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Friendship: Chapter 8 - The Limits of Friendship

By Hugh Black

      If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him, but thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people; because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the Lord thy God.

       Yet each will have one anguish--his own soul,
       Which perishes of cold.


      The Limits of Friendship

      Friendship, at its very best and purest, has limits. At its beginning, it seems to have no conditions, and to be capable of endless development. In the first flush of new-born love it seems almost an insult to question its absolute power to meet every demand made upon it. The exquisite joy of understanding, and being understood, is too keen to let us believe, that there may be a terminal line, beyond which we may not pass. Friendship comes as a mystery, formless, undefined, without set bounds; and it is often a sore experience to discover that it is circumscribed, and limited like everything human. At first to speak of it as having qualifications was a profanation, and to find them out came as a disillusionment.

      Yet the discovery is not all a loss. The limitless is also the vague, and it is well to know the exact terms implied in a relationship. Of course we learn through experience the restrictions on all intimacy, and if we are wise we learn to keep well within the margin; but many a disappointment might have been saved, if we had understood the inherent limitations of the subject. These are the result of personality. Each partner is after all a distinct individual, with will, and conscience, and life apart, with a personal responsibility which none can take from him, and with an individual bias of mind and heart which can never be left out of account.

      As is to be expected, some of the limits of friendship are not essential to the relation, but are due to a defect in the relation, perhaps an idiosyncrasy of character or a peculiarity of temper. Some of the limits are self-imposed, and arise from mistake of folly. A friend may be too exacting, and may make excessive demands, which strain the bond to the breaking point. There is often a good deal of selfishness in the affection, which asks for absorption, and is jealous of other interests. Jealousy is usually the fruit, not of love, but of self-love. Life is bigger than any relationship, and covers more ground. The circles of life may intersect, and part of each be common to the other, but there will be an area on both sides exclusive to each; and even if it were possible for the circles to be concentric, it could hardly be that the circumference of the two could be the same; one would be, almost without a doubt, of larger radius than the other. It is not identity which is the aim and the glory of friendship, but unity in the midst of difference. To strive at identity is to be certain of failure, and it deserves failure; for it is the outcome of selfishness. A man's friend is not his property, to be claimed as his exclusive possession. Jealousy is an ignoble vice, because it has its roots in egotism. It also destroys affection, since it is an evidence of want of trust, and trust is essential to friendship.

      There are physical limits to friendship, if nothing else. There are material barriers to be surmounted, before human beings really get into touch with each other, even in the slightest degree. The bodily organs, through which alone we can enter into communication, carry with them their own disabilities. The senses are at the best limited in their range, and are ever exposed to error. Flesh stands in the way of a complete revelation of soul. Human feet cannot enter past the threshold of the soul's abode. The very means of self-revelation is a self-concealment. The medium, by which alone we know, darkens, if it does not distort, the object. Words obscure thought, by the very process through which alone thought is possible for us; and the fleshly wrappings of the soul hide it, at the same time that they make it visible.

      And if there are physical limits to friendship, there are greater mental limits. The needs of living press on us, and drive us into different currents of action. Our varied experience colors all our thought, and gives a special bias to our mind. There is a personal equation which must always be taken into account. This is the charm of intercourse, but it is also a limitation. We do not travel over the same ground; we meet, but we also part. However great the sympathy, it is not possible completely to enter into another man's mind, and look at a subject with his eyes. Much of our impatience with each other, and most of our misunderstandings, are caused by this natural limitation. The lines along which our minds travel can at the best be asymptotic, approaching each other indefinitely near, but never quite coinciding.

