C. S. Lewis and the Christian Life
February 22, 2018 Series: C. S. Lewis and the Christian Life
The Power of Conversation: A Lesson from CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien
It is the evening of September 19, 1931.
Three men stroll down Addison’s Walk, a picturesque footpath that runs along the River Cherwell on the grounds of Oxford’s Magdalen College. Two of the men — C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien — are particularly engaged with one another, deep inside an animated discussion on the nature of metaphor and myth.
While both men are 30-something war veterans, teach and lecture at Oxford colleges, and share a love of old literature, the two friends are in many ways a study in contrasts. Lewis has a ruddy complexion and thickly set build. His clothes are loose and shabby. His voice booms as he speaks. Tolkien is slender, dresses nattily, and speaks elusively. Lewis is more brash; Tolkien more reserved.
Besides differences in personality, the men are divided by something more fundamental: Tolkien has been a faithful Catholic since childhood, while Lewis has been a committed atheist since the age of 15.
Over the last few years, however, Lewis’ position on God has slowly been softening, partly due to his friendship with Tolkien and the many conversations they’ve had since first meeting five years ago. The two academics — Tolkien a Professor of Anglo-Saxon; Lewis a Fellow and Tutor of English Literature — initially bonded over a shared love of what Lewis calls “Northerness” — an almost visceral pang of longing for the epic, heroic, gray-filtered world described in Norse mythology.
At times the men have stayed up until the early hours of the morning, “discoursing of the gods and giants and Asgard.” Lewis has often shared with Tolkien his affinity for Baldr — the Norse god of love and peace, forgiveness and justice — who is wrongly killed but comes back to life after Ragnarok (a kind of Viking apocalypse). He has told his friend that he feels “mysteriously moved” by such stories of sacrifice, death, and resurrection.
A love of mythology may have brought the friends together, but it has also served as one of Lewis’ major stumbling blocks to embracing Christianity. As a young man he had decided that the faith was simply “one mythology among many,” and was just as fabricated as all the rest: “All religions, that is, all mythologies to give them their proper name, are merely man’s own invention — Christ as much as Loki.”
Yet as much as Lewis wished to hold onto this position, he couldn’t shake the sense that it felt like a stiff and confining set of clothes — that he had stubbornly been keeping something at bay he wasn’t entirely sure he didn’t want to embrace. Despite his best defenses, he felt a prodding within, and believed it was God himself who was actively hunting him like a deer; “I never had the experience of looking for God,” he later said. “It was the other way round.”
If God was indeed “stalking” Lewis, this pursuit often took the form of conversations with his friends — not only Tolkien, but other bright scholars who saw no contradiction between their intellectualism and their faith. They challenged Lewis’ conviction that the head and the heart could not be combined, peppered him with searching questions he struggled to answer to his satisfaction, and ultimately set him off on a journey to see if rational underpinnings for theism could be found.
Much to Lewis’ dismay, his project was a success. Though he did not want to acknowledge the existence of God, did not want “to go back to the bondage of believing in any old (and already decaying) superstition,” and wished not to be “interfered with” by Deity or anyone else, he found that, to his mind, the evidence indeed pointed to there being some kind of higher power in the universe. And so in 1929, he knelt down, “admitted that God was God,” and became the “most reluctant convert in all of England.”
To Lewis it was a purely rational decision, and while he became a theist that night, his belief did not extend beyond an unknown, impersonal God into a faith in Christ specifically. It would take two more years, and one transformative conversation begun along Addison’s Walk, for him to make that leap.
Lewis takes that walk not only with Tolkien, but also Hugo Dyson, who teaches English at Reading University and is, like Tolkien, a committed Christian. Amidst a swirl of leaves a warm wind has dislodged from the trees, Lewis lays out his remaining obstacle to embracing his friends’ faith. He tells them that he can conceive of Christ as an ultimate exemplar in how to live a virtuous life, but that he struggles with the whole idea of his enacting an atonement that saves mankind. He couldn’t see “how the life and death of Someone Else (whoever he was) 2,000 years ago could help us here and now.” Phrases like “sacrifice” and “the Blood of the Lamb,” seem to Lewis to be “either silly or shocking.”
