intimacy. It is a pain even when we have nothing to blame ourselves with, much more so when we feel that ours is the fault. It would not seem to matter very much, if it were not such a loss to both; for friendship is one of the appointed means of saving the life from worldliness and selfishness. It is the greatest education in the world; for it is education of the whole man, of the affections as well as the intellect. Nothing of worldly success can make up for the want of it. And true friendship is also a moral preservative. It teaches something of the joy of service, and the beauty of sacrifice. We cannot live an utterly useless life, if we have to think for, and act for, another. It keeps love in the heart, and keeps God in the life.

      The greatest and most irretrievable wreck of friendship is the result of a moral breakdown in one of the associates. Worse than the separation of the grave is the desolation of the heart by faithlessness. More impassable than the gulf of distance with the estranging sea, more separating than the gulf of death, is the great gulf fixed between souls through deceit and shame. It is as the sin of Judas. Said a sorrowful Psalmist, who had known this experience, "Mine own familiar friend in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me." And another Psalmist sobs out the same lament, "It was not an enemy that reproached me, then I could have borne it, but it was thou, a man mine equal, my guide and mine acquaintance. We took sweet counsel together, and walked into the house of God in company." The loss of a friend by any of the common means is not so hard, as to find a friend faithless. The trustful soul has often been disillusioned thus. The rod has broken in the hand that leaned on it, and has left its red wound on the palm. There is a deeper wound on the heart.

      The result of such a breakdown of comradeship is often bitterness, and cynical distrust of man. It is this experience which gives point to the worldling's sneer, Defend me from my friends, I can defend myself from my enemies. We cannot wonder sometimes at the cynicism. It is like treason within the camp, against which no man can guard. It is a stab in the back, a cowardly assassination of the heart. Treachery like this usually means a sudden fall from the ideal for the deceived one, and the ideal can only be recovered, if at all, by a slow and toilsome ascent, foot by foot and step by step.

      Failure of one often leads to distrust of all. This is the terrible responsibility of friendship. We have more than the happiness of our friend in our power; we, have his faith. Most men who are cynical about women are so, because of the inconstancy of one. Most sneers at friendship are, to begin with at least, the expression of individual pain, because the man has known the shock of the lifted heel. Distrust works havoc on the character; for it ends in unbelief of goodness itself. And distrust always meets with its own likeness, and is paid back in its own coin. Suspicion breeds suspicion, and the conduct of life on such principles becomes a tug-of-war in which Greek is matched with Greek.

      The social virtues, which keep the whole community together, are thus closely allied to the supreme virtue of friendship. Aristotle had reason in making it the nexus between his Ethics and his Politics. Truth, good faith, honest dealing between man and man, are necessary for any kind of intercourse, even that of business. Men can do nothing with each other, if they have not a certain minimum of trust. There have been times when there seems to be almost an epidemic of faithlessness, when the social bond seems loosened, when men's hands are raised against each other, when confidence is paralyzed, and people hardly know whom to trust.

      The prophet Micah, who lived in such a time, expresses this state of distrust: "Trust ye not any friend, put ye no confidence in a familiar friend. A man's enemies are of his own household." This means anarchy, and society becomes like a bundle of sticks with the cord cut. The cause is always a decay of religion; for law is based on morality, and morality finds its strongest sanction in religion. Selfishness results in anarchy, a reversion to the Ishmaelite type of life.

      The story of the French Revolution has in it some of the darkest pages in the history of modern civilization, due to the breakdown of social trust. The Revolution, like Saturn, took to devouring her own children. Suspicion, during the reign of terror, brooded over the heads of men, and oppressed their hearts. The ties of blood and fellowship seemed broken, and the sad words of Christ had their horrid fulfilment, that the brother would deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child, and the children rise up against the parents and cause them to be put to death. There are some awful possibilities in human nature. In Paris of these days a man had to be ever on his guard, to watch his acts, his words, even his looks. It meant for a time a collapse of the whole idea of the state. It was a panic, worse than avowed civil war. Friendship, of course, could have little place in such a frightful palsy of mutual confidence, though there were, for the honor of the race, some noble exceptions. The wreck of friendship through deceit is always a step toward social anarchy; for it helps to break down trust and good faith among men.

      The wreck of friendship is also a blow to religion. Many have lost their faith in God, because they have lost, through faithlessness, their faith in man. Doubt of the reality of love becomes doubt of the reality of the spiritual life. To be unable to see the divine in man, is to have the eyes blinded to the divine anywhere. Deception in the sphere of love shakes the foundation of religion. Its result is atheism, not perhaps as a conscious speculative system of thought, but as a subtle practical influence on conduct. It corrupts the fountain of life, and taints the whole stream. Despair of love, if final and complete, would be despair of God; for God is love. Thus, the wreck of friendship often means a temporary wreck of faith. It ought not to be so; but that there is a danger of it should impress us with a deeper sense of the responsibility attached to our friendships. Our life follows the fortunes of our love.

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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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