      The greatest limit of friendship, of which these other are but indications, is the spiritual fact of the separate personality of each human being. This is seen most absolutely in the sphere of morals. The ultimate standard for a man is his own individual conscience, and neither the constraint of affection, nor the authority of numbers, can atone for falseness there. One of the most forceful illustrations of this final position of all religion is to be found, in the passage of terrific intensity from the Book of Deuteronomy, which we have transcribed as a preface to this chapter. The form of the passage of course gets its coloring from the needs of the time and the temper of the age. The Book of Deuteronomy is so sure that the law of God is necessary for the life of Israel, and that departure from it will mean national ruin, that it will shrink from nothing needed to preserve the truth. Its warnings against being led away to idolatry are very instant and solemn. Every precaution must be taken; nothing must be allowed to seduce them from their allegiance, not the most sacred ties, nor the most solemn authority. No measure of repression can be too stern. In that fierce time it was natural that apostasy should be thought worthy of death; for apostasy from religion meant also treason to the nation: much more those who used their influence to seduce men to apostasy were to be condemned. The passage is introduced by the assertion that if even a prophet, a recognized servant of God, attesting his prophecy with signs and wonders, should solicit them to leave the worship of Jehovah, in spite of his sacred character, and in spite of the seeming evidence of miracles, they must turn from him with loathing, and his doom should be death. And if the apostasy should have the weight of numbers and a whole city go astray, the same doom is theirs. If the tenderest relationship should tempt the soul away, if a brother, or son, or daughter, or wife, or friend, should entice to apostasy, the same relentless judgment must be meted out.

      The fact that this stern treatment is advocated in this Book, which is full of the most tender consideration for all weak things, shows the need of the time. Deuteronomy has some of the most beautiful legislation in favor of slaves and little children and birds and domestic animals, some of it in advance of even our modern customs and practices, permeated as these are by Christian sentiment. And it is in this finely sensitive Book that we find such strong assertion of the paramount importance of individual responsibility.

      The influence of a friend or near relative is bound to be great. We are affected on every side, and at every moment, by the environment of other lives. There is a spiritual affinity, which is the closest and most powerful thing in the world, and yet in the realm of morals it has definite limits set to it. At the best it can only go a certain length, and ought not to be allowed to go further than its legitimate bounds. The writer of Deuteronomy appreciated to the full the power and attraction of the near human relationships. We see this from the way he describes them, adding an additional touch of fondness to each, "thy brother the son of thy mother, the wife of thy bosom, thy friend who is as thine own soul." But it sets a limit to the place even such tender ties should be allowed to have. The most intimate of relatives, the most trusted of friends, must not be permitted to abrogate the place of conscience. Affection may be perverted into an instrument of evil. There is a higher moral law than even the law of friendship. The demands of friendship must not be allowed to interfere with the dictates of duty. It is not that the moral law should be blindly obeyed, but because in obeying it we are choosing the better part for both; for as Frederick Robertson truly says, "the man who prefers his dearest friend to the call of duty, will soon show that he prefers himself to his dearest friend." Such weak giving in to the supposed higher demand of friendship is only a form of selfishness.

      Friendship is sometimes too exacting. It asks for too much, more than we have to give, more than we ever ought to give. There is a tyranny of love, making demands which can only be granted to the loss of both. Such tyranny is a perversion of the nature of love, which is to serve, not to rule. It would override conscience, and break down the will. We cannot give up our personal duty, as we cannot give up our personal responsibility. That is how it is possible for Christ to say that if a man love father, or mother, or wife more than Him, he is not worthy of Him. No human being can take the place of God to another life; it is an acted blasphemy to attempt it.

      There is a love which is evil in its selfishness. Its very exclusive claim is a sign of its evil root. The rights of the individual must not be renounced, even for love's sake. Human love can ask too much, and it asks too much when it would break down the individual will and conscience.

       The hands that love us often are the hands
       That softly close our eyes and draw us earthward.
       We give them all the largesse of our life--
       Not this, not all the world, contenteth them,
       Till we renounce our rights as living souls.