Tolkien and Dyson listen to their friend’s concerns, and decide to retire to Lewis’ lodgings at the college to continue the discussion. The men settle themselves in Lewis’ room and take out their pipes. As the clock ticks past midnight, and the room fills with curls of smoke, both Dyson and Tolkien share insights from their own journey to faith. But it is Tolkien’s arguments that will ultimately hold the most sway. The professor unfolds to Lewis a different way of looking at the centerpiece of the Christian gospels — one that ironically embraces, rather than flees from, the idea of it being a myth.
Myths, Tolkien explains, are not fairy tales, intentional lies, or mere fabrications, but are instead powerful vehicles for revealing the world’s deepest truths. All myths, he argues, illuminate layers and dimensions of existence that are often missed by our narrow human vision. In this way, they can actually be more “real” than what we normally call reality. Tolkien posits that mythmakers exercise a God-given power, and act as “sub-creators” who share pieces of the ultimate Truth that is hidden from plain sight. All the world’s myths then serve as prisms through which we can see fragments of divine light. Stories, Tolkien argues, are sacramental.
Lewis has gone from believing that Christianity is a myth that is false like all other myths, to feeling that he must think Christianity is a true religion, wholly different from the false world of mythology. Tolkien suggests another perspective: that all myths reflect “a splintered fragment of the true light,” and that Christianity is a “true myth” that encompasses and expands on all the rest. That is, while God had formerly used the poetic images and traditions of other cultures to express himself, Christ had come in real historical time to live out a story that actually happened.
Yet, Tolkien challenges his friend, the Christian story of atonement and resurrection should still be approached just as Lewis had the Norse tales of gods like Baldr — allowing the story to deeply and mysteriously move him. Like all myths, the true myth of Christ was not to be grasped mechanistically, as a literal description of things that had happened, but imaginatively, for its meaning. The Christian myth was true not in the sense of revealing the actual nature of God, and how exactly mankind had been redeemed, which finite minds could not possibly comprehend; it was true in the sense that the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection composed the best vehicle — the best narrative — by which the human mind could be illuminated and catch a glimpse of the deeper structure underlying the eternities.
Lewis’ pilgrimage to faith had been a long one, in which intellectual barriers gradually fell away and pieces of insight slowly fell into place. But there remained one jumble still to untangle. All his life, Lewis has felt the tug of two seemingly contradictory impulses: one, a deep, unsatisfied longing for beauty and joy, and two, the desire to make sense of the world rationally. As Tolkien speaks, Lewis realizes that these two inclinations needn’t be at odds, and can in fact be reconciled. He sees that faith can be the greatest catalyst for imagination, and that imagination can conceive of a reality more real than that which can be discovered by clinical observation alone. A new possibility opens to Lewis: one in which he can bring his entire self to the Christian faith — mind and heart, intellect and intuition. It is a transformative, revelatory moment.
Lewis continued to talk with Tolkien and Dyson until three in the morning. And as he continued to turn over their conversation in the days that followed, his belief in the Passion story grew, until he could write to a friend on October 1: “I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ — in Christianity. I will try to explain this another time. My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a great deal to do with it.”
Lewis has not only passed on from theism but to a wholly new path for his life. He is destined to become the most famous Christian apologist of his time, the creator of his own illuminating myths in the form of the Narnia series, and a writer whose works continue to be discovered and prized today. A single conversation begun on Addison’s Walk turned out to be something like a railroad switch — diverting Lewis from the track he was on, and sending him in a completely new direction.
