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Friendship is a Lame Virtue

I know a man, whom I’ve known for a long time, who was recently disowned by his family. They believed he did something gravely immoral, and that it required total separation from him. I’m convinced his actions were at least justified, if not in all ways ideal. I’ve worked through his reasons at length in my mind. I don’t want to embolden his actions if I shouldn’t, or to be blind to their gravity because of our familiarity and my affection.

Last week, he thanked me for being a friend to him, and told me it’s been a consolation in a difficult time. He knows my struggle and even recognizes my withheld support and hedged statements. Yet his deep gratitude — and most of all, his desire to see me abide by and engage my conscience — remains unshaken.

I fear that I’ve been much less a friend to him than he has been to me. But both expressions have shown me something of the virtue of friendship.

Friendship is a lame virtue. It consists in unconvincing, uninspiring, dull interactions. Here, friendship played out as many late nights spent wondering about the merits of my words, wondering whether I could better articulate the moral structures I believed were most important, not to mention make them convincing. It meant being present on phone calls and in emails, not without some pleasure, but all colored by doubt and discomfort. To him, I probably appeared relaxed, or only a little agitated. In fact, the whole ordeal forced me to wrestle with ideas I never believed would seem reasonable.

His friendship was to permit this. He benefitted from my presence and interest as much as he could, not selflessly, but always in some awe of the frailty of the situation. I could have retracted — I almost did a few times — but the gentleness he showed, the unwavering concern for my conscience, was too much to resist.

In the end, or wherever we are now, I’m grateful for our lame friendship. It’s peculiarly unadorned by an over-excitement that’s easy to indulge in most cases, whether in love or playfulness or mere diversion. The gravity of each conversation or encounter is locked in, whether we speak of light or serious things. And a small, noticeable distance continues to separate us, filled with doubt, wonder, and awe.

This friendship is a wonderful thing, as unconvincing and uninspiring as it remains.


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  • Greg Herr

    Wow. I’ve read and written a fair amt on friendship in past years, but never read something like this. I’m gonna ruminate on this one.

    You’ve marked a quality I would have called ‘the mundane’ but your descriptives are, well, more descriptive, illuminative, and perceptive. Standing by and with someone who has been abandoned by others is always fraught. It’s dicey. There are ‘sides to take’ (despite our protestations ‘I don’t take sides’), discernment about who’s right, who’s wrong, what did they do, maybe they should be shunned, maybe not; if in the wrong, are they remorseful; if in the right, are they being tormented by ill-formed others? What does the community around him/her/us think and say? And do I weigh in on any of it, or do I present myself as a presence simply to say ‘I am here come what may’? What if they reject my offer of friendship, do I pursue, or leave them alone?

    That human quality that we share with animals, incarnation, is the fundamental presence offered. Our distinct quality of being made in the image of God, when gathered with another, is the beginnings of communion, and sends out soundings, at least, to that bonded Trinitarian Friendship to which we can aspire.

    [Recommended reading: ‘Friendship and the Moral Life’ by Paul J. Wadell, C.P.]

  • Great piece, Andrew.