      We cannot renounce our rights as living souls without losing our souls. No man can pay the debt of life for us. No man can take the burden of life from us. To no man can we hand over the reins unreservedly. It would be cowardice, and cowardice is sin. The first axiom of the spiritual life is the sacredness of the individuality of each. We must respect each other's personality. Even when we have rights over other people, these rights are strictly limited, and carry with them a corresponding duty to respect their rights also. The one intolerable despotism in the world is the attempt to put a yoke on the souls of men, and there are some forms of intimacy which approach that despotism. To transgress the moral bounds set to friendship is to make the highest forms of friendship impossible; for these are only reached when free spirits meet in the unity of the spirit.

      The community of human life, of which we are learning much to-day, is a great fact. We are all bound up in the same bundle. In a very true sense we stand or fall together. We are ever on our trial as a society; not only materially, but even in the highest things, morally and spiritually. There is a social conscience, which we affect, and which constantly affects us. We cannot rise very much above it; to fall much below it, is for all true purposes to cease to live. We have recognized social standards which test morality; we have common ties, common duties, common responsibilities.

      But with it all, in spite of the fact of the community of human life, there is the other fact of the singleness of human life. We have a life, which we must live alone. We can never get past the ultimate fact of the personal responsibility of each. We may be leaves from the same tree of life, but no two leaves are alike. We may be wrapped up in the same bundle, but one bundle can contain very different things. Each of us is colored with his own shade, separate and peculiar. We have our own special powers of intellect, our own special experience, our own moral conscience, our own moral life to live. So, while it is true that we stand or fall together, it is also true--and it is a deeper truth--that we stand or fall alone.

      In this crowded world, with its intercourse and jostling, with its network of relationships, with its mingled web of life, we are each alone. Below the surface there is a deep, and below the deep there is a deeper depth. In the depth of the human heart there is, and there must be, solitude. There is a limit to the possible communion with another. We never completely open up our nature to even our nearest and dearest. In spite of ourselves something is kept back. Not that we are untrue in this, and hide our inner self, but simply that we are unable to reveal ourselves entirely. There is a bitterness of the heart which only the heart knoweth; there is a joy of the heart with which no stranger can intermeddle; there is a bound beyond which even a friend who is as our own soul becomes a stranger. There is a Holy of Holies, over the threshold of which no human feet can pass. It is safe from trespass, guarded from intrusion, and even we cannot give to another the magic key to open the door. In spite of all the complexity of our social life, and the endless connections we form with others, there is as the ultimate fact a great and almost weird solitude. We may fill up our hearts with human fellowship in all its grades, yet there remains to each a distinct and separated life.

      We speak vaguely of the mass of men, but the mass consists of units, each with his own life, a thing apart. The community of human life is being emphasized to-day, and it is a lesson which bears and needs repetition, the lesson of our common ties and common duties. But at the same time we dare not lose sight of the fact of the singleness of human life, if for no other reason than that, otherwise we have no moral appeal to make on behalf of those ties and duties. In the region of morals, in dealing with sin, we see how true this solitude is. There may be what we can truly call social and national sins, and men can sin together, but in its ultimate issue sin is individual. It is a disintegrating thing, separating a man from his fellows, and separating him from God. We are alone with our sin, like the Ancient Mariner with the bodies of his messmates around him, each cursing him with his eye. In the last issue, there is nothing in the universe but God and the single human soul. Men can share the sinning with us; no man can share the sin. "And the sin ye do by two and two, ye must pay for one by one." Therefore in this sphere of morals there must be limits to friendship, even with the friend who is as our own soul.

      Friendship is a very real and close thing. It is one of the greatest joys in life, and has noble fruits. We can do much for each other: there are burdens we can share: we can rejoice with those who do rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Through sympathy and love we are able to get out of self; and yet even here there are limits. Our helplessness in the presence of grief proves this fundamental singleness of human life. When we stand beside a friend before the open grave, under the cloud of a great sorrow, we learn how little we can do for him. We can only stand speechless, and pray that the great Comforter may come with His own divine tenderness and enter the sanctuary of sorrow shut to feet of flesh. Mourners have indeed been soothed by a touch, or a look, or a prayer, which had their source in a pitiful human heart, but it is only as a message of condolence flashed from one world to another. There is a burden which every man must bear, and none can bear for him: for there is a personality which, even if we would, we cannot unveil to human eyes. There are feelings sacred to the man who feels. We have to "dree our own weird," and live our own life, and die our own death.