Reviving the Power of Conversation: What We Can Learn from Lewis and Tolkien
I share the story of this singular conversation between Lewis and Tolkien not because I think everyone will agree with the conclusions they reached, but because it is, if you will, a “true myth” — a story that illuminates truths which transcend the concrete who/what/where details of the narrative itself and give us a glimpse of the deeper structure of things. In this case, the story reveals the potentially transformative power of face-to-face conversation, and hopefully gets us to reflect on whether the full strength and beauty of that power is endangered in our tech-filled world.
In her book, Reclaiming Conversation, MIT professor Sherry Turkle documents the woeful evidence that we moderns are increasingly fleeing from “conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, conversation in which we play with ideas.” We hide behind screens, and communicate as much as possible through email and text. We justify these moves on the basis of efficiency, and the fact that in having the ability to edit our messages, we can be more “ourselves” and make sure we say things “just right.”
But much is lost in this retreat from in-the-flesh interaction. Tech-mediated communication may make conversation more efficient, but it also makes it more superficial. It shrivels our empathy and feeling of true connection — states that are predicated on our being able to hear each other’s voices, read each other’s body language, and see each other’s facial expressions. We not only lose out on insights into the lives of others, but into our own as well.
Good conversation is a precious gift we should not relinquish to our devices. To revive its transformative power, one must intentionally cultivate the following elements:
Time. Good conversation does not operate on the principle of efficiency. It needs to be open-ended — without chronological parameters or set agenda. And it doesn’t have to take a completely smooth course. Oftentimes we cut a conversation short because there’s an awkward pause, or a seeming lull, or because people are repeating themselves. Yet such things are perfectly natural; are we to suppose that Lewis, Dyson, and Tolkien talked for eight or so hours, without there being a single lull? Very doubtful! Sometimes silences become important pivot points to a new, fruitful stream of discussion. And good conversation often goes over the same things a few times, going deeper on the second pass, with a fresh realization emerging on the third.
Instead of running away when conversations hit a snag, give them a chance to unfold.
Space. You may have heard of the famous “Inklings” — an informal club and literary society to which Lewis and Tolkien, as well as several other writers, belonged. Members of the Inklings would meet on Thursday evenings at Lewis’ lodgings at Magdalen College, and the Eagle and Child pub at midday on Tuesdays, to drink, smoke their pipes, and read each other their latest works. It was a wonderful mastermind group, in which the men could encourage each other and offer feedback on their writing. And yet it was hardly the only such group that the members belonged to! Both Lewis and Tolkien attended numerous other such discussion groups throughout their lives. It was in fact in one such group, the Coalbiters (from the Icelandic kolbítar, or those who sit so close to the fire they can practically bite the coal), that Lewis and Tolkien first solidified their bond through the reading of Icelandic poetry and the discussion of Norse mythology.
Good conversation need not only be had in semi-formal clubs and groups, but it often does take some deliberation in regularly getting together with folks.
Sustained attention. As Turkle notes: “Studies show that the mere presence of a phone on the table (even a phone turned off) changes what people talk about. If we think we might be interrupted, we keep conversations light, on topics of little controversy or consequence.” Would Lewis’ conversation with Dyson and Tolkien ever have gotten off the ground if his friends kept intermittently putting their heads down to check their phones? If each kept looking up and saying, “Wait, what?”
Good conversation is a cooperative effort, in which each participant must be all-in; rather than dropping in and out of a conversation, each must offer sustained attention, actively listening to his companions so that he might make contributions that build on the insights of others. Because good conversation also requires:
Collaboration. The way we communicate through text and social media has shaped the way we now interact face-to-face: we say something, and then sit back and wait for the responses to come in. Everyone offers an isolated, disparate reply; we talk around each other, rather than with each other.
But good conversations are kinetic and collaborative — they are much like pieces of symphonic music where everyone must contribute to the harmony and rhythm and meld their notes together. Sometimes you have a latent insight you don’t even know you have, and can’t articulate, and then someone says something that unearths it and you feel a light bulb go off in your head. Sometimes you have a fragment of an idea that you can’t fully make sense of; then when you share it, someone else makes a connection you hadn’t thought of and builds on it, and the whole group gets to enjoy the newly birthed insight. When it works, conversation can be an incredibly creative endeavor.
