Being friends in the deepest sense is to see, do, and feel with others; to work, accomplish and become something new together.
We grew up in the 70s and 80s. Like many kids in suburban America, we spent our summers with a bunch of boyhood buddies, running wild through sprinklers, playing kick-the-can into the night, sleeping in makeshift tents. It’s easy to romanticize all that, as if we were living out the song we knew by heart, “We all live in a yellow submarine.” But the truth is, we weren’t nearly so connected. We came together and played together because we lived next door to each other. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s the nature of childhood friendship. No expectations. No great needs to be met. No commitments to be kept. Just fun. And lots of it.
But as we grow, come into ourselves, and gain independence, we go looking for more than neighborhood buddies. We look for people who actually share our interests and want to pursue them with us. C.S. Lewis describes them this way: “Friendship . . . is born when one person looks at another and says, ‘What? You too?’” In a most natural (if not miraculous) way, we find soulmates, confidants, collaborators in our work, even co-creators of our dreams and plans. These are the people who help us courageously venture forth, the ones we want to be submerged with in a submarine, navigating together the rocks and shoals.
For so many in the world today, that kind of friendship seems unrealistic and romanticized. Because of social media, we’ve reverted to the idea that “friend” means “people who happen to live in our (digital) neighborhood.” The more mature impulse to establish lifelong relationships with people who share our interests—who lift, nourish, enliven, and help us—seems to have been diluted if not corrupted. We’ve regressed to thinking that being a friend means scrolling through posts, sharing, commenting, and liking. No real expectations. No great needs to be met. No commitments to be kept. And even though we count hundreds (or thousands) of such “friends” in our networks, we're starved for what one sustained, seasoned friendship could provide. No wonder so many who are immersed in social media find themselves isolated and alone.
So, how do we reclaim this deeper sense of friendship—the “C.S. Lewis” kind—that must be cultivated outside of (and sometimes in spite of) social media? Many have written about Paul McCartney’s relationship with John Lennon. Speaking of how they met, McCartney said, “I talked to people in my life and they [would] say, ‘What do you like to do? What are your hobbies and stuff?’ And I said, ‘I like songwriting, I’ve written a couple of songs.’ And they would go, ‘Oh, yeah. Great. What did you think about the football? And I go, ‘Oh, OK, nobody interested.’ When I said that to John, he said, ‘Well so have I.’ And we went ‘Whoa. Wait a minute. Big connection here.’”
“Whoa” is right. The ‘big’ of that connection began with a common interest, but led to Lennon and McCartney writing nearly 300 songs together. They wrote in the hotel, in the van, or wherever they were. McCartney remembers, “We wrote on the road . . . We would be in a hotel room with two twin beds. He’d have his acoustic guitar and I’d have mine. [We’d] sit opposite each other. . . We’d just start something and ricochet off each other. He’d do a line. I’d do a line.” Fifty-eight times their ricocheted co-creations rose to #1 on the Billboard charts.
The deep, productive, life-changing friendship between McCartney and Lennon brings the limitations of digital relationships into bold relief. Digital connections are astonishingly easy to make and incredibly uncomplicated. We establish a digital friendship simply by clicking a button—by proffering a request that could be made by most six-year-olds: “Wanna be my friend?” And, as a result, our expectation of a digital “friend” is so low that we can literally have thousands of them without ever having to adjust oursleves or adapt our lives. Maintaining the relationship means resisting the urge to “un-friend.” And deepening the relationship (such as it is) means being active in what is often self-declaration, if not self-promotion: spreading around memes, pictures, and videos in a way that doesn’t obligate us or anyone else to be anything more than what we have always been.
But think of a “Paul-John” kind of friendship. It is categorically different. That kind of relationship is based on who we are and who we are becoming—what we care about, what we want to accomplish, where we want to go in life, and what we are willing to give of ourselves for the sake of helping the other person. In the bonds of that kind of friendship, we “ricochet” ideas off one another, influence each other’s thinking, and adjust our paths to make the journey better for each other. The soundtrack of our individual lives is full of songs we compose together; and the shared responsibility we bear for each other’s well-being requires continual openness, humility, and intimacy. It requires our whole beings. In such relationships, Joshua Shenk says, “we create each other.”
What does all this mean? If the last decade of social media tells us anything, it’s that our current online platforms aren’t sustaining these kinds of friendships. While they offer virtually unlimited opportunities to assert ourselves, they do not help us develop ourselves in responsiveness to others. The fact is, who Paul and John became, and the unique voice and culture of their work, could not have emerged through online interactions. They had to be together, face-to-face, heart-to-heart, shoulder-to-shoulder, walking a path together. And though they had millions of fans and hundreds in their worldwide entourage, only the embodied interactions of those “Fab Four” could have given birth to their unique identity and music. “We were all on the same escalator—on the same step of the escalator, all the way,” McCartney explained. “It’s irreplaceable—that time, friendship and bonding.” For us, being friends in the deepest sense is to see, do, and feel with others; to work, accomplish and become something new together.
So then, what about the hundreds (or more) digital connections we’ve accepted on Facebook and other channels? The lyric of our childhood ‘Yellow Submarine’ offers a profound insight: “And our friends are all aboard / Many more of them live next door.” Clearly there is a need for next-door neighbors in the digital world—the mothers of kids in Johnny’s class, the neighborhood watch group, programmers on our team, the worldwide network of rock climbers, the collectors of 19th-century quilts. These connections may not change our lives, but they certainly offer helpful perspectives, support, resources, and advice along the way. Happily, our current social media platforms are ideal for maintaining these relationships. And truly, the more, the merrier.
And what about those deepest friends who are "all aboard?”—our spouses, our partners, our collaborators, our soulmates and confidants, our friends for life? These require something different, something more—the closeness, caring, mutual sacrifice, and commitment that allow us to thrive in good times and bad, precisely beause we are safe in the glorious submersible of a true friendship, traveling the ocean of life together. Gratefully, social media has helped us see this truth: none of us can live in a yellow submarine with everyone. But we all need to live in a real, embodied, irrevocable relationship with someone. These are the relationships that sustain life. These are the friends that make us who we are.
The soundtrack of our individual lives is full of songs we compose together; and the shared responsibility we bear for each other’s well-being requires continual openness, humility, and intimacy. It requires our whole beings. In such relationships, Joshua Shenk says, “we create each other.”