      In the time of desolation, when the truth of this solitude is borne in on us, we are left to ourselves, not because our friends are unfeeling, but simply because they are unable. It is not their selfishness which keeps them off, but just their frailty. Their spirit may be willing, but the flesh is weak. It is the lesson of life, that there is no stay in the arm of flesh, that even if there is no limit to human love, there is a limit to human power. Sooner or later, somewhere or other, it is the experience of every son of man, as it was the experience of the Son of Man, "Behold the hour cometh, and now is come, that ye My friends shall be scattered every man to his own, and shall leave Me alone."

      Human friendship must have limits, just because it is human. It is subject to loss, and is often to some extent the sport of occasion. It lacks permanence: misunderstandings can estrange us: slander can embitter us: death can bereave us. We are left very much the victims of circumstances; for like everything earthly it is open to change and decay. No matter how close and spiritual the intercourse, it is not permanent, and never certain. If nothing else, the shadow of death is always on it. Tennyson describes how he dreamed that he and his friend should pass through the world together, loving and trusting each other, and together pass out into the silence.

       Arrive at last the blessed goal,
       And He that died in Holy Land
       Would reach us out the shining hand,
       And take us as a single soul.

      It was a dream at the best. Neither to live together nor to die together could blot out the spiritual limits of friendship. Even in the closest of human relations when two take each other for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, they may be made one flesh, but never one soul. Singleness is the ultimate fact of human life. "The race is run by one and one, and never by two and two."

      In religion, in the deepest things of the spirit, these limits we have been considering are perhaps felt most of all. With even a friend who is as one's own soul, we cannot seek to make a spiritual impression, without realizing the constraint of his separate individuality. We cannot break through the barriers of another's distinct existence. If we have ever sought to lead to a higher life another whom we love, we must have been made to feel that it does not all rest with us, that he is a free moral being, and that only by voluntarily yielding his heart and will and life to the King, can he enter the Kingdom. We are forced to respect his personality. We may watch and pray and speak, but we cannot save. There is almost a sort of spiritual indecency in unveiling the naked soul, in attempting to invade the personality of another life. There is sometimes a spiritual vivisection which some attempt in the name of religion, which is immoral. Only holier eyes than ours, only more reverent hands than ours, can deal with the spirit of a man. He is a separate individual, with all the rights of an individual. We may have many points of contact with him, the contact of mind on mind, and heart on heart; we may even have rights over him, the rights of love; but he can at will insulate his life from ours. Here also, as elsewhere when we go deep enough into life, it is God and the single human soul.

      The lesson of all true living in every sphere is to learn our own limitations. It is the first lesson in art, to work within the essential limitations of the particular art. But in dealing with other lives it is perhaps the hardest of all lessons, to learn, and submit to, our limitations. It is the crowning grace of faith, when we are willing to submit, and to leave those we love in the hands of God, as we leave ourselves. Nowhere else is the limit of friendship so deeply cut as here in the things of the spirit.

       No man can save his brother's soul,
       Nor pay his brother's debt.

      Human friendship has limits because of the real greatness of man. We are too big to be quite comprehended by another. There is always something in us left unexplained, and unexplored. We do not even know ourselves, much less can another hope to probe into the recesses of our being. Friendship has a limit, because of the infinite element in the soul. It is hard to kick against the pricks, but they are meant to drive us toward the true end of living. It is hard to be brought up by a limit along any line of life, but it is designed to send us to a deeper and richer development of our life. Man's limitation is God's occasion. Only God can fully satisfy the hungry heart of man.

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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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