For it to work, good conversation actually requires that its participants spend time by themselves:
Solitude and self-reflection. In Reclaiming Conversation, Turkle argues that while it may seem ironic, good conversation requires solitude. In order to have anything to bring to a discussion with friends, you need to have been reflecting on things on your own. Then when you get together and share what you’ve been thinking about, they can build on your insights, in turn giving you more to chew on the next time you’re by yourself. This creates a “virtuous circle” where “alone we prepare to talk together,” and “together we learn how to engage in a more productive solitude.”
By solitude, Turkle has in mind not only being detached from others, but disconnected from our devices as well. Unfortunately, many today cannot handle this degree of aloneness, and must constantly distract themselves with their devices. This in turn transforms the virtuous circle into a vicious one:
“Afraid of being alone, we struggle to pay attention to ourselves. And what suffers is our ability to pay attention to each other. If we can’t find our own center, we lose confidence in what we have to offer others.
Or you can work the circle the other way. We struggle to pay attention to each other, and what suffers is our ability to know ourselves.”
After Lewis’ conversion to theism, he had begun attending Magdalen’s college chapel on weekdays, and an Anglican parish church on Sundays — not because he was committed to the Christian faith, but simply as a time for contemplation. He had also begun studying the gospels, particularly the book of John, in the original Greek. Thus, by the time of the stroll down Addison’s Walk, he had something he could bring to the conversation — he could articulate to his friends the thoughts he was struggling with, and their own times of solitary reflection allowed them to help him grapple with these ideas. Solitude had prepared the way for collaborative conversation.
Appreciation of differences. In her research on the nature of modern conversation, Turkle found that many people today shy away from talking with those they disagree with. They don’t like the conflict, they don’t like having their beliefs challenged, and they’d rather stick to interacting with people who merely confirm their preconceived notions.
But some of the best conversations are civil debates on important ideas and issues. During Lewis’ journey of conversion, he half-lamented, half-rejoiced that “Everything that I had labored so hard to expel from my own life seemed to have flared up and met me in my best friends.” While the conversations he had with his Christian associates frustrated him at times, he enjoyed the challenge, and the ways such discussions caused him to dig deeper into his own beliefs and reflect on whether they were sufficiently supported.
So it is with us: by engaging with those with whom we disagree, we end up growing and examining our own ideas more closely, even if we don’t ultimately change our minds.
Regularity. To say that a single conversation changed C.S. Lewis’ life is both true, and a misrepresentation. The conversation he had with Tolkien did indeed transform his whole outlook on Christianity, but it was a conversation that wouldn’t have been possible if not for all the discussions the two men had previously enjoyed over the years.
Tolkien would stop by Magdalen College to see Lewis nearly every Monday morning. Together they’d have a drink and discuss everything from literature to the gossip of faculty politics. Sometimes they’d just play with puns and trade bawdy jokes. Not every conversation was profound. But through these casual chats they built a bond where deep discussions could become possible.
These days, you often hear people say they hate small talk and find casual conversations boring. With the impatience born of the digital age, they want to skip right to the big stuff. But as Turkle puts it so well:
“You really don’t know when you are going to have an important conversation. You have to show up for many conversations that feel inefficient or boring to be there for the conversation that changes your mind.”
Conclusion: Recapture the Magic of Conversation
Some of the most memorable moments of our lives revolve around our conversations: the conversation you had with your girlfriend when you both realized you were falling in love; the conversation you had with a mentor who helped crystallize what vocation to pursue; the conversation you had with your daughter when you realized she had truly become an adult.
Face-to-face conversations can be entertaining, edifying, and all-around soul satisfying. They can be opportunities for both learning and mentorship. They can help you discover things about others, and about yourself, that would have otherwise remained hidden. They can spark transformative realizations, even revelations; they can bring you back to yourself. Lewis evocatively sums up the joys of conversation:
“Those are the golden sessions … when our slippers are on, our feet spread out towards the blaze and our drinks at our elbows; when the whole world, and something beyond the world, opens itself to our minds as we talk; and no one has any claim on or any responsibility for another, but all are freemen and equals as if we had first met an hour ago, while at the same time an Affection mellowed by the years enfolds us. Life — natural life — has no better gift to give.”
Magical, even life-changing things can happen when you choose to enter into conversation — when you choose spontaneity over editing and efficiency. But it is paradoxically a spontaneity that one must intentionally seek and ready oneself for.
So prepare ye the way.
C.S. Lewis: A Life by Alister McGrath
Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship by Colin Duriez
A Hobbit a Wardrobe and a Great War by Joseph Loconte
Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle
From “THE ART OF MANLINESS” blog November 2015
C.S. Lewis’s Theology of Friendship
“It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.
“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.
“This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”—The Weight of Glory
“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art.... It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” --The Four Loves
“Something is going on at this moment in dozens of ward-rooms, bar-rooms, common-rooms, messes and golf-clubs. I prefer to call it Companionship—or “Clubbableness.” This Companionship is, however, only the matrix of Friendship. It is often called Friendship, and many people when they speak of their “friends” mean only their companions. But it is not Friendship in the sense I give to the word. By saying this I do not at all intend to disparage the merely Clubbable relation. We do not disparage silver by distinguishing it from gold.
Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, “What? You too? I thought
I was the only one.” What draws people to be friends is that they see the same truth. They share it.” --The Four Loves
“In friendship...we think we have chosen our peers. In reality a few years' difference in the dates of our births, a few more miles between certain houses, the choice of one university instead of another...the accident of a topic being raised or not raised at a first meeting--any of these chances might have kept us apart. But, for a Christian, there are, strictly speaking no chances. A secret master of ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples, "Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you," can truly say to every group of Christian friends, "Ye have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another." The friendship is not a reward for our discriminating and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each of us the beauties of others.”—The Four Loves
“In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets... Hence true Friendship is the least jealous of loves. Two friends delight to be joined by a third, and three by a fourth, if only the newcomer is qualified to become a real friend. They can then say, as the blessed souls say in Dante, 'Here comes one who will augment our loves.' For in this love 'to divide is not to take away.” –The Four Loves
“Affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our natural lives.”—The Four Loves
“We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.”—The Weight of Glory
“Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for? You have never had it. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it—tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest—if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself—you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say ‘Here at last is the thing I was made for.’ We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work. While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all.”—The Problem of Pain
The friendship crisis: Why are boys so lonely and violent?
By Niobe Way The Washington Post June 13, 2014
Niobe Way is Professor of Applied Psychology at New York University and the author of Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection.
Elliot Rodgers, 22, killed himself and six people near the campus of the University of California Santa Barbara last month because he wanted to take revenge on “humanity” for his “loneliness, rejection, and unfilled desire.”
In the few weeks since that occurred, there have been additional violent acts in schools across the country. On average, there are 1.37 school shootings each week of the school year. Overwhelmingly, these acts are perpetrated by isolated and angry young men.
While there’s a lot of talk about the need for tighter gun control and better treatment of the mentally ill, the roots of this horrifying trend go much deeper. Our culture prizes independence over human connection. It devalues and even discourages close friendships, particularly among boys and men. And our definitions of manhood emphasize aggression, toughness and rugged individualism at the expense of girls, women and relationships.
We know these aspects of our culture lie at the root of the problem not only because killers, like Rodgers, tell us so in their journals and media postings. The science has also been telling us so for decades. We simply aren’t paying attention.
Neuroscientists, developmental psychologists, evolutionary anthropologists, primatologists and health researchers agree: Humans need and want close relationships, including friendships, and when they don’t have them, there are serious physical and mental health consequences.
Social isolation weakens our immune system and makes us more susceptible to diseases like Alzheimers, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer and to death. Individuals with strong social networks have a 91 percent greater likelihood of survival compared to those with weak social networks. The risk of death for those with weak social networks are comparable with well-established risk factors like smoking and excessive alcohol consumption. They exceed the influence of other risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity.
Furthermore, the hundreds of adolescent boys in my research over the past 20 years make the direct link between not having close friendships — friendships in which “deep secrets” are shared — and going “wacko,” committing suicide, doing drugs and “taking it out on others.” Isolation, the boys report, makes them feel inadequate, envious of others with better connections, and angry. This, in turn, leads them to thoughts of self- and other-directed violence.
And while over 85 percent of the boys in my studies report that they have or want emotionally intimate male friendships, they also describe having difficulties, particularly during late adolescence, finding friends whom they can trust. They report feeling pressure to “man up,” and fear that expressing their desires for close male friendships will make them look “girly or gay.”
Just at the age of 15 to 16 years old, when, according to my research, boys begin to lose their close male friendships, the suicide rate for boys in the United States increases dramatically — to five times the rate for girls. Similar to girls and women, boys want and need close friendships and strong social networks to thrive. Our social connections are not simply feel-good issues; they are life-or-death issues.
Yet we, Americans, live in a “me, myself, and I” culture. We tell our children not to worry about what others think or feel, to rely on themselves and not trust others. We encourage them to separate from their loved ones in the name of maturity and, for boys, in the name of manhood. We implore our boys not to be “like a girl,” which is ironic, of course, because when boys do indeed “act like girls,” they often have close male friendships and are less likely to pick up a gun and shoot people.
The data also suggest that our self-obsession and isolation are increasing. Jean Twenge, Keith Campbell and Brittany Gentile find, in their study of pronoun use in the Google Books database of 766,513 American books published between the years of 1960-2008, that the use of first person plural pronouns (e.g., we, us) decreased 10 percent while the first person singular pronouns (I, me) increased 42 percent, beginning in 1984. The American Sociological Review reports that the number of close friends for adults is declining, with the modal number of close friendship in 1985 being three, while in 2004 the modal number was zero. The percentage of adults who report having no close friends at all has increased from 36 percent in 1985 to 53.4 percent by 2004.
So what’s the solution? Melinda Gates urged young people in a commencement speech to solve the problem of our growing disconnection by “deeply connecting” to others, to “see their humanity first — the one big thing that makes them the same as you, instead of the many things that make them different from you.” Martin Luther King Jr. made a similar call in 1965: “What we are facing today is the fact that through our scientific and technological genius we’ve made of this world a neighborhood. And now through our moral and ethical commitment we must make of it a brotherhood.”
The solution lies in our willingness to make a “moral and ethical commitment” for a brotherhood, a sisterhood and a more humane community in which having high-quality relationships, including friendships, become core components of our definitions of maturity and manhood and where our common humanity is recognized and nurtured.
We need to create a culture, in other words, where the “we” becomes more important than the “me.” Then we will have tighter gun-control laws, better care for the mentally ill, less loneliness, alienation and violence. And we will have achieved the dream that so many of our religious, political and social leaders have had for a very long time.
Niobe Way is Professor of Applied Psychology at New York University and the author of Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection.
The Friendship Crisis For Millennials
Social media may exist to keep us together, but it's also driving us all apart.
Anna Mikaela Kane ODYSSEY BLOG Aug 22, 2016
I was tired of being the first to reach out to my friends all the time, so I gave up, and retweeted a tweet that read, "I have unlimited texting but no one to text."
Sad? Yeah, but I can assure you that this is pretty normal behavior.
Unfortunately, this is just how young adults live today: inundated with unspoken rules about texting and social media use, with a fear of appearing too needy, invested or attention seeking in everyday interactions with each other, favoring convenience over authenticity.
As I write this, my best friend is texting me about problems with another friend whom I've never met, and I'm telling her about my experience being ghosted by every one of my high school friends just a couple months after graduating. As each friend of mine disappeared, I began receiving more and more likes on Instagram, garnering well over 100 likes per photo as opposed to around 75 likes, which just serves as another reminder that the number of followers and likes one gets on social media really has nothing to do with the number of friends they have or the quality of their social interactions.
I can't even begin to tell you how many times I have scrolled through Twitter to see complaints about not having friends and therefore getting rid of all the "fakes" in their lives by deleting all social media platforms. No one ever does it though. We all seem to have people to hang out and post pictures with that we don't actually consider to be friends. The average person has over 300 friends on Facebook, yet reports of loneliness have skyrocketed.
It's almost easier to "get to know" someone you've never met through their social media (where jobs, hometowns, relationship statuses and even senses of humor are easy to discern) than it is to keep plans made over texting. In other words, social media and technology makes it just as easy to cancel social plans as it is to make them.
It's easy to forget that friendship isn't hanging out with someone only because it's convenient and you have nothing better to do. It's not being around someone in the hopes that you'll be invited to their vacation home, or having a Snapchat streak with a random acquaintance. It's a strong, mutual bond that allows people to feel safe and valued enough to share things about themselves; to support and be supported.
Friendship has become such an abstract concept that a class on the literature of friendship is now being taught at Vassar College by Professor Ronald Sharp. "People are so eager to maximize the efficiency of relationships that they have lost touch with what it is to be a friend," he stated to the New York Times earlier this month.
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Friend-breakups have become so prevalent that it's no wonder an Odyssey article on this topic amassed over 247,000 social media shares. I have heard of and been a part of too many broken friendships to not believe that we are going through a friendship crisis as a generation. I am sick of asking why certain friends don't speak to each other anymore. I am sick of having to explain it myself. I'm sick of the awkwardness of being in the same room as my ex-best friend; reading and writing notes that are full of pain and hurt and closure and accusations months later; of other friends taking sides; of wondering what went wrong and why things had to end so badly.
This isn't simply growing apart, although that's incredibly painful too. It's a deliberate attempt to get rid of somebody by ignoring them, plans, texts, calls; forgoing the convenience and opportunities for interaction that technology has attempted to bless us with.
Even scarier and more frustrating is the fact that shallow, unsatisfying friendships often lead to severe health issues. Just like with obesity, smoking and alcohol use, loneliness and depression and even an increased risk of death are nasty side effects of social isolation. According to a New York times article, the part of the brain known as the smart vagus nerve is responsible for allowing humans to be in supportive, intimate and reciprocal relationships, but the more one engages in inauthentic friendships, the more the smart vagus nerve loses this ability, further adding to burgeoning social anxiety, making deep connections increasingly difficult.
It's understandable why we let social media serve as a selectively permeable wall to our pain, comfort and trust issues: as Millennials, we have embraced sharing so much online that our phones and social media accounts often feel like extensions of ourselves, with several year’s worth of photos and private conversations over text. As someone who has been bullied and lost my best friend in a tragic accident at 14, forging new relationships can be scary and stiff. It is so much easier to pick up my phone and use it as a buffer when a social interaction gets quiet or awkward than it is to open up and create a new bond.
Of course, social media can also be a huge help when connecting with certain people. FaceTiming has helped me to keep up with my grandparents and faraway friends, and Snapchat lends me a chance to feel like I am more actively involved in faraway friends' everyday lives. The important thing is to be mindful how we use social media to supplement (and diminish) our friendships.
We are all guilty of being bad friends. How many times have we backed out of plans at the last minute just in the past few months, all because we didn't feel like going? We are all capable of being better friends, of giving more of ourselves and being there for others.
It's time to evaluate our friendships as Millennials, not only for our own mental and physical health, but for the betterment of